Q is for Questions

Q is for Questions

by Dr. Ken Beatty

When is a question not a question?

This is not a zen koan, or mystery meant to make you to reflect on the meaning of life; the answer is “When it’s a rhetorical question.”

Rhetorical questions are one of many question types that language learners find challenging both to understand and, in this case, to answer. It does not seem to help that the students will likely have been exposed to rhetorical questions in their first languages; there is often little or no transfer. This is perhaps because an intense focus on trying to understand and participate in conversations distracts language learners. They struggle to give an answer to a rhetorical question when none is expected.

Like other question types, rhetorical questions have a range of specific purposes. The first of these purposes is to stimulate the listener into considering the answer and, if the speaker is successful, coming to a common conclusion. Consider these examples of rhetorical questions, all of which can be confusing to the second language learner:

  • Do cows fly?
  • What will the future bring?
  • Why are some people still ignorant about climate change?

The first example is used to indicate that the answer to the question being asked is obvious. If someone asked you, “Are you hungry?” and you replied, “Do cows fly?” it would be perceived as a clever way of saying no. This is because the answer to your question — “No, cows do not fly.” — is both obvious and in the negative, so it says no by extension.

“Why didn’t you just say ‘no’?” the frustrated language learner might ask.

The second rhetorical question has a different purpose. It’s an example of a question for which the answer is either unknowable or so broad as to be unanswerable. Instead, this type of rhetorical question is often used to set up ideas that follow. It ensures that speaker and listeners have a common focus. In this case, the common focus is on the future and listeners can expect the speaker to share additional questions and ideas on that topic.

The third example, about climate change, narrows the topic by setting out a point of view. Listeners will recognize that the speaker will likely follow the question with criticisms of some people’s ignorance of science. The question may pique your interest in the topic but, if you are neither intrigued nor of the same opinion, you might decide that you do not want to hear any more and stop listening.

As the above questions show, wh‑ words are often used to front questions, as do forms of the verbs be, do, and have. In particular, be, do, and have are often used in tag questions, where a statement is followed by a couple of words to check agreement.

  • That’s a flying cow, isn’t it?
  • Cows fly, don’t they? (Note that do after cows is understood and can be omitted.)
  • You’ve seen cows fly, haven’t you?

Tag questions also have negative forms. Note how the affirmative and negative forms of the verb are balanced in opposition at either end of the sentence in the examples above and below.

  • There aren’t any flying cows, are there?
  • You don’t ever see cows fly, do you?
  • You haven’t seen cows fly, have you?

Modals, such as can, could, may, might, should, and would are also used to form tag questions.

  • You should be careful around flying cows, shouldn’t you?

Along with who, what, when, where, why, and how, modals are used to form questions, but language learners often think the only purpose of such questions is an earnest request for information.

Wrong.

Questions have many purposes, and understanding speakers’ intentions is necessary for true comprehension of deeper meanings.

Like rhetorical questions, an impolite question such as, “Are you a fool?” neither needs an answer, nor does it deserve one. Instead, a listener has to understand that the speaker’s intention is to criticize, reprimand, or ridicule. Similarly, when I was young, a common question in my home was a rhetorical question used to reprimand me, “If your brother jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff too?” referencing my somewhat wilder older brother’s tendency to do excitingly dangerous things that I would often imitate. Though two years younger, I was somehow expected to be more sensible (but I probably would have jumped off a cliff if my brother did it first).

Less offensive questions include hypothetical questions. These resemble rhetorical questions because they sometimes deal with obscure or impossible ideas but often have another purpose: they may be thought experiments. Consider this question:

  • What would chairs look like if our knees bent in the opposite direction?

Hearing this, you might be tempted to reject the question altogether. But this was an actual task at a leading design school, and the purpose was to get students to think outside of the box, testing their design skills against a novel problem. It was meant to break the habit of recycling old ideas of, in this case, what a chair should look like and do.

With all questions, and perhaps particularly with hypothetical questions, it’s common to ask follow-up questions, which, in interviews, are sometimes called probing questions. Language learners often struggle with asking follow-up questions. In a conversation, they may ask a question, get an answer they do not understand, and then worry that everyone else does understand. So they remain quiet rather than take the risk of embarrassing themselves. Of course, this happens to many native speakers as well, but it’s especially unfortunate in the language classroom, which should be a welcoming space where students feel comfortable asking questions and making mistakes. However, at the same time, conversational etiquette discourages someone from asking so many questions that overly interrupt a speaker’s flow during a speech or lecture.

