ESL Teachers Ask: What Are Some Ways to Improve Student Questions?

ESL Teachers Ask: What Are Some Ways to Improve Student Questions?

I have a group of students who do quite well in class, except when it comes to asking questions. This is when they make most of their mistakes. How can I help them ask questions more accurately?” *

Every ESL student has a weakness. For some, listening is particularly hard, while others need to work on their writing skills. And yet there are others who can express themselves clearly enough and even answer all of your questions...but they have a hard time asking questions themselves. Word order is jumbled and all logic goes out the window. They simply can’t structure their questions right. Here are some ways you can help them (Note: These are organized from basic to more advanced techniques).

5 Ways to Improve ESL Student Questions

  1. 1

    Model Standard Questions

    When teaching beginners to ask questions, the best way to start is by modeling the questions and having them repeat. This is what we do from the very beginning when we teach them to ask simple questions like, “How are you?” to helpful phrases like “How do you spell…?” These questions and others should be introduced in the opportune moment (when a student wants to write down a word and doesn’t know how to spell it) and should be repeated by the whole class. If students learn to consistently repeat and ask these questions, they’ll eventually learn them.

  2. 2

    Emphasize Word Order

    When trying to ask questions in a specific verb tense that is new to them, students often forget to use the auxiliary (You went to the movies last weekend?), make mistakes related to word order (You did go to the movies?) or use the wrong form of the verb (Did you went to the movies?) This is why, more often than not, we need to go to the board and write down the corresponding rules/structure for them. So, when teaching them to ask questions in Simple Past, we write the classic basic formula:

    Did + I/you/he/she/it/we/they/person/subject + verb in base form
    Did   you   go (to the movies last weekend?)

    We must also remember to add other variations of the same formula:

    What           see
    Where + did + you/he/she/etc... + go
    What time           buy

    There is always a formula for asking questions, and it really helps ESL students if they know it.

  3. 3

    Practice Question Words

    So they know the grammar and the right “formulas” to use…they still have trouble coming up with questions on their own. The next logical step is to give them something specific to ask about and use the right question word in the process. Write a statement on the board and underline one part of the sentence:

    She bought milk, coffee and bread at the supermarket yesterday.

    Ask students what question they’d ask if this little piece of information were missing. The correct question would be: What did she buy at the supermarket? Now, if we underline a different segment, the question changes:

    She bought milk, coffee and bread at the supermarket yesterday.
    Question: When did she buy milk, coffee and bread?

    And again: She bought milk, coffee and bread at the supermarket yesterday.
    Question: Where did she buy milk, coffee and bread?

    It’s really helpful for students to see how you can ask different questions from one single statement. You may also want to give them a series of statements with blanks/missing information or facts that differ. Try an Information Gap activity. Students work in pairs and ask each other questions to find the differences.

  4. 4

    Use Prompts/Context Clues

    Soon enough, your class should be ready to go a step further and start coming up with questions on their own. They will still need some prompts or context clues. What I like to do is ask the class to imagine they’ve just run into a friend who is excited to share some news with them. The idea is to say things that will prompt them to ask questions out of sheer curiosity, like so:

    T: I just saw the most interesting thing!
    S1: What did you see?
    T: I saw a musician playing a musical instrument in the park.
    S2: What instrument was he playing?
    T: Umm… I don’t remember what it’s called….
    S3: Was it a big or small instrument?
    T: It was small; it was placed directly over his mouth.
    S4: Was it a harmonica?
    T: Yes! That’s right! And I really liked the music he was playing.
    S5: What kind of music was he playing?

    And the conversation may go on as long as you like! Keep in mind you might have to give some students a nudge in the right direction, perhaps whisper the first word or two of the question they should ask.

  5. 5

    Give Them Greater Freedom

    The last level is reached when students are ready to ask questions on their own, with very little to no help from you. It’s always helpful to set a good context for asking questions, and here are a few examples:

    • You tell students you are a famous celebrity/inventor/historical figure, and they must interview you
    • Students interview each other, about their own interests, special events or hobbies.
    • Students interview another who pretends to be a famous celebrity.
    • Students take turns giving presentations on different topics (great strategy for Business English students!) and answer questions from the class at the end.

Naturally, we spend a great deal of time asking our students questions. Questions are a great way to check for comprehension. But don’t forget to have your students ask you or ask each other questions on a regular basis. They may be confident answering questions from you, but not confident at all when it comes to asking their own. It’s a skill that always comes in handy, and you’ll want them to get plenty of practice.

* This question was sent in from a real ESL teacher, just like you! If you need any advice on a particular topic, share your question in the comments below. Or tweet your question to @busyteacher_org with the hashtag #ESLTeachersAsk. Your question might get picked and featured in an article!

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