There are two types of oral questions: closed and open. Closed questions expect a specific answer and test what has been learned: Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, for example.
Where a pupil cannot answer a closed question, we tend to ask the same question to a classmate in the rush for the answer. There is a strong case for staying with the pupil who could not answer the question and simplifying the question to enable an answer: "Is the capital of Iceland Rome, Reykjavik or Rio de Janeiro?"
Pitching the follow-up question at the right level can boost a pupil's confidence by enabling them to answer a question they thought impossible.
Encouraging the pupil to locate the answer, in a textbook for example, develops independent learning skills.
Open questions have no "correct" answer, but encourage learners to think.
"Is it acceptable to take illegal drugs?", for example. The teacher develops thinking by following up an answer with "counter" questions. Thus, the response "yes" can be met with, "But what if you're a teacher? Is it acceptable to smoke marijuana in your lunch break?" The answer "no" can elicit the reply: "But what if you're not doing anyone any harm?"
It is important to recognise individual contributions to discussions - a "thank you" will suffice - and, in mixed groups, to ensure that alternate questions are answered by a girl and a boy. If you've done it well, your pupils will leave the lesson still debating among themselves.
Tony Elston is head of modern languages at Urmston grammar school, Manchester. Have you any useful tips for new teachers? We pay pound;50 for all tips published. Send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org