The fine art of asking questions

Something that is a personal weakness of mine is getting enough student-student interpersonal practice. At the novice level, my students get tons and tons of PQA (personal questions and answers) from me, but they are on the receiving end of the questions. As we move up in ability, I tend to focus more on lengthier and more in-depth interpretive reading and listening skills, so interpersonal gets pushed to the back burner. (I want maximum input, of course, but where is the balance?)

The ability to ask questions is really more of an intermediate skill, and I will be the first to say that I don’t do the best job of preparing my students to make that jump. So I have ended up with 4 levels of students who can answer pretty much any question I ask, but only the most brave and outgoing of students who can actually ask sensical questions and keep the conversation going. Which is silly, because in a situation where my students MUST use their Spanish, it will most likely be a spontaneous interpersonal speaking situation.

One thing I have done to try and help this problem is to add various interpersonal-type activities to the students’ homework choices. Because interpersonal is tougher, I also make it more enticing by requiring less time out of them to do it. Students can tweet, text, snapchat, or just talk using their voice to each other and it counts.

Another big push I am making is in the vein of Amy’s timely posts about her questions workshop and interpersonal blitzes (which I will be borrowing myself, thank you). Similar to the questions workshop post, my Spanish 2 students are moving from novice-high to intermediate-low and I want them to start being able to do more with question-asking. I just finished my master’s degree capstone project on the circling technique used in TPRS, and I thought, why not tell the students exactly what I’m doing? I mean, if the technique works for teachers, why in the world can’t it work for my students?

So we’ve done it a few times and they are definitely getting faster and more confident with their question-asking. The first thing I tried was to take a story that we’ve done – it can be a new story or an review story; it doesn’t really matter for this. (You could also substitute authres, if your students are ready for it. Any sort of reading will work.) Then I posted the four kinds of TPRS questions on the board: ones that elicit a yes answer, ones that elicit a no answer, ones where you give a choice, and an open-ended question with a question word. Then we looked at the story and I modeled some sample questions they could ask about the story, using the same topic to demonstrate how each sentence would work. (Obviously in the classroom we did this in Spanish, but I’ll write them here in English so everyone can understand.) For example, the first thing we do in a story is name our main character. Some sample questions on this topic could be:

Is the girl’s name Barbara? (yes)

Is the girl’s name Anna? (no)

Is the girl’s name Anna or Barbara? (Barbara)

What is the girl’s name? (Barbara)

I think this modeling process showed my students very clearly how we can ask different questions about different topics, and giving them a story to work with (rather than having them make up their own questions off the top of their head) made them feel more comfortable. Then I asked them to make up some of their own about the story using the 4 types of questions. My lower-level students tended to copy the exact same format of the modeled questions, just changing the topic. The more advanced students showed me they were ready to move forward because they chose to write a wider variety of topics and wrote more complex questions.

I did this initial lesson a few weeks ago and was pleased with it, so I extended it last week (with a different story). This time, after reading the story, I reminded students about the 4 kinds of questions. Then we practiced writing questions on paper as if they were taking a story quiz, only instead of me writing the questions, they got to do it. I went around and checked as students worked, helping them to correct questions that were way off. For the most part, the students did just fine (our biggest issue was students still wanting to ask ‘Qué se llama’ instead of ‘Cómo se llama’) and there were no problems. Then, I collected their papers. The next step is to redistribute them and have the students take each other’s ‘quizzes’ as a kind of check for comprehension – if your question doesn’t make sense to the person reading it, then we had communication breakdown and we need to find a solution. (We haven’t done this part yet, so we’ll see how it goes.)

I think by practicing with quizzing each other in writing a few times, and a few of Amy’s interpersonal blitz sessions, I can get my students back on track for interpersonal speaking. Another resource that I really like but always forget to use are the Cuéntame Cards from Teacher’s Discovery. They’re a bit pricy and you have to cull them to match your students’ levels, but it was easier than making my own (which you certainly could do). In addition to the cards, the instructional pamphlet comes with a handful of different ways to use the cards in the classroom.

What do you do to help students prepare for interpersonal situations?

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