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.
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.