Count the number of questions you can find in a coursebook unit... that the learners are encouraged to come up with on their own.
Image: Valerie Everett
I recall one of those smoke break conversations with a teaching colleague out on the stairwell between classes some years ago when we were discussing the concept of interactive as well as active versus passive language use. We were imagining the sort of situation where an English language learner (B), in a conversation with other English speakers (A), was asked why he/she didn't appear to be all that talkative:
A: Sorry to ask this, but are we making you feel uncomfortable?
B: No, not at all.
A: Well, you just seem so awfully quiet... Is it because you're shy?
B: Maybe a little. But that's not the problem. I'd talk to you more if you asked me more questions!
We'd come up with this based on some reflection about the coursebooks we were using (mine included, I must confess!) and how full of pre-provided questions they were. But when we attempted to count up the number of places in the books where learners were encouraged (and/or shown) how to come up with questions of their own, the tally was surprisingly low.
Actually, shockingly low. In almost every case (with every coursebook we recalled using) the tally was zero.
Hence our hypothetical conversation and the notion that English coursework concentrates so heavily on learners answering pre-set questions that, in more natural interactive situations, most learners may only be willing to speak if spoken to (or questioned in some way). In so many ways, the coursework trains them to be enthusiastically reactive, but not proactive.
Another flow-on effect of this is that, even when learners finally get around to asking questions of their own, there are often genuine problems for learners (on various levels: grammar, politeness, etc.) as they attempt to construct and apply them. Frustrations with misunderstandings and lack of fluency are an all too common result. Reading letters can only help you so much in terms of learning how to write your own. Eventually you need to do it, and to become good at it, you need to do it a lot.
Personally, I wasn't immediately worried about this, as I had constantly supplemented any of my coursebook use with open opportunities for the learners to come up with and apply their own questions with classmates, whether it was in application to input (like reading or listening texts) or more oriented around discussion or writing skills. But when I asked around with more teachers, I came to realise that not only was my approach an exception, but teachers certainly saw the sense in creating a lot more opportunities for learners to get their own questions happening -- but generally didn't.
I investigated a little further and came up with some of the usual suspects. Not enough time. Too busy getting through the set coursework and learning objectives. Blank looks and dead quiet during the attempts to have the learners take over some of the questioning. That sort of thing.
That got me thinking... Given time pressures with coursework and the potential problems with having learner-driven enquiry basically happen in 'between coursebook parts' ether, I figured the best idea would be to make open questions (and question design) an intrinsic part of the formal course material.
As part of my inhouse materials for courses, I began to apply a simple system that was much more oriented around having learners themselves come up with more of the questions. This approach did take on board the idea that this would be potentially difficult and, for some learners used to the standard modus operandi (of having all questions given to them or applied to them), perhaps even somewhat like being thrown into the deep end of the pool when every other swimming lesson had happened down at the shallow end.
So the system sort of worked like this:
Provision of questions for the learners (as per the usual coursebook approach), but with the inclusion of many more creative and open-ended examples.
Provision of question options (as in, the learners could select which questions they would like to ask to other students, sometimes with options including inaccurately composed questions or partially or wholly non-sensical or irrelevant ones).
Provision of "half" questions (basically the beginning of prompts which the learners could then shape to create their own questions).
Fully open question composition, with a variety of blank templates into which questions could be written and applied.
In stages B, C and D, the templates included a dedicated section called "teacher's choice". This space was for a question that the teacher designed and which all learners would note down in the same place on the page. The general idea of "teacher's choice" was that a teacher could monitor the sorts of questions and channels of enquiry happening in class and come up with his/her own specific question to explore an enquiry the class hadn't considered or demonstrated, and/or highlighting a particular comprehension or communication skill. This question, written out by the teacher on the whiteboard and copied down by the students in their books in a designated place, creates a centralised question for the class but also a model for the learners to apply in future applications of partly or fully open templates.
Below you can see an example template for Stage D in the process explained above, in this case as a learner-composed set of questions in response to a provided reading text:
As you can see here, there are some general "shaped spaces" to direct some of the questions (1, 2, and 4 are designed to create open or true/false style questions; 3 is for a multiple-choice style question; 5 is the "teacher's choice" question; and 6 is a completely open space for anything from diagrams to vocabulary quizzes -- whatever the learners are creative enough to come up with!), but the learners themselves are very much in the driver's seat when it comes to question selection, composition and application.
