Teaching: Everything’s a Question
Traditional language teaching tells us that lessons can be divided into three parts: Present, Practice, Produce. Some people might call that “Engage, Study, Activate,” and still others might call it “I do, We do, You do.”
Whatever works for you. Personally, I like the brevity of “PPP.”
Come on, I’ve got this.
Most teachers do not struggle with presenting or practicing. Presenting can be done up-front with guns blazing by showing grammar rules or word definitions. It can also be done with subtlety through guided discovery and deductive learning. There are uses for both methods.
Practicing is also easy enough. You have a book, and that book probably has some kind of grammar exercise. If you’re an independent teacher or freelancer on a site like Preply or Cambly, you have access to their lessons library or you can find worksheets on Teach-This or games on Quizizz. (Yes, I’m endorsing those sites. No, I’m not sponsored 😸)
Many teachers end their classes with practice. When I was a student at l’Alliance Française, I was nearly driven insane by the amount of time the teacher spent talking about the target language. Then she’d finish the lesson by dropping an exercise on us which we spent the last twenty minutes of class doing!
That’s not teaching!
Anyone can hand out exercises. Real teachers make you produce the material.
Okay, maybe not THIS.
Where most teachers struggle is in building the productive section of a lesson. Some teachers I’ve observed have taught a full lesson on a specific grammar point and then prescribed the last 15 minutes of the lesson as “free talk.” Like, that was it. The grammar that the students had spent 45 minutes practicing was supposed to organically arise through unguided conversation.
And to be fair, it probably did—but nowhere to the extent that it could have if we’d organized an actual productive activity that required the usage of the target language.
To make certain that my lessons always include that productive element and to asuure that students’ production connects directly to the target language, I employ the “Everything’s a Question” method.
Everything’s a Question: Grammar & Lexis
EAQ is a simple method to turn receptive skills activities and grammar practice into productive activities. The goal is to recycle lexis and grammar structures from an activity (exercise/reading/listening) and reproduce target language in conversation. That conversation begins with a question.
Let’s imagine that you’re teaching countable and uncountable nouns. Your book probably has an exercise that looks something like this:
- There are ________ police officers in my neighborhood.
- There is _______ pollution in this city.
- There are ________ cars on the streets.
This is a pretty clear-cut exercise getting students to create sentences with (1) not enough, (2) too much, and (3) too many. It would probably be the last activity in a series of exercises on the same subject.
To employ EAQ, have students transform those statements into questions:
- Are there enough police officers in your neighborhood? / How many police officers are there in your neighborhood?
- Is there too much pollution in this city? / How much pollution is there in this city?
- Are there too many cars on the street? / How many cars are there on the street?
Now you’ve taken a simple grammar exercise and created the beginning of question prompts that you can use for production and for review in later classes. You’re also practicing question formation, which I’ve found to be an extremely under-appreciated and under-taught skill.
Those questions by themselves are enough to get students to produce the target language. However, they’re probably not enough to move beyond the question and into a conversation. This is in part because some of the questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Always avoid these when employing EAQ. Even more than that, though, there’s little foundation for further details unless you have some very talkative (or very well-trained) students.
To get students to go further, I’d recommend brainstorming follow-up questions when you feedback the questions that students created. For example, you might add on “How many more police officers are needed?” or “Why do you think there are/aren’t enough police officers?” to the first question.
The method detailed above—take an exercise, make questions, answer the questions in groups—can be easily applied to grammar and lexis activities. I created this method for exactly this purpose.
It took me a while to realize that it could also be used for other skills.
Everything’s a Question: Reading & Listening (i)
When applying EAQ to reading and listening, it’s important to understand the difference between a content question and a conversation question.
Content questions are the kinds of questions you find on standardized tests. They gauge a student’s understanding of the material, not their interpretation of it. The answers to these questions can be found directly in the material itself.
Conversation questions are questions that focus on the student and their relationship with the material. They are often open-ended and cannot be answered from the material alone. Responding to these questions requires some degree of interpretation.
Content questions have their place, and if you’re training students for a standardized test they might even be useful in the classroom. However, in the vast majority of cases I strongly encourage avoiding content questions at all.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that content questions have little to no place in the language classroom. If asked well and with enough density in relation to the material itself, conversation questions effectively become content questions. Students are constantly looking at the questions, relating it back to the material in the text, and reproducing that material through active production. What’s more, they have a greater quantity of time to express their own ideas and relate the material back to themselves (thereby increasing retention) because they didn’t waste time mining the text to answer questions that serve no purpose other than to make them mine for information.
Let me demonstrate my point with an example. One of my favorite articles that I’ve read recently is “Finding Direction When You’re Feeling Lost” by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries. The article begins
Paul, an executive participating in my C-suite seminar at INSEAD, told me that the reason he had decided to enroll in my program was that he felt lost. On the surface he was a very successful businessman, but his many achievements no longer gave him a sense of satisfaction. What he felt instead was boredom and dread.
Now there are multiple ways to apply EAQ to just that first paragraph. We could take the sentence “On the surface he was a very successful businessman, but his many achievements no longer gave him a sense of satisfaction” and ask “Who was a very successful businessman?” or “What did his many achievements no longer do?”
