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).

 

E is for Error

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

Coming home one afternoon from my job teaching English to university students, I found my four-year-old son prancing around the kitchen with a beach towel cape around his neck, fighting evil superheroes with a wooden spoon. “Spencer,” I said, “How was your day?”

“Good,” he replied. “I swimmed with Mommy.”

“No!” I sternly reprimanded him. “The verb swim has an irregular past tense verb form!”

No, of course I didn’t say that. It’s not the language or the attitude one uses with a four-year-old. Instead, I employed what is called a recast: “Oh, you swam with Mommy.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “I swam with Mommy.”

Spencer’s use of swimmed is a common but intriguing utterance that gives us an insight into childhood language acquisition. It is highly unlikely that he had ever heard the construction from either his parents or his articulate seven-year-old brother. It’s possible he might have picked it up from one of his four-year-old friends but, more likely, it was an illustration of a young and flexible mind’s ability to generate grammar rules and then apply them in conversation. In this case, Spencer is likely to have intuitively noticed the pattern of regular past formation with ‑ed, in words such as walked (but not run/ran), talked (but not speak/spoke), and napped (but not sleep/slept). He then naturally—and experimentally—applied the formula to the word swim.

But was the resulting utterance a mistake or an error?

Mistakes and errors seem like interchangeable terms but, in linguistic terms, they are quite different. Even the most competent native speakers make countless mistakes in the course of a day’s speech. Often referred to as slips of the tongue, these mistakes tend to be mispronunciations or grammatical lapses that native speakers immediately know are wrong. We mispronounce words when we’re tired, or interrupted, or are speaking more quickly than the speed of thought; our brains and tongues are not in sync.

Similarly, grammatical lapses often occur because we begin saying one thing, and then our thoughts are diverted and we end by saying something else. Typical of this type of mistake are subject-verb agreement issues (Give me one or two apple—I mean apples.). Other common errors are article mistakes (I want the book—I mean, a book.), or preposition mistakes (Get in—I mean on—the bus.). Self-correction is so common that it has its own linguistic label: repair.

In texts and emails, we tend to ignore such problems as the products of stumbling fingers, and in other computer-based writing, our errors might be automatically corrected. In speech, we tend to self-correct unless our message is urgent and/or obvious mistakes are unlikely to interfere with meaning. If the listener knows what was meant, it’s most usually the polite choice not to correct the speaker. On the other hand, a speaker’s mistake that seems like an important point or one that throws the conversation into ambiguity, sometimes prompts a listener to ask for clarification. In the sentence “While I was in Germany, I went to Brussels.” might prompt the listener to query, “Did you mean Brussels or Berlin?” In this case, it might have been a slip of the tongue and the speaker did mean Germany’s capital, Berlin, or perhaps it was about going on an international trip to Belgium’s capital of Brussels.

But what about errors? Continue reading

D is for Discourse Analysis

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

Discourse analysis is about understanding what is not said. Consider this conversation:

Speaker 1: Do you think we could watch a movie?
Speaker 2: Ah, yeah. That’s gonna happen. Have you practiced piano?
Speaker 1: I’ll just get a snack first?
Speaker 2: Sure. We can eat it during the movie.

If you are a native speaker of English, the conversation will strike you as easy to understand and, hopefully, humorous. But that’s because you were able to recognize a series of subtle linguistic cues. These cues are typical in any conversational exchange, but also in written discussions, such as in texts and emails. It’s worth looking at eight types of discourse-analysis cues in detail and seeing how they would apply to this short conversation.

The first cue has to do with the setting, or where the speech event is located in time and space. If you’re a native speaker, you probably realize this conversation takes place at a home in the evening because practicing the piano fits into that particular schemata (mind map of associated ideas). Although people practice piano at music schools, it’s more commonly practiced at home. This is reinforced by the idea of someone asking permission to have a snack and watch a movie, which also gives a clue about the participants.

Participants in a conversation are those who take part in the speech event, and the roles they play. In the short conversation above, the act of asking for something—a snack—helps to define roles and makes it likely that the conversation is between a child and a parent. Continue reading

A is for Authenticity

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty 

Since the 1970s, teachers have been arguing about authenticity in the classroom. As a TESOL professor and textbook writer, I’m often asked whether I’m in favor of authenticity. It seems a simple question, but there are several related ideas to consider: How do we define authenticity? What is a continuum of authenticity? How does authenticity relate to materials, situation, and task? and Where and how do we locate authentic materials?

Defining authenticity
Most definitions of authenticity in the classroom can be reduced to the idea of something not created for use by language learners. In general, although textbooks can contain authentic materials, they are not authentic. On the other hand, we consider a local newspaper, menu, or bus schedule as being authentic; the language is natural and generally more applicable to the needs and interests of our students. This is one of the great strengths of exposing students to authentic materials: Outside the classroom, they continue learning as they encounter additional authentic materials.

A continuum of authenticity
The opposite of authentic materials are those that are inauthentic. Elementary school teachers and teachers of beginners use inauthentic materials such as simplified menus with purely descriptive names (hamburger) rather than confusing brand names (Big Mac®, Whopper®). Other aspects of the menu are similarly set in plain speech to avoid confusion.

But between authentic and inauthentic materials are constructed materials. In making constructed materials, teachers and materials developers usually start with authentic materials but simplify vocabulary, grammar, and even typefaces to make them more pertinent and accessible. In other cases, materials are constructed from scratch, based on different genres. As an experiment, I asked 56 experienced language teachers to review three passages and decide which were authentic and which were constructed. Only three teachers identified all three correctly (Beatty, 2015). If most teachers can’t tell the difference, well-written constructed materials are probably an acceptable alternative. Continue reading