  • Hypothetical question: What would farms look like if cows could fly?
  • Question: Do you mean that cows would have wings?
  • Answer: Yes!
  • Follow-up tag question: Then, in terms of physics, the wings would have to be enormous, wouldn’t they?

Follow-up questions are often clarification questions, where only one detail needs to be confirmed:

  • By wings, do you mean like bat wings or feathered bird wings?

This clarification question is an example of one of the two most common question types: closed-ended questions. Closed-ended questions are ones for which there are only one or two basic answers such as yes or no:

  • Would you like to see a flying cow?
  • Yes! / No!

Open-ended questions give the speaker more of an opportunity to share ideas:

  • Why do you think cows might want to fly?

With open-ended questions, a simple binary answer is not possible, and the conversational expectation is that you will think more deeply on the question.

Another type of question that can be troubling for language learners is reduced-form questions. These questions assume that both people in a conversation understand the context, so one or two words can take the place of a question.

  • I just saw a flying cow!
  • Where?

The full form of the question would be “Where did you just see a flying cow?” but the reduced form makes for more efficient discourse and, if other speakers do not understand, then they can always ask a clarification question.

With so many question types, it’s important for language teachers to use a mix in their classrooms and that students get the opportunities to ask and answer them.

Just be careful about flying cows.

Tasks for Teachers

  1. Record one or more of your classes. Then check how many questions you have asked and whether they are spread across a range of question types or whether they are more limited to factual questions and closed-ended questions. Do you give students time to answer the questions you ask? Check how many seconds typically elapse before you volunteer an answer yourself.
  2. Before a class, consider your topic and prepare a list of questions using each of the types listed above. Try fitting them into the class and see how natural or difficult it is to do so. Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy and ask more creative and analytical questions rather than just factual ones.

Tasks for Learners

  1. The Feynman Technique is an approach to learning that starts with asking yourself what you know about a topic and then listing all the questions you have. Try this at the start of a week in one of your classes and see how many of your questions are answered. Ask other students and your teacher for answers to your remaining questions.
  2. Play a follow-up question game. One group begins with a simple statement, such as “There are many stars in the universe.” One student from the second group asks a question, such as, “How many stars are there in the universe?” Another student from the first group has to guess or answer (more than 100 billion), and the third student asks a follow-up question about the answer. The game continues until one of three things happens: the first group cannot think of an answer; the second group cannot think of a question; or either an answer or a question is repeated. Keep score!

Dr. Ken Beatty, teacher trainer, writer, and TESOL Professor, has promoted best teaching and learning practices from primary through university levels in 300+ sessions in 33 countries. Ken is author of 140+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).

 

P is for Pronunciation

Ken Beatty Dr. Ken Beatty

The best gift I ever received was three large boxes of books. My much-older cousin, Donald, was a doctoral student in oceanography and was due to spend the better part of a year far from our homes in Vancouver, Canada, sailing in the Russian arctic. Before he left, he piled about 300 paperback science-fiction novels and short-story collections into boxes and deposited them at my feet with the words, “I think you will enjoy these.”

I was 12, it was the first day of summer vacation, and I was hooked. Over the next lazy months and into the fall, I read obsessively.

I finished them all.

The consequences, I realize now, were profound. My reading speed and vocabulary certainly increased. My imagination was sparked, as was my critical thinking: “How could that alien dinosaur find anything to eat on that dusty moon?!” But one small casualty of the epic reading binge was my pronunciation.

When any language learner acquires vocabulary, there can be mismatches between hearing and comprehension. This is extremely common when we mishear song lyrics, such as the lines of the Bob Dylan song: “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” which some have misheard as “The ants are my friends, blowin’ in the wind.”

This type of error points to the mental mechanisms our brains try to employ to make sense of what we hear, approximating new strings of sounds like a smartphone app to find the closest pronunciation that provides meaning. However, in my case, my error was typical of those who learn new vocabulary through reading. For some reason, I had read the word robot over and over, mentally pronouncing it as row-but (IPA / roʊ bʌt /) rather than the standard (for my local Canadian dialect) robot, row-bought (IPA / roʊ bɑt /). Through my adolescence, no one corrected me or, if they did, I paid them no mind.

The blame is not exclusively mine. In large part, it has to do with the irrational nature of English pronunciation. Variations occur to such an extent that it’s questionable whether or not we should teach many of them. In 1922, a Dutch writer by the name of G. Nolst Trenité compiled about 800 challenging words into one poem that he called The Chaos. Most native English speakers have difficulty getting through the poem without making a dozen or more errors. Try it yourself, reading the following 13 lines aloud at a brisk pace (the full poem is further below):

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)

Even with the assistance of the rhyming portions, pronouncing the poem correctly is still a challenge and surprisingly typical of the pronunciation hurdles that learners need to leap over to communicate successfully.

