The art of asking the perfect question is my own personal Mona Lisa. It is the element in my practice that I am always improving and perfecting. In fact, I even made a little video about some of the cognitive elements involved in questions.
Let go of perfection
Crafting a perfect question takes audience intuition, subject knowledge and most of all genuine curiosity about the result. But getting it right can be a mix of experience, trial and error and just plain luck. Jump in with something you find interesting and see where it takes you.
Have my questions bombed? Oh yes. Have I had the uncomfortably long blank stare? Yep. I have even been asked why on earth I would ask such a boring question. Ouch.
Most of all, when you are ‘on’ and right in the middle of a lesson, you need a certain amount of preparation, as well as have enough spontaneity to roll with the group if they want to go another way.
listen for patterns
It is the simplest yet the most powerful tool to see how articulate and fluid your students are. If you can, try to set an intention for what you listen for. Perhaps you can focus on speaking patterns like verbs, or use of modals, or vocabulary from previous lessons. If you notice mistakes, try to pick the most prevalent pattern and then give it some attention. Or perhaps you notice that the students are incorporating a bunch of previously learned vocabulary–make sure you point it out and praise them.
Question Tag-You’re it!
During the COVID confinement, I taught an online conversation course with about 10 students at a time. To allow everyone to speak, we played a game I called “question-tag”.
Students choose a question from the list and ask another classmate. Then that classmate is “it” and chooses the next question and classmate. Simple concept, but it puts the control in the students’ hands and adds just a touch of suspense to keep people engaged.
Want to play…You can use these 7 types of icebreakers to get going. The questions are meant as a corporate team-building exercise. Thus they are authentic and funny. Let me know how it turns out.
It’s fall and the viruses are running amok. As I type these lines, I am sitting in bed, with my weekend pj’s, a box of tissues and a cup of tea at arm’s length…humph! What are my symptoms you ask? I am sneezing, I have a runny nose, I have a dry cough, I feel tired and I am congested. All expressions we only use once in a while but are crucial for a second language speaker to have.
When my daughter was three, she woke up looking pale and feeling awful. As the day went by, she started running a small fever. Normally I would have given her some acetaminophen and kept her quiet. But when my little teary girl put her hands around her collar and told me that her neck hurt, I immediately thought of meningitis. I went into full mommy panic mode and no sooner had I put her little coat on than we were in the emergency room. Once we saw the doctor, he deduced that “neck” meant throat in her language. She did not have meningitis, but just a bad cold. My point is, words matter, especially when talking about your health.
Lessons introducing health vocabulary can be interesting because you can pack a lot into them. Given it is a familiar subject in our first language, the task really boils down to having English equivalent to words your students already know–which can feel really satisfying. But if you add some role-playing, you can review yes/no questions, give treatment advice with verbs in the simple present and even learn a thing or two about which symptoms can considered serious or not.
If you are looking for a first-language site to use as a reference or even a role-play launch pad, check out some of my favourite go-tos…
Pharma giant Pfizer has a nice little reference sheet that can be used for a role-play Q&A.
I love talking about the weather. It is the easiest way to initiate a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance if you need to break the silence. Great for elevator rides, spontaneous waiting time and warm repartee.
It is also a ubiquitous element that can have multiple impacts on our lives. Indeed a rainy day, bright sun, or a snowstorm will change how we dress, the meals we eat, the activities we plan and perhaps how we get to work. Personally, I check the weather every morning because I take my bike to work–even in winter.
Moreover, I find weather phenomena fascinating. Tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, nature has a way of reminding us who is really in control. Beautiful, powerful, terrifying the planet is a person. She breathes, she aches and she speaks. Are we listening?
This particular discussion lesson goes from general to scientific to silly. The objective is to elicit the vocabulary around a familiar topic and add a level of complexity with either the science behind weather or weather-related expressions. I just couldn’t choose, so I put everything.
What are the different types of weather or climate you can name?
What affects the weather?
How does the weather make you feel? When it rains, when it is sunny, when the snow falls…
Do you use the weather forecast to plan activities?
What activities do you do in spring, summer, fall and winter?
What are the seasons like in your country?
Option 1: The Video: The Science of Weather
Divide the video into 2 or 3 segments and do a Tell Back of the main themes and words
How do meteorologists sort through information, identify trends, and make predictions?
Why do they often get it wrong?
Why is it important to predict the weather?
