Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Questions! Questions! Questions! A New Twist on a Standard Exercise

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

One of the toughest things about learning English grammar is mastering the question-making system, which is more complex in English than in many other languages. For that reason, teachers need to spend a good deal of time teaching the various ways to make questions in English as each different way comes up in their curriculum and then reinforcing those ways to give students enough opportunity to internalize this difficult part of the language.

Because question-making requires so much time to teach well and have students practice adequately, it pays to come up with activities that can get as creative as possible and keep the students’ attention focused. Video affords such an opportunity, but not just any old video. How about making a video in which the students interact with a person speaking to them? What if that person supplies all the answers and the students have to come up with appropriate questions to match those answers? This can lead to an individualized activity or a group activity. It can have a very “academic” approach or be turned into a game or competition of sorts. And what’s more, such an activity can be equally as effective at the beginning, intermediate, or advanced level.

So here’s the deal. Create a relatively short dialogue between just two people. Person A (your students) asks all the questions; Person B (in the video) answers all the questions. On paper the dialogue will just have blank lines where the questions need to be filled in. On video, a pause takes the place of each blank line with the teacher having the option to pause the video longer if the students need some extra time to think up a good question, put it in the proper grammatical structure, and write it down. Yes, the students have to think of acceptable questions, but of course there can be various options for what will work with most of the questions. This kind of activity has been done for years with paper and pen, but it’s a lot more fun and much more stimulating to put each dialogue on video, let the students listen to the answers, pause the video, and give them time to think of appropriate questions to go with each answer.

After the students have written down their questions, replay the video and have one student (individually or chosen by the group he/she is working with) interact with the person in the video. Discuss what questions work and don’t work, and explain why some of the questions don’t work. That helps sensitize the students to listen more closely to things such as tense, aspect, and prepositions. And when all the questions have been acceptably completed for the dialogue, play the video again and have the students say the questions out loud as a choral activity.

Here are three sample videos – not good enough for Hollywood, but we don’t need to be perfect for the purpose of this kind of activity. The first video is for a beginning group, the second for an intermediate group, and the third for a more advanced group. You’ll note that the grammar in each video is holistic to come across as natural language.

Even though you’ll find the scripts below for the videos, why not listen to each video yourself without looking at its script, pause the video after each answer is supplied, and see if you can come up with appropriate questions so you’ll see how it will work with your students. If you like this, create dialogues of your own and record them for your classes. You can even ask capable students to make their own for their classmates! And don’t think videos like these are only good for question-making practice. They can be used for all kinds of language-learning activities.

So watch, listen, and have fun!

Video Scripts & Some Options for Student-Generated Questions

VIDEO 1. Lower Level. A man wants to open a savings account. A bank officer is helping him.

A:     Hello. You’d like to open a savings account with our bank, correct?

B:     Yes, that’s right.

A:     ________________________________________________?

B:     Mark Abreu.

A:     ________________________________________________?

B:     A – B – R – E – U.

A:     ________________________________________________?

B:     441 Miami Gardens Drive, North Miami Beach.

A:     ________________________________________________?

B:     33168.

A:     ________________________________________________?

B:     It’s a house.

A:     ________________________________________________?

B:     March 29, 1942.

A:     ________________________________________________?

B:     No, I don’t. I’m retired now.

A:     ________________________________________________?

B:     I was the manager of a large clothing store.

A:     ________________________________________________?

B:     No, I never had an account with your bank before.

Some acceptable questions from the bank officer:

  • What’s your name?
  • How do you spell that/your last name?
  • What’s your address?
  • And the/your zip code?
  • Is that/Do you live in a house or an apartment?
  • (What’s your) date of birth? / When were you born?
  • Do you work/have a job?
  • What did you do? / What job did you have? / What was your job?
  • Did you have an account with our bank before?

VIDEO 2. Intermediate Level. Two warehouse workers are talking at the start of lunchtime.

A:     Yo! Billy! Wussup?

B:     Not much. Just feelin’ real hungry and ready for lunch.

A:     ______________________________________________________?

B:     What? No, never! I hate the food in the company cafeteria.

A:     ______________________________________________________?

B:     Usually at Burger King or Esther’s Restaurant a block from here.

A:     ______________________________________________________?

B:     Yeah, it’s a little expensive, but I’m worth it!

A:     ______________________________________________________?

B:     To Esther’s. They’ve got a special on fried shrimp today. I love fried shrimp!

A:     ______________________________________________________?

B:     Yep, right now. I told you I’m starvin’!

A:     ______________________________________________________?

B:     Sure, if ya wanna. Trust me, you’ll like the food there a whole lot better than in our cafeteria!

Some acceptable questions from Student A:

  • Do you eat (lunch) in the company/our cafeteria?
  • Where do you have/eat lunch?
  • Isn’t it expensive to eat in those places/there every day?
  • Where are you going (for lunch) today?
  • Are you going there right now?
  • Can I join/go with you?

VIDEO 3. Higher Level. A realtor is meeting with a potential client in his office.

A:     Mr. Klein, right? Nice to meet you. I’m sure we can help you here.

B:     I sure hope you can.

A:     _______________________________________________________?

B:     We’re interested in renting right now, not buying. We may want to buy something later on.

A:     _______________________________________________________?

B:     We’d like to rent an apartment or a condo unit, but not a house.

A:     _______________________________________________________?

B:     A three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment.

A:     _______________________________________________________?

B:     Yes, as a matter of fact. A boy 20 and a girl18.

A:     ______________________________________________________?

B:     Oh, unfurnished. We’ve got our own furniture.

A:     _______________________________________________________?

B:     We’d like to start with a one-year lease. Then we can renew it or do something else.

A:     _______________________________________________________?

B:     Right away. We’re staying at my sister-n-law’s, so the sooner we can rent a place of our       own, the better.

A:     _______________________________________________________?

B:     If it’s okay with you, I’ll take the forms with me, fill them out at home, and bring them        back tomorrow.

Some acceptable questions from the realtor:

  • Are you thinking of renting or buying a place? / Would you like to rent or buy a place?
  • Are you interested in an apartment or a house?
  • How large a place/an apartment do you need/are you looking for?
  • Do you have (any) children?
  • Are you looking for a furnished or unfurnished place/apartment?
  • How long a lease would you like? / How long would you like to rent the apartment?
  • When can you/do you want to/would you like to move in?
  • Would you like to fill out these forms now? / Here are some forms for you to fill out.


Comment from Charmaine
March 1, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Very good idea. I’m going to use the first one in my class tomorrow night. Thanks

Comment from Jill
September 26, 2011 at 12:28 am

Very nice tips. Thank you.

Comment from Richard Firsten
September 27, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Thank you, Jill. I’m very glad you like these videos and this technique for students to practice question making.

Comment from Fulvia
November 27, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Thanks for sharing. I’ll be using the third video in my high intermediate class.

Comment from Quazi
April 13, 2013 at 10:13 pm

A grammarian of enthusiasm, passion and good experience, you did the best strife here-no doubt.


Comment from Richard Firsten
April 14, 2013 at 8:40 am

Thank you, Quazi. Much appreciated! 🙂

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