By Kayvon Havaei-Ahary
Developing active learners is quite a common target in English language education these days, but it can be quite difficult to define. Most interpretations pertain to a communicative and learner-centred approach, in which students` actively participate in the learning process (Richards and Rodgers 2001).
However, what seems to be overlooked in the process of having students interact and communicate more, is the need for students to generate the conversation and initiate their own learning. From this perspective, I think that questioning skills play an important role in facilitating the development of active learners, and thus opportunity for students to ask and form their own questions needs to be fostered in the classroom.
Student generated questions are quite rare in my own teaching context at a senior high school and seem to be particularly demanding on them. It is easy to see the value in having our student`s ask questions: They aid the learning process (help us know what the student`s want or need to know), develop a more natural and interactive learning environment between teacher and students, develop more autonomous learners, and develop student`s critical thinking (Rothstein & Santana 2011). Given the value of their function in language it`s surprising that in most EFL contexts it gains little attention.
From the basis of the EFL classroom it is quite easy to see why such a paradigm has developed. It predominately fosters an answer dominated pedagogy and promotes the idea that answers are more important than questions. This bias is clearly evident in most language learning textbooks, in which the actual opportunities for students to ask questions (and form their own questions) are very limited. In addition, from my own experience I have been guilty of assuming that when a student understands and answers a question that they can also form the same question type, but as we know this is quite a different skill. This is not necessarily a more difficult skill, but it requires practice in the classroom.
Therefore, I propose the need for employing more question-centred activities in the classroom and more opportunity for students to ask questions, as a means of developing more confident, active, and inquisitive students. For the rest of this paper I will go through a number of question-centered activities that have benefited me, and will hopefully give you some new ideas of how to give your students the opportunity to practice creating questions in the classroom, and thus hopefully motivate them to become more active learners.
- Read a sentence from a text to the students.
- Ask students to write a transcript of the sentence while you read it.
- If the students do not ask any clarification questions, continue reading the next sentence.
*When students start to fall behind, it will force them to ask you for help (e.g. learning English is `what`?). If students are unable to ask the questions they want to, provide them with some examples.
*This activity can be followed by pair or group dictation.
2. Course reporters
- Put students into pairs or groups.
- Tell the students to make a list of questions they have about the course or lesson (e.g. what topics will we study? How much homework will we have?).
- Get students to ask you the questions after preparing them.
- Students should record the questions asked and the teacher`s answers.
*This could be developed into a needs analysis in which students rate the information they have collected in a likert-scale of 1-5.
3. Getting to know your classmates ( jigsaw activity)
- Split your class into equal groups (e.g. 4 groups of 4).
- Assign each group a topic (e.g. English, hobbies, family, travel // music, sports, movies, food).
- Tell each group to write 4 questions about their topic using 4 question types, e.g. What, Who, Where, When (you can choose the question types).
- Each group`s members must write the same 4 questions.
- After groups have created their questions, assign each group member a number, e.g.: Group 1: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4 Group 2: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4 Group 3: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4 Group 4: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4
- Tell all student 1s to form a new group, all student 2s to form a new group, etc.
- In their new groups students must ask their 4 questions to all of their new members and record all the answers.
- After all students have asked their questions they must return to their original groups and create a table of all the information.
- Then each group must present their information to the rest of the class.
- Get students to write 3 questions they would like to ask their classmates (e.g. what is your favorite food?).
- Put the students into groups of 4.
- Have students take turns in asking their questions to all group members.
- The students need to remember their group members` answers, but they cannot record the answers.
- Once all group members have asked all of their questions, break the students from their groups.
- Tell them to try and recall all of the answers to their questions (give them a short time limit of about 2-3 minutes).
- Tell the students that they will have a chance to check and confirm the information by asking their group members tag-questions (depending on the level of the students this may have to be demonstrated).
*optional: Give them time to prepare the tag questions they will ask.
- Re-group the students into their groups and have them ask each other their tag-questions.
- For each piece of information they recorded correctly they get one point.
- The student that gets the most points is the winner.
Kayvon Havaei-Ahary comes from England. He has been teaching English for 4 years at a Japanese senior high school on the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Programme and is currently studying for his masters in TESOL at Nottingham University via distance learning. He is particularly interested in task-based learning and developing creative ways in which language can be taught in the EFL classroom. You can contact him at email@example.com
Richards, J., & Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rothstein, D. & Santana, L. (2011). Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions Harvard Education Press.