Option 2: Weather idioms
For this, I made a handout and some flashcards. They are on Teachers Pay Teachers TPT. Click to go see.
Why do we lie? Notice that I didn’t ask if is lying wrong, or whether you consider honesty important–because in both cases, I’m pretty sure you would agree that the answer is “yes, but…” or “yes, except…”. We all lie, a bit, or a lot. The more interesting question is why.
Consider the extremes. Do you remember the comedy Liar Liarwith Jim Carry? In it Carry plays the role of Fletcher Reede, a pathelogical liar who ends up being cursed to tell the truth–all the time. Ugly hairdo, need to lose a couple pounds, bad breath, it all comes flying out of Reede’s mouth and needless to say it gets him into a lot of trouble. But it is also very restorative. It urges Reede to express more vulnerable feelings and gain more trust and loyalty.
So let’s try to unpack the issue. Keeping famous movies as a template, let’s say lying can fall into different categories: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In the Good category, birthday surprises, and hurtful opinions, in the Bad category, making up excuses to miss work or homework, and the Ugly category could contain breaking the law, dark secrets etc.
The point is, how and when we lie can generate an interesting reflection.
I am an avid visualizer. I love hypothetical dreaming. I test out lessons, see possible problems, and think of fun ways to connect the classroom to reality. It’s like a constant mini-movie up there. I don’t just visualize lessons, I play out conversations, memories, happy places etc…
Our ability to hypothesize and weigh possibilities is probably one of the most fascinating traits of humankind. With that deep and philosophical introduction, I would like to point you in the direction of this recent find: esllounge.com. It is a great site full of teaching resources definitely worth perusing.
For today, I am linking a nice little conversation exercise that is meant to get participants to use ‘may’ and ‘might’. Of course, if it doesn’t go in that direction, it ok too. At the very least, it should encourage hypothetical discussions.
Language focus: emotions vocabulary, science, health
What are your thoughts on Omicron? Are you frustrated that despite all your efforts, people (maybe even you) have gotten sick? Are you afraid of the next variant? Are you vaccinated, boosted and wondering why you bothered? Or do you see Omicron as the beginning of the end of a pandemic that has changed us in so many ways we still can see the forest for the trees? Perhaps you see Omicron as a blessing, a harbinger of better times yet to come.
All of the Above
If I am being totally honest, I feel all those things. I am vaccinated, boosted, wear my mask everywhere I go, wash my hands obsessively and analyze every sneeze, cough and sniffle with scientific discipline. I am a goody-goody who did everything public health officials recommended. Do I regret it? No, absolutely not? Do I sometimes wonder if it was too much? Yes, sometimes.
Give me the Facts…Again
That is why I really appreciated, Jo Hanson’s video Here’s What I Learned from Getting COVID. The host of PBS’s It’s Ok to be Smart is pro-vaccine, pro-mask, pro-anything-that-will-protect-the-population (see Masks vs. Corrona, lesson), and got COVID anyway. He candidly shares his frustration. Still, without defending or trying to convince, he diligently gives a fact-based explanation of why this happened and why it is still important to do everything in our power to stop the spread.
Elicit people’s thoughts on Omicron: is it a blessing or a threat
How does this new variant make them feel? Helpless, no big deal, ready for another wave, discouraged, scared.
What do we know about the virus?
(I would stay away from a pro or against discussion on vaccines if I were you)
Go through the statements on the handout and make predictions of the answers
The video: It’s Ok to be Smart– Here’s What I Learned from Getting COVID
You can use the handout to talk about the various points made in Jo’s talk
What do you think are the key ‘take-aways’ on vaccines, the severity of Omicron, what attitude we should adopt to stay safe AND stay sane?
What is your comfort food? I dare you to NOT think of the answer. Too late? I bet your favourite dish is already in your mind. Maybe you are even seeing a memory or a person attached to this dish. Is it something your mother made when you were sick? Something you eat at Christmas? Is it sweet or salty?
Chances are your comfort food is not too healthy. Right? Generally speaking, comfort foods are hardy, starchy and fatty. All great words that describe food. And that is exactly what you will find in this Insider Food video featuring 20 different people from 20 different cultures describing their comfort food.
But it makes me happy
Food makes people happy, conjures memories, and heals us when we are sick or sad and is often the heart of most celebrations. It is also a super fun thing to talk about. It ties in food, feelings, events and people, thus a nice integrated vocabulary exercise. The perfect Whole Language exercise.