However, this would be falling for the trap of asking a content question and not a conversation question. Content questions are almost useless for the sake of creating productive activities. Students would answer these questions in just a couple seconds and then move on. You might have them check their answers together and thereby increase group interaction with the text. But for what purpose? All you’ve done is spent time confirming that students successfully read the text for a few details, time that could have been spent talking or writing.
A far more fruitful question to ask students might be “Do you have financial goals? What will you do when you achieve them?”
In doing so, you’re forcing students to put themselves in Paul’s shoes. They begin to think to themselves, “Am I happy now? Will I be happy when I achieve my financial goals? What exactly are my financial goals? Do I have hobbies? How fulfilling do I find those hobbies?”
Suddenly they see themselves as the example being used in the article, and they will begin to relate each topic—and each language item—back to themselves and their experiences.
Everything’s a Question: Reading & Listening (ii)
Using conversation questions rather than content questions has the additional benefit of modeling to others what good conversation skills look like. If you’ve ever been desperate to skip the small talk and have more meaningful conversations, I’m sure you can understand the value of modeling this skill to others and even encouraging them to imitate it.
Recently a student noticed the style of questions I created for our classes, and she asked me to teach her to develop her question-making skills in order to further her career as a public speaker and writer. I was more than happy to oblige.
Because my student wanted to better herself as a public speaker, we chose the article “Stop Scripting Your Speeches” by Joel Schwartzberg as a base. Schwartzberg writes,
Reading a speech word-for-word has its own unique disadvantages. It reduces the amount of eye contact you have with an audience, whether in an in-person meeting or on a Zoom call. Reading also diminishes your ability to speak with personal conviction because, when you read a speech aloud, your mind is not focused on enlightening or inspiring your audience; it’s focused on the task of reading hundreds of carefully chosen words in succession.
To which my student wrote the following question:
What are the disadvantages of writing and reading a script?
Take a moment to look at the checklist in the picture. Compare the written question with the quote above. Is it a content question or a conversation question?
Let’s look at another section of the article and another question my student wrote:
When you know your points well, prepare good notes, and practice the right way, you’ll understand that conveying your ideas live and unscripted is easier, less scary, and more effective than you thought.
How do you “remember” your points? How do you reach the point of really “knowing” the material?
Again, take a moment to look at the checklist in the picture. Compare the written question with the quote above. Is it a content question or a conversation question?
The first question was definitely a content question. It’s the kind of thing you would expect to see on a standardized test, and while useful for learning information from the text itself, the question and its corresponding answer have very little impact on the reader. There would be very little difference between answering this question and simply taking notes as you read.
The second question is an excellent conversation question. As readers, we are forced to look at the text and understand what the writer wants to tell us. As speakers or writers answering the question, we are forced to relate that information to our lives.
Putting It into Practice
While I’ve discussed at length about how to create EAQ materials, I haven’t given much attention to how a teacher might put EAQ into effect in the classroom.
For grammar and lexis activities, my experience has been that EAQ is best implemented between students in pairs or groups. In this case, formulating the questions serves as a kind of extended exercise. You’ll need to check that students have properly formulated the questions themselves, and you may need to supplement the questions in order create the spark needed for meaningful communication.
An alternative but more intensive approach is to (1) prepare the questions beforehand, (2) have students create the questions, and then (3) have them check against your version. Then they (4) ask the questions from your version. This ensures the quality of the questions being asked, but it does take away some agency from the students themselves.
In the one-on-one environment, you might work together with the student or formulate the questions in advance.
For reading and listening activities, I recommend preparing the questions beforehand in every case. In order to successfully replace content questions, you’ll need to create conversations for at least every other paragraph. For shorter readings or videos, you may need to dig deep into the sentences to find meaningful questions that can be asked.
I’ve found that it’s best to give students both the receptive task and the conversation questions for homework. Then spend the class itself discussing. If you’ve done a good job creating questions, you can easily spend an entire class going through them, which is great for the one-on-one environment. Moving reading and listening outside the classroom has the additional benefit of freeing class time for other activities like focusing on interesting language in the text or implementing strategies written about in the material. For example, in the class I taught on “Stop Scripting Your Speeches,” we practiced outlining and delivering two-minute speeches.
Limitations and Implications
While I’d love to say that EAQ can be used for nearly every language item, that’s not quite the case. Punctuation and certain stock phrases are difficult to force through questions.
But hey, if you can figure out a way to use EAQ for teaching defining and non-defining clauses, I’m all ears!
EAQ has led me to the major breakthrough in my teaching that listening and reading are best done outside the classroom. Productive activities, especially speaking and some forms of writing correction, are best done in the classroom.
Listening in the classroom is such an artificial activity. There have been few times in my life where I couldn’t re-watch or re-listen to something I didn’t understand. And when talking to a person face to face, if I don’t understand something, I ask! And what do recordings in the classroom even teach? Do you really become a better listener by hearing two minutes of a dialogue every few classes? Implementing EAQ is my way of confronting this issue. What’s more, moving reading and listening outside the classroom allows you to give students more challenging and interesting material.
I’m certain there are other advantages and disadvantages to the EAQ method, but these are the ones I’ve observed. If you’re one of my trainees who I’ve obliged to read this, excellent work. You’re a champ! If you’re a fellow teacher, your feedback is always appreciated. If you’re neither, I admire your tenacity and curiosity.
If you have any questions or want clarification on anything, I’d love it if you commented. I might just turn your question into a more fleshed-out article.