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Effective questioning techniques in Languages classroom

What is effective questioning in the classroom?

Effective questions are defined as questions focusing on eliciting the process in student’s response – the ‘how’ and ‘why’ rather then just answering the ‘what’. They open conversations, challenge and inspire deeper thinking.

So, how does this apply to our context, in our subject and in our classrooms? 

Well, of course it is not an equal ‘playing field’ comparing our subject to subjects such as maths, English, history etc… where students are proficient in their L1, however, even in these subjects, for learners to answer the ‘how’ and ‘why’, they still need to know a lot about the topic that is discussed to think deeply about it! This is one of the most undervalued truths about learning, the deeper and broader the knowledge, the more rigorous the application (Teach like a Champion, Lemov). 

In modern languages, I would say, this statement is true – ‘The bigger and better vocabulary and understanding of how the language works students have, the better communication skill they will have’!

In the early stages of language acquisition our focus is very much on teaching our learners the key vocabulary, structures and grammatical links that support communication on a more basic level, so the ‘what’ (language content) in our context, in our subject is also essential. If students don’t have good vocabulary (this includes high frequency vocabulary as well as content vocabulary) and can not communicate sufficiently in the language, how can they have deeper, more meaningful conversations later on in their learning journey at KS4 and KS5. The ‘why’ (language structures) is essential for the application of the language learners are studying.

I am afraid to say that for me, the ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’(1956, revised 2001) never really worked in language teaching. 

Recognition, memory, comprehension, application which are the categories at the bottom of the pyramid and therefore classed as the lower order skills according to its hierarchy, are vital to build up fluency and communication in our subject! 

The analysis and evaluation stage comes later on with more competence. Of course, at the end of the sequence of lessons after a lot of practice our students can produce a longer piece of writing (a blog, an article, a paragraph) or hold a conversation, but the complexity of it and how advanced what they produce is, depends on the level of their L2 competency.

Effective questioning techniques in Modern Languages

What are the most impactful questioning techniques we can apply to ensure we cater and include all of our learners? 

During my webinar for ALL West Midlands Branch on Retrieval Practice, I have been asked to explain one of the techniques (cold calling) that I have been using consistently and successfully with my students since actively engaging with the research and the EDU books such as Teach like a champion (Lemov) and Teaching Walkthrus (Sherrington, Caviglioli).

I believe they are also easily applicable to modern languages teaching and many of us have been most likely using some of them consistently throughout our teaching career without really knowing the name for them. 

‘One consistent finding of academic research is that high expectations among teachers are the most reliable driver of high achievements among students.’ (Lemov)

One of these expectations that is important in my classroom is that getting it wrong or not knowing the answer yet is ok, but it is not OK not to try. This is linked to Lemov’s No Opt Out technique which can ensure that all students take responsibility for their learning. It also helps students who genuinely don’t know the answer or get it wrong as it rehearses success. Get it wrong and then get it right – the experience of simple success is very powerful (Lemov) and important for students’ self-efficacy as many students come to school thinking they are not good at languages, expecting to fail and therefore have normalized failure. 

If you are a novice teacher or just not so familiar with them, here is a list of some of the techniques that I have been using consistently, successfully and consciously (actually thinking about them and planning them into my lessons):

  1. Cold Call – a technique that allows you to involve all students in thinking. If you allow only volunteers (‘hands up’ or calling out the answers) to respond you won’t be able to judge students’ knowledge as accurately. In every classroom, there are always learners that can take over the class ‘pushing out’ our quieter and less confident students. We are also often guilty of naturally being drawn to the students we can always rely on knowing the answer, especially when observed! However, if we want the ‘buy in‘ from all our students, it is essential to explain the purpose of this technique – this is important for creating of a safe learning environment where students’ confidence is built not crushed. When using cold calling it is also important to ask the question first and provide the students with time (I usually give them a few seconds) to recall and be prepared to give answers, only then select a student to answer. This could be also pre-planned by the teacher. I also give my students the option to say ‘I don’t know yet’ or ‘I can’t recall’, so another student is then selected to answer thus supporting my more anxious or reluctant students. It is also very important to circle back to the original student at some point during the lesson and to ask the question he/she didn’t know again – so they understand they are not ‘off the hook’. This ensures the participation of all students. I use this technique a lot during modelling and retrieval.

  2. Wait time – providing time for thinking in silence is very important as mentioned above, especially for the learners who struggle with processing, but also for ensuring a better quality of response rather than letting students to blurt out the first idea that comes to their mind. The time I give depends on the difficulty/complexity of the task. I often use ‘wait time’ in my classroom when we do ‘delayed copying’ or ‘delayed dictation’ à la Conti, so it is not necessarily just to answer a question but to process task/information in their memory and then try to recall it accurately. During the ‘wait time’ I monitor the room, letting my students know I am checking they are focusing on the task.

  3. Show me the boards – I absolutely love this technique and use it all the time! It is easy and excellent for instant feedback for all stakeholders. The key thing to remember is to set the rules of how the students execute their response – I ask the question first, give students the time to respond, once the students write their responses, ask them to put the board face down, instruct students to show me their boards simultaneously at the same time (have a signal) otherwise some learners will treat it as a competition! 

  4. Say it better again – I often use this technique when addressing issues with pronunciation – drawing student’s attention to the mistake and giving the same or another student an opportunity to correct/say it better or when students answer questions (verbally or in writing). I accept the initial response, but then ask the student(s) to improve/extend the sentences using adjectives, quantifiers, comparatives, TMP or justify it using opinions etc. For this, I use ‘Cold call’, ‘Think, Pair, Share’ or ‘Checking for understanding’ (why is the response better). It goes really hand in hand with Lemov’s ‘Stretch it’ technique where you reward ‘right’ answer with harder questions thus differentiating instruction for students of different skill levels by tailoring your questions without putting students into different groups.

  5. Check for understanding – more effective teachers will systematically check for students’ understanding (Barack Rosenshine) ensuring all students have understood new input so that learning can move forward or the teacher can tackle any misconceptions or re-teach the material, if necessary. This applies especially to complex Grammar concepts such as tenses, adjectival agreements or word order where it secures deeper understanding.

  6. Think, Pair, Share – I use this technique a lot during Retrieval Practice (Cops and Robbers), but also when practising oral tasks – RP, PT, conversation questions etc. For this technique to be executed successfully, it is important to pre-determine partners – at GCSE level this could be based on Foundation or Higher. I set a question and the time to practice and circulate the room listening to students talking. I use then ‘cold call’ to sample some responses.

  7. Probing questions – these questions make students probe their schemas, they can support students in making links and supporting long-term memory, i.e. when I am teaching perfect tense asking what auxiliary verb to use (‘haben’ or ‘sein’) and why – transfer knowledge from one topic to another or when teaching verb paradigms, the German case system explaining the changes in the article, verb endings – the ‘how’ and  ‘why’. I find them closely connected to Process questions which also support metacognition – the narrating and modelling of the thought processes. These questions are extremely useful when preparing and modelling written tasks, which can be done ‘live’ on the board, under the visualiser or recorded as many colleagues have done during the Pandemic. The advantage of ‘live’ modelling for me is that I can draw ideas from my students as we go through the process.

In conclusion, our main goal is to get our students to do as much of the cognitive work as possible, we want to have a clear idea about their knowledge, therefore effective questioning is one of the key skills that we need to ponder about and develop as educators in order to be able to judge students’ learning and reflect on it with accuracy.  



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