While you listen
This video is chalk-a-block full of vocabulary, so I made a Google docs handout available through Teachers Pay Teachers to help collect the essential ideas. Or you can try this cool interactive worksheet. Of course, if you are working with more advanced students, you might want to ditch the handout and just let the students note what they can. Rember you can turn the CC on and slow down the video.
It seems counterintuitive that a small piece of cloth can stop a deadly killer. It is even harder to believe that less than a year ago if you walked into a grocery store with a mask you would have probably caused all kinds of suspicious looks and anxiety. For some masks represent a new way to express individuality, for others a necessary nuisance and for others still a political statement. One thing is for sure, during the coronavirus pandemic, carrying (and wearing) masks are as necessary as taking your keys and wallet.
Of course, I’m sure you heard some of the arguments against wearing masks. Notably, masks cause you to breathe in your own germs, or you could poison yourself with your own carbon dioxide. And if you have ever asked yourself, “if my pants can’t contain a fart, how can a mask contain the Coronavirus”, then you are not alone.
In addition to the misinformation about masks, there are discomforts. For those who have to wear a mask all day, they can cause acne, rashes, moisture. For others, it may even feel like you are working harder to breathe. And last but not least, they really fog up your glasses.
We do it because we care
The bottom line is, masks do prevent the spread of germs, and if you need to understand how, I invite you to watch this video from PBS’ It’s OK to be Smart. Coronavirus is invisible, insidious, and in many cases comes without any symptoms at all. Yet for others, it can spell doom within a matter of days. So why not get all the facts about mask-wearing and then wear it loud and proud…because you are part of a together-world.
For this lesson, I prepared a simple true/false handout that you can get on TPT (Teachers Pay Teachers) for a dollar (a girl’s gotta eat). What I like to do with my students is read through the statements and have them guess the answers before they watch the video. This way you can explain any difficult vocabulary and get their brains ready for this fast-talking video. The handout includes the answer key. If you don’t want to use the handout, that’s ok too. I’ve included a few warm-up and discussion questions you can use.
What do you think of wearing masks?
What do you find unpleasant about it?
What kind of mask do you wear (does it have designs)?
The video: PBS It’s OK to be Smart: Masks
Cut the video up and do a TellBack of the main points
What are some of the misconceptions about masks and the Coronavirus?
What are some of the weird questions or arguments in the video or that you have heard?
Can you explain why masks help fight the spread of viruses?
Why are some people against masks?
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages?
Language focus: questions, preferences, past tense, present tense
It is no secret that I am a talker. What’s more, I love conversation–I devoted a whole website to it, so that should tell me something right? I genuinely enjoy getting to know people. Their stories, their values, what they like and don’t like, their guilty pleasures. Every time I manage to get to a deeper level in a conversation lesson, I am always, touched, grateful and amazed at the variation on a human theme we have.
What I mean to say is that as humans we share quite a few common elements: we eat, we sleep, we have routines, we have dreams, we have hopes, we have worries, we have doubts, we have projects, we have disappointment and we have pride and we have shame. But it is the stories inside those elements that often testify to the infinite variations these elements have in our lives. They create the stories that are our lives. And by stories, I don’t just mean the play-by-play events all strung together, but the inner dialogue we have with ourselves as our lives play out like movies.
It’s not surprising that when I fell on this article 5 Questions the Most Interesting People Will Always Ask in a Conversation, I ate it up. Thus I am sharing it with you, my teacher community. Not only will it make you reflect on your own approach to prompting conversation, but It may also be a great tool to use with a class. Once for the reading comprehension, and then as a discussion launch pad.
Language focus: wh-questions, open-ended questions
Asking questions is an integral part of conversation. When I prepare an ESL lesson, I can spend quite a lot of time composing just the right question. Not too hard, not too easy, avoid yes, no and add some nice vocabulary words to feed the answer. In fact, the art of asking questions is a bit of a passion of mine. You can even consult my Questions by Cognitive Skillpage to see just how scientific I can get to achieve the perfect question.
But enough about me! What about the students? How are they at asking questions? The wh-words are such an important cornerstone in ESL development. But I find that simply exposing the 5 w’s is too simplistic and not very conversational. I got inspired by a great lesson that uses photos and question starters to practice questions. I liked it because it was open enough to allow for variety but controlled enough to feed the students with the structure and words to provide opportunities for success. So I made one of my own with Google Slides.