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Ask nicely

Pupils need language skills that enable them to ask relevant questions, says Alan Combes

The accent in lessons tends to be on answers and responses rather than the questions themselves. Comprehending the meaning of questions, tackling their grammar and developing the know-how to frame good questions should be much higher on the school agenda.

What is worth knowing is changing at such a fast rate that, in many areas, anyone who claims to be able to give definitive answers is misleading themselves and others. Therefore, equipping learners with the kind of language skills that enable them to ask relevant and skilful questions should be a curriculum entitlement.

Instead of bombarding learners with questions to which they must frame answers, why not stand the process on its head? Give the learners a list of questions and instead of asking for the answers, ask them come up with questions about the questions. See the example in the box.

Another activity involves an adaptation of the famous television panel game What's My Line? A volunteer does a simple mime of performing a job named by the teacher. The class must then ask questions to which the volunteer can only respond with Yes or No. Ten Nos and the class has lost, but a pupil who guesses correctly is next to do a mime.

Watching the quality of questions improve over time is most rewarding. From the unyielding "Do you enjoy your work?" to the more discriminating "Do you have to wear special clothing?" gives evidence of learning. A similar game is Famous People, in which the volunteer takes on the mantle of a celebrity known to all the class, be it Robin Hood, Bart Simpson or Marilyn Monroe.

Understanding questions is a vital skill at GCSE. The exercise below is an adaptation from Postman and Weingartner's 197s classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity (out of print). These are ideal activities for the last five or 10 minutes of a lesson, spread over three lessons.

At first pupils' responses may be cursory and ill-considered. Encourage them to keep going back to the original questions and think about them more carefully.


Look at the list of 12 questions in the box and, instead of answering them, ask:

* Which of the questions can you answer with absolute certainty? What makes you certain of your answer?

* What information will enable you to answer other questions with absolute certainty? Where will you get the information?

* Which questions restrict you to giving factual information? Which do not? Which require no facts at all?

* Which questions require the greatest amount of definition before you try to answer them?

* Which questions require the testimony of experts? What makes somebody an expert?

* Which questions assume the answerer is an expert?

* Which questions may have false assumptions?

* Which questions require predictions as answers? What kinds of information may improve the quality of a prediction?

Alan Combes is an education consultant


1. What is the name of this school?

2. Are the children of permissive parents more creative than the children of non-permissive parents?

3. Who discovered oxygen?

4. Who is Britain's most beautiful woman?

5. Are people on Jupiter more advanced than on Earth?

6. Will it rain tomorrow?

7. How are you?

8. Will you end up with the job of your choosing?

9. Is "love" a noun or a verb?

10. 8 + 5 = ?

11. Why do aeroplanes crash?

12. Will life on Earth be better in 100 years' time?

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