The general idea here is that the learners get to work on creating their own questions (1-4), while the teacher circulates through the classroom and gives learners tips or ideas as the questions are composed (admittedly can be a challenge in quite large classes). The learners then can then hand their books to a classmate and have them write in answers, or provide the answers in advance (in writing) and make the questions an oral activity with classmates, or an oral activity shared with the entire classroom.
The teacher then provides question 5, which is copied down and answered and discussed as a class. along with any tips or skills the teacher would like to pass on.
Learners then return to designing their own question for number 6, which (as mentioned above) is extremely open and can be applied in whatever creative fashion the learners would like to try out.
Having used this sort of approach in first my own classes, and then across a team of teachers as part of a regular curriculum, I must say there are some enormous advantages that come out of it:
1. There is no better way to "test" a learner's comprehension about something they have read or listened to than to take a look at the sorts of questions and answers they come up with about it fully on their own.
2. Question composition is ripe with opportunities to develop language awareness and accuracy within a genuinely communicative task.
3. Learners' questions don't just show you what they understand, they show you what they think they understand (sometimes wrongly), what they think might be important to focus on, and -- perhaps most importantly -- what they are interested in talking about or drawing from input.
4. Questions generated across a class result in a beautiful variety of different prompts and streams of enquiry. Certainly a lot more than you expect from a pre-written selection of 5-6 questions.
5. Regular application of learner-generated Q&A in written form often results in more confidence to engage in informal, interactive oral questioning and answering in the classroom in application to other tasks.
6. The inclusion of a teacher's choice question allows for a curriculum of different skills to be applied, but also allows teachers to target individual classes in terms of what they judge might be of most use or interest to them.
7. Open question composition like this results in a lot of surprises for teachers, encouraging them to listen more to the learners and see and go with different forms of flow in the classroom.
Admittedly, learners (and a lot of teachers) freak out a bit when this sort of open template is handed to them for the first time. But in my experience they soon work through that initial hesitation and doubt and quickly begin to fly with it (the activity itself is not the main problem: it is what teachers and learners have come to expect and accept as the "standard" way of doing things through prior learning experience).
A question some teachers out there reading this post might come up with at this point is: if this makes sense and could be a real boon in language classrooms, why don't we see this sort of open template use in standard coursebooks? Why do our coursebooks continue to provide all of the input, all of the questions, all of the activities, all of it pre-set and supplemented with copious amounts of what appears to be (more of) the same?
Apologies in advance: I don't particularly subscribe to the conspiracy theories that abound in some sectors when it comes to coursebooks and why they're made the way they are.
To be realistic, this approach (like many others) has worked for me because either (a) I applied it through inhouse coursebooks in settings where I could rationalise it, support it, and push it through based on a track record of doing some "out of the box" things with the curriculum that resulted in evidence of positive learning and positive feedback from the learners, or (b) I was working as an individual teacher in a setting which respected my right to experiment and try different approaches in the classroom.
From the commercial coursebook perspective, there is the very realistic argument that coursebooks with blank sections like this in them are likely to upset teachers and schools in a lot of contexts. They may feel that such materials represent something less than value for money ("what are we paying you for if not to have material, questions and activities provided in the form of an organised course???").
The reality is that most of the world's ELTers are asking the publishers for more in the way of pre-provided material and learning activities, not less. Often (considering schedules, pay rates, and access to professional development) with good reason. And the more they are handed, the less time and inclination they have to apply more learner-driven activities like open question composition and application -- necessarily in supplement-form because they can't be embedded in coursebooks because of the "value for money" issue identified above. Even the very liberal and creative coursebook writers out there who recommend these sorts of activities in their teacher's guides often end up feeling spurned or even typecast because -- let's face it -- not that many teachers actually end up with TGs or show an inclination to read and take them seriously.
I guess in the end, this all comes down to you. The decisions you make about what materials to use in the classroom, how much room you create to include more learner-generated material, and -- I think this is becoming increasingly important -- the feedback and requests you take the time to pass on to the publishers (if through necessity or choice you've decided you need their stuff).
I think I just hijacked my own blog post...
Anyway, if you want to try doing things a little differently, with some potentially great results, try getting your learners to ask as many (of their own) questions as they can. At least as many as they answer through pre-set, pre-cooked coursework!