How can teachers help? It begins with understanding the complex nature of pronunciation.

First, as seen with the Bob Dylan example, the brain has to understand what is being heard and match the sounds to meaningful words. Part of this is deciding what is significant in pronunciation. For example, some Asian languages have a different perception of the significance of r and l when they listen and speak. Other languages, and even other English dialects, feature other differences. In addition, native English speakers routinely drop sounds at the start, middle, or end of words, often blending them together or changing sounds so that a simple question like What’s up? becomes Wassup?

Once the sound is understood, there are a variety of physiological issues that go into pronunciation. These include processes that occur in the throat with the control of air, with shaping the mouth, and through arranging the tongue and lips. For students whose languages do not include the same consonant and vowel sounds, there is a learning curve to control the organs of speech. There are additionally cultural issues, such as a reluctance to show the tongue during the pronunciation of l sounds.

Here are five tips to help learners.

1. Separate pronunciation from other lessons. Too often, teachers will correct grammar, usage, and pronunciation together, leading to criticisms like, “That’s the wrong word, and not the right part of speech, and you’re saying it wrong.” Make pronunciation its own lesson.

2. Listen to decide when a student’s errors are simple one-time mistakes or more systematic pronunciation errors that need to be remediated. Let simple mistakes slide so you can focus on the more important errors.

3. Consider when to use implicit and explicit correction. Implicit correction involves repeating what the student has said, but with the correct pronunciation. Explicit involves explaining why the pronunciation is wrong.

4. Use visual aids to make the learning memorable. These might include a chart of a cutaway view of the mouth, tongue, and teeth to show where pronunciation occurs. A colleague used to bring his son’s toy hammer and toy pliers to the classroom. He used the hammer to beat out the rhythm and intonation of sentences on the desks and threatened to use the pliers to pull out students’ tongues when they failed to pronounce l sounds effectively.

5. Instead of always focusing on what is wrong, take time to praise the weakest students when they pronounce something correctly. This shifts students from thinking that they have poor pronunciation to the idea that they have problems pronouncing some words and, with practice, can improve.

I’m an example! After several decades, I’ve learned to pronounce robot!

Tasks for Teachers

1. Ask students to choose a short piece of writing that interests them and that is appropriate to their age and level. Have them record it, checking their pronunciation, and rerecording it until they are satisfied that it is their best effort. Ask them to check it with peers before sharing it with you or the class.

2. Ask students to find a recorded piece of dialogue, such as a speech, and record themselves reading it. Ask them to compare their pronunciation to that of the recording in the same way. Ask them to check with peers.

Tasks for Learners

1. Read the poem The Chaos by G. Nolst Trenité in a group. Help each other by first underlining the words you already know and know how to pronounce, and then teach them to others in the group. Some words, like Melpomene and Terpsichore (goddesses of tragedy and dance, respectively) are uncommon, but you can look up the pronunciation anyway.

The Chaos
by G. Nolst Trenité

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

2. Pick ten or so words from The Chaos to write your own poem or story. Share it with other students.

References

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D.M. & Snow, M.A. (eds.) (2014) Teaching English as a second or foreign language (4th ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Dylan, B. (1963). Blowin’ in the wind. The freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. New York: Columbia Records.

Trenité, G. N. (1922). The chaos. Retrieved from: http://ncf.idallen.com/english.html

Dr. Ken Beatty, teacher trainer, writer, and TESOL Professor, has promoted best teaching and learning practices from primary through university levels in 300+ sessions in 31 countries. Ken is author of 130+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).

M is for Motivation

Ken Beatty  Dr. Ken Beatty

“Daddy, can I please help take out the garbage?”

Now that my sons are teenagers, it’s been a while since I’ve heard requests like that. But when they were young, even the most mundane events and tasks seemed to appeal to them as exciting experiences and learning opportunities.

What changed?

All children learn, but some learn better, faster, and more easily than others. Certainly some learners are more able or less able, but a key difference in any learner’s acquisition of knowledge is motivation.

Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation, or internalized motivation, is one in which learners find their own personal reasons for learning. Extrinsic, or externalized, motivation is when learners are driven by others’ ideas of what to learn, how to learn it, and how success in learning might be measured. A challenge for teachers is how to move extrinsically motivated learners to become intrinsically motivated ones. Achieving this shift fosters better attitudes toward learning and develops a culture of lifelong learning. Continue reading