In the latest of our series of posts on English for Academic Purposes, Joe McVeigh, a teacher trainer and author from the U.S., continues to explore a question-based approach to teaching English and developing critical thinking skills.
As teachers, we use many different types of questions in the classroom. We ask students questions to see if they know the answer. A question like, “Can you answer number six, please?” is one example. “What does remote mean?” might be another. These are questions that we know the answer to already. They are used to quickly gauge comprehension and to make sure students are following along.
Compare this with another type of question, such as “What did you do this weekend?” In this case, the teacher, who is asking the question doesn’t know the answer. When the student answers, some real communication has taken place. Still, the question is not going to lead to a lot of conversation.
A third type of question is more likely to stimulate student learners. This is a question like, “Why does something become popular?” This is a question without an easy answer—and chances are that the teacher doesn’t know the answer either. To answer this question will require not only good language skills, but the ability to think in English.
Helping students answer challenging questions
While some students might enjoy this type of question and dive right in, others may need some help from the teacher. Here are some tips on working with questions with your students.
Students will respond better when they have an opportunity to get warmed up. Rather than starting off with a challenging question, lead them up to it gently, by asking some easier questions. For instance, if the essential question you are looking at is Why does something become popular? you can start off with some easier questions such as: What are some popular trends today? or have students look around the room at the clothing they are wearing or think about the music they listen to and answer questions about how those things became popular.
As with most classroom activities, a question-based approach will benefit from vocabulary development. Prepare your students to address the question by introducing them to helpful new words. You can introduce these with photos, by having students use their dictionaries, or by using targeted vocabulary activities.
To help students with questions, try drawing on their “schema” or background knowledge. Usually, this means eliciting from students what they already know about a subject. This can help activate vocabulary and critical thinking skills.
Provide food for thought
Students are more likely to come up with insights into questions if they have an opportunity to know what others think. You can share some ideas that other people have come up with by using a listening activity or a reading passage to give a point of view about the question. Even better, offer two different points of view, and then let students make up their own minds.
Have you used questions like these in your classroom? What techniques did you find helpful to get students to participate? What were some of the questions that worked particularly well with your students?