Can you hear the silence?
Do your learners ask you questions in class when they want to know something? They do, really? Until recently I thought mine certainly did. But last week a student confessed after class, in Czech, that at the start of the lesson she’d wanted to ask me about the health of my family but didn’t, because she didn’t know how to form such a question. And I hadn’t noticed! It is a 1-1 class and I simply had no idea. I was mad with myself. Why didn’t I hear the silence?
Is it accurate?
Even if students do ask questions, are they correct? Why don’t you test your class a bit? Let them read the legend of Czech Princess Libuše, who first foresaw the glorious city of Prague:
The Legend of Libuše
Libuše, the youngest daughter of Krok, ruler of Bohemia, was a prophetess. She was so chaste and kindly that the Bohemians elected her as judge after Krok’s death.
Libuše was a wise and just judge for several years. In her free time, she used to ride her white horse to a nearby village, where a young man called Přemysl lived. Then one day two men came to Libušin (Libuše’s seat) with a dispute – they were in disagreement as to where one’s lot ended and the other’s began.
Libuše judged them, but the loser was angry and exclaimed: “Why must we have a female judge? Every nation is ruled by a man – what a shame! Long hair means short reason!”
She listened to their protests and send men to find her a suitable husband, saying, “Find yourself a duke and myself a husband, if you will. But beware, a man will be a stern ruler, harsh upon you, unlike I was. If you are unsure about what man to choose, take my white horse and go wherever it goes, until it stops in front of a man. You will know that it is the right man by these signs: he ploughs with two oxen, and he eats from an iron table. If you like, take horses, a robe, a cloak and shawls and go give that man a message from me and my people and bring a duke to yourselves and a husband to me.”
They did as told; the white horse went for three days, looking neither right nor left, not stopping for a graze, not letting itself to be disturbed by other horses playing in the pastures by the path. Finally, it stopped in front of Přemysl, who was just ploughing his field with two oxen. To welcome the delegation, Přemysl turned his plough upside down and served some bread with salt on top of the iron part of it. Then they brought him back to Libuše, who married him with great joy and made him the first Duke.
Later, during her life with Přemysl, it is said she had a long vision of the future capital Prague. “…I see a great city, the glory of which touches the stars.”
Ask your class to read the story and write three comprehension questions about it. How accurate were the questions?
A typical Czech learner finds question formation in English very difficult and often, even fairly advanced learners make mistakes in questions. The presence of the auxiliary DO, in its various forms, and incorrect word order, are probably the most challenging and a typical mistake might, for example, be:
What did Libuše in her free time? (directly translated from Czech):
Co dělala Libuše ve svém volném čase?
In Czech, question formation isn’t that hard. You need to pay attention to the Functional Sentence Perspective (see more info here) . Admittedly, Czech grammar is very difficult, but the grammar of the question isn’t any harder than the grammar of statements.
Once learners get the grasp of DO, they seem to forget the other type of questions with BE or modal verbs – CAN, MUST, etc.
Who was Libuše?
They might come up with:
Who did Libuše? (because we use the auxiliary do when asking questions, don’t we?)
Add a few misplaced/omitted articles, some spelling mistakes and you have enough work as a teacher for a few semesters.
I very strongly believed that the learners’ inability to ask correct questions is a serious problem. It means they don’t understand how the language works and are missing out on the mechanics of the language.
To my mind, there are two reasons for this. Firstly, in a language class, it is mostly the teacher who asks questions. To rectify this, teachers should much more often invite students to ask questions. Any text or a listening exercise could include a questioning stage.
Secondly, question formation is not a grammar item per se. It is studied as part of the individual tenses and verbs, but generally not studied consistently throughout courses and not sufficiently revised. I propose that teachers use less the comprehension questions that go with their course books or lesson materials and have students ask their own questions.
Successful practise that I have been doing in my lessons for years is to have the students read books – one chapter a week; and write several comprehension questions for homework. Et voilà, it’s as simple as that. It is a very effective strategy and you will notice that your students’ questions improve over time; yet it is not a miraculous strategy. It takes a long time for some students to get the questions right. Let me repeat, asking questions in English IS bloody hard.
Now I will just be rephrasing what John F. Fanselow says in his wonderful Small Changes in Teaching, Big Results in Learning.
Fanselow proposes a classification of questions. Generally, I love sorting stuff in class – word cards into any groups I can think of, Czech nouns by cases, Czech verbs by declensions, word families by endings, and questions by their type. It sparks joy, so to speak.
The vertical classification goes like this:
1: A yes-no question. This is a very simple type, the Cinderella of questions, but not always easy to make. Perfect for teachers to ask beginners. I use this type of question a great deal with Czech learners, because it takes away the mind from the grammar, yet it focuses on the forms that need to be practised.
Example: Was Libuše the eldest daughter of Krok?
2. The either-or question. I confess I love this type. If posed by the teacher to a beginner, it provides enough scaffolding or “safety rope” for the learner to hang onto if their knowledge of the language is limited. When learners ask this question, they have to come up with at least one other alternative, which makes for great practice.
Was the horse sent after Přemysl brown, black or white?
Warning: Watch out for the very common “false” either/or questions.
Example (1): Was Libuše Krok’s daughter or not? Example (2) Was Libuše Krok’s daughter or was she someone else’s daughter? Can you spot where the problem is and why this isn’t an either/or question?
3. Question about facts. These are the common “open questions” often starting with the WH- word. They probably provide the most interesting answers.
Where did the delegation find Přemysl?
Now that we’ve looked at the question categories, I’m asking: Can you see their amazing potential?
Some ideas: With your class, look at the three questions they wrote about the Bohemian legend. Correct them so they are accurate. Have your learners classify them into the three categories and write at least one question for any missing category. Using Fanselow’s Read and Look Up method, have your students ask the questions without reading. Focus on fluency and accuracy at the same time. Insist on correct intonation. Insist on correct pronunciation of the weak forms. Repeat this exercise until things get better.
Fanselow proposes a further, horizontal, division of the questions into questions about facts, questions in which readers are inferring from the text, and questions about life experience. He describes the procedure in great detail and provides a lot more explanation than I could give here, so if you want to play with questions, please consult his book.
If you are interested in the teacher asking questions in class, I will point you in two directions. A simple, yet invaluable questioning procedure in beginners’ classes is on Steve Smith’s blog here. I could not teach Czech without these simple questions.
If, however, your learners are more advanced, and seek conversation, learning a language for pleasure and for the art of talking, while you are struggling to ask them questions that would suit their broad horizons, but can only come up with “Did you cook anything interesting last weekend?”, then this article by Jedrek Stepien of Studio Mentals is for you.
Let us finish off in no other way than asking some questions! (I actually asked my children to make them for the purpose of the blog so bear with me, please)
What is more important for a female ruler, conforming to the public opinion or preserving her feminist values?
What do angels do if it’s not Christmas or St. Nicolas Day (when they are busy giving out presents to children)?