NOTE: In my last post, I shared material from a presentation I gave at the National TPRS® conference in July. This post is based on another presentation that I gave fifteen minutes later.
This post addresses a trifecta of questions teachers often ask:
1. How do I get my students to talk more?
2. How can I use texts without putting interaction on hold?
3. How can we have high-level conversations with students who are not advanced speakers?
The short answer to #1 is “give them more input,” because there’s no reason to expect someone to speak another language spontaneously who hasn’t developed a mental representation of and general comfort with the language through massive amounts of input.
But a supplementary answer is “ask good questions,” which also addresses #2 and #3. Good questions generate good conversations. Good questions about texts generate good conversations about texts. And well-chosen questions can allow even novice and intermediate learners to engage in and demonstrate higher order thinking without being pitched into the maelstrom of advanced language.
So, here are six questions–six types of questions, really–that can keep the conversation going before, during, and after the reading of a text. Most also work with films, songs, and other media.
Some of the question types are similar to those identified in Dr Taffy Raphael’s work on Question Answer Relationships (QAR). Included here are sample questions related to Romeo and Juliet, as well as indications of when the question type is especially useful–before, during, or after reading/viewing/listening.
1. Fact from one sentence (cf. Raphael’s “Right There”) – during
Where is this story set? The answer is in a single sentence: “In fair Verona, where we lay our scene” (I.Prol.2).
2. Fact from whole story (cf. Raphael’s “Think and Search”) – after
How many characters die? The answer doesn’t require deep thought, but one can’t just fill it in from a single sentence; one needs to have read or seen the whole play.
3. Inference about content or author (cf. Raphael’s “Author and Me”) – during, after
Does Romeo have a close relationship with his parents? Answering requires one to have read/seen the play and to have thought about statements and actions that provide insight into the issue.
Note that inference questions don’t have to use or elicit complex language: Have Romeo and Juliet met before?
4. Extension – during, after
What does Juliet’s house look like? Why is Tybalt so angry? What happens to the nurse after the end of the story? The play provides some relevant information, but here we are purposely asking students to invent details, backstory, or spinoffs so that we can talk about them in the target language.
5. Personal (cf. Raphael’s “On My Own”) – before, during, after
Have you ever switched crushes really fast? What would you do if your parents didn’t want you to be with someone you wanted to be with? These questions could be asked and answered without any reference to Romeo and Juliet, but they’re great for boosting buy-in during pre-reading or for sustaining conversations during and after reading.
6. Evaluation – during, after
These can be “internal,” e.g., Is Friar Lawrence a good mentor? or “external,” e.g., What is the most powerful scene in the play?, Do you want to read more stories like this?, or, quite simply, Do you like this story? They require the answerer to have read/seen the play and to have thought about more general issues. Questions about themes might go in this category, too, although they might also be inference questions.
Using the six question types
Use any of these questions whenever they might be good ways to check for comprehension, to increase buy-in, to provide extra repetitions of core vocabulary or grammar structures, or to promote conversation. Use them with any content from short comedy clips to literary texts. Use a wise mix of the questions types, according to what will be useful and enjoyable to your students.
But remember that the teacher doesn’t always have to be the one asking these questions. It’s worth training students to think of them, and the very act of thinking of them can involve deep interaction with the content. You might assign students to come up with a question of each type, either alone or in pairs, and then use the best questions for class discussion, as writing prompts, or for literature circles.
If you are learning a language on your own or with a friend, you can use these questions to extend and enhance your interaction with a story, article, song, or film.