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Pace, challenge and questions

I'd like to come back to an issue I have blogged about before: questioning.

Here is part of a very good page from the From Good to Outstanding site.

Questioning can fail because:
  • questioning techniques are inappropriate for the material.
  • there may be an unconscious gender bias.
  • there may be an unconscious bias towards most able or more demanding students.
  • levels of questions might be targeted to different abilities inappropriately.
  • students don’t have enough thinking time.
  • learners don’t have any idea as to whether they are the only ones to get it wrong/right.
  • learners fear being seen by their peers to be wrong.
  • questions are too difficult.
  • questions are too easy.
Questioning succeeds when:
  • all learners get a chance to answer.
  • learners can see how others are thinking.
  • teachers gain information about thinking and learning.
  • learners have time to consider their answers.
  • learners have time to discuss and follow up on their answers.
  • the answers are not always clear-cut.
  • learners feel safe to answer.
  • questions stimulate more questions.
  • questions stimulate thinking
Some of the above points are certainly relevant to MFL teachers, but some may not be.

Let's first take the issue of thinking time. Language teachers are usually encouraged to generate pace in their lessons as well as challenge. Pace is important because it probably reduces the potential for boredom and it helps to develop quick, alert responses. In language teaching we are sometimes working on the behaviourist dimension of learning, depending less on analysis, more on stimulus-response and unconsciously acquired knowledge developed through sheer practice and repetition. Reflective analysis comes into play when we are teaching a grammatical concept. In a typical questioning sequence for beginners or near beginners we therefore do not want to give too long to reflect.

Secondly, the claim that all questions should be answerable by all pupils needs critical reflection. An important part of skilled language teaching is the capacity to pitch questions at different levels of difficulty depending on the student. I would argue that if all questions were answerable then some must be too easy for the most able. There is, therefore, a case for differentiated questioning with hands-up. This may especially be the case with intermediate or advanced students.

Thirdly, let us look at the notion that questions should not be too easy. In some language teaching sequences we deliberately choose to make questions easy and answerable because the questioning has a different purpose to that in other subject areas. Questions are used as a form of structured drilling, a kind of artificial game where the main aim is to teach and practise a structure rather than to focus on declarative knowledge.

Take this sequence:

Teacher: Is it a pen or a book?
Pupil 1: It's a book?
Teacher: Is it a book?
Pupil: Yes, it's book.
Teacher: Is it a pen?
Pupil 3: No, it's a book.
Teacher: All together - it's a book.
All pupils: It's a book.

Now, to a language teacher, this is is all very valid questioning  because the focus is on form rather than meaning. The questions are all very easy, not very challenging and barely constitute real communication at all. The aim of the questions is not to elicit knowledge, but to allow for instant response and repetition. In the long run, the ability to reply quickly without reflective thought is what will make a student a successful speaker and listener.

I only make these points to highlight the fact that language teaching is not like the teaching of, say, mathematics or history. Much of our questioning is of a special type, with the purpose of developing internalised competence with grammar, vocabulary and, ultimately, fluency. Language teachers must therefore treat the most recent recent pronouncements on questioning technique with at least a degree of scepticism.


  1. This very succintly puts into words exactly the point I have tried to make every time someone visits my department and doesn't understand that we cannot 'question' like other subjects. I am printing this out for my departmental base wall. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for your comment. With regard to no-hands up questioning, our department tried it with a couple of Y7 classes and found it frustrating. Our pupils have a good record of high achievement based on fast paced lessons with plenty of hands up and enthusiasm. We concluded that no-hands up questioning was alright in small doses, just to change the dynamic of a lesson, but that it slowed things up too much and frustrated the most able.


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