Promoting effective student talk – Are we asking the right questions?

An approach to EAL assessment
7th October 2020
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Promoting effective student talk – Are we asking the right questions?

Author: Eli Briasco

Think about the last lesson you taught to English language learners. I’m sure you did some form of planning beforehand. I imagine you probably asked several questions throughout the lesson as well. After all, the foundation of effective teaching is interaction with learners. However, did you think about the questions you were going to ask when you were planning? Did you write down any key questions?

This is a key consideration when teaching dialogically. Dialogic teaching is not a single set method of teaching, but rather an approach and professional outlook. It is underpinned by research, led by Robin Alexander, into the relationship between language, learning, thinking and understanding, as well as observational evidence on what makes for truly effective teaching. Results show that when teachers promote learner talk, both the teacher and the students themselves begin to better understand their thinking (Alexander, 2009).

In 2017, I was part of a Brunei Ministry of Education project which encouraged public school teachers to use a dialogic approach as part of a wider effort to improve students’ English literacy levels. I observed many lessons throughout the year and noticed a significant improvement in student engagement and the quality of language students were using in class. Below is a summary of key ideas and considerations for using a dialogic approach to promote effective discussion and maximise language learning opportunities for English language learners.

First, it is important to consider how we ask questions, the kind of questions we ask, and how we respond to students’ answers.

We can classify questions into three categories according to their function:

  • Testing questions: asked to assess students’ ability to state pre-learned language, facts or steps in a process. For example: ‘What is the verb in this sentence?’
  • Focusing questions: asked to draw students’ attention to particular features or ideas and support them in arriving at a particular answer. For example: ‘Are there any contractions used in this text?’
  • Genuine enquiry questions: asked to gather information from students, encourage them to think more deeply, and to understand their own thought processes. For example: ‘What do you think about…?’

Whilst careful use of the first two types of questions can be justified when working with English language learners, they are not particularly good for promoting dialogue. Teachers already know the answers to these questions, and students are aware of this. As a result, students’ responses are often very short. 

Genuine enquiry questions, on the other hand, are more like the questions that students encounter in everyday life. Teachers generally do not know the answers and this sends the important message to learners that the teacher is interested in what they have to say. Well-thought-out genuine enquiry questions encourage students to think, explain, reason and form opinions.

Importantly, Alexander (2008) also points out that there’s little point in framing a well-conceived question if we fail to engage with the answer that our students give and hence with the understanding or misunderstanding which that answer reveals. Engaging in dialogue with students provides teachers with vital feedback on the progress of learning (Hattie, 2009).

We might therefore follow up responses by asking more questions to promote authentic discussion. We can encourage students to explain their thinking, or ask other students to comment. Consequently, students will listen to each other more carefully.

Another important consideration is wait and thinking time. Research shows that when teachers ask students questions, they typically wait less than one second for a response (Rowe, 1986). Further, after a student stops speaking, teachers react or respond with another question in less than one second.

Increasing wait time to three seconds leads to:

  • an increase in length of student response
  • students explaining their ideas more
  • students conjecturing more and asking more questions
  • an increase in student-student discourse
  • more students participating
  • teachers asking a wider range of questions
  • teachers’ responses becoming more varied

In situations where students might be shy about expressing their opinions or speaking up in class, role-play activities can go some way to reducing students’ inhibitions. Gupta and Lee (2015) suggest the use of a puppet role-play strategy to support English language learners as they participate in conversations about the content of a lesson they are learning. Student involvement in such activities provides opportunities for the teacher to monitor phonological, semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic usage of language.

In the downloadable resource accompanying this article you can find a series of question starters and responses that you might want to print off and refer to when planning lessons.

 

References

Alexander, R. (2008). Towards dialogic teaching: rethinking classroom talk (4th Edition). York: Dialogos.

Gupta, A. & Lee, G.L. (2015). Dialogic teaching approach with English language learners to enhance oral language skills in the content areas. International Journal of Language and Linguistics, 2(5).

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning. London: Routledge.

Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait time: slowing down may be a way of speeding up. Journal of Teacher Education 37, 43-50.

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