Throughout my training and first years of teaching, I was often asked to focus on varied questioning techniques. The usual ones that were put forward were ‘no hands up’ and using a bunch of colourful lolly-pop sticks as selectors. Apart from the obvious draw of having an ‘actual reason’ to demolish 30 Fabs, I didn’t find either of these particularly useful in the classroom.
We all ask questions every day; they are a natural and instinctive part of learning and curiosity. In the classroom, we ask questions to cultivate a fluid and positive atmosphere and to discover the views, ideas and knowledge of our students. Questioning is also a powerful tool that fosters memory recall – a skill that is incredibly important to develop with the current expectations at GCSE and therefore something that we aim to promote from early on in education.
Setting the tone for your questioning strategy early on in the year is, as with many things, the best way to allow students to become accustomed to the expectations and therefore what is a ‘normal’ (and not scary) prospect in your classroom. Here are some questioning techniques my students really enjoy.
#1 Key Questions
Instead of or as well as a learning focus/objective, write key questions on the board that students should aim to answer by the end of the lesson.
- Use fact based questions that are answered through reading/teacher direction/discussion. Students must try to detect the answers as the lesson develops and hold up a green card if they think they’ve spotted or worked out the answer.
- A key question may be discursive. For example: ‘How do you interpret Frankenstein’s relationship with the monster in this scene?’ By showing these types of questions at the beginning of the lesson can change everything – teaching the content without the question and then springing it on them at the end can be counter-intuitive.
#2 Bridge the Gap
Questioning can be used to bridge the gap between activities. Having these questions carefully prepared means that they can be used to maximum potential. This also enables you to actually differentiate in a sensitive way. It doesn’t take long to prepare and can have a brilliant impact!
- Students have just completed some reading or a content based activity. You want them to explore the next stage – perhaps a process or an analysis.
- Questions need to be asked directly to specific students and in an order so that the answers revealed develop into a conclusion. It’s tricky to question every child, so if any who are questioned stumble, development and support from others can be relied upon – here’s an example for Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde:
Now that we’ve read the passage…
- What might the word ‘ape’ suggest in the quotation ‘ape-like fury’?
- What could this lead us to believe about Hyde’s character?
- What about ‘fury’? What do you think he might look like in this state?
- What other words could we use to describe this state of being?
- What do you think the traditionalist Victorians might have thought of this?
- Which famous naturalist and biologist introduced his theory of evolution in the 1800s?
- What does ‘evolution’ mean?
- What is its antonym?
- How might we link this to the quotation ‘ape-like fury’?
- Why might this have been terrifying to a contemporary reader?
#3 Chatter Box
I stole this idea from a lovely colleague, so I can’t take credit! This activity puts memory recall to the test. It also adds a little pressure, which is a feeling that should not be frightening and therefore should be experienced in the classroom. It’s a fast paced activity and good fun.
- In pairs, students are each given a selection of questions on strips of paper. They must keep these upside down. The questions should be on the topic/text and the questions need to be ‘open’. For example: What can you tell me about Lady Macbeth?
- The teacher times a minute as the first student in the pair unfolds a question and reads it to their partner. Their partner must then speak for the whole minute answering the question. The next time is 50 seconds and turns are taken to read/answer until only 10 seconds remain.
#4 A Hundred Questions
This activity encourages curiosity and pushes students to think outside the box. Effectively, they must think of all the possible questions they might ask about a particular topic/text. This works really well when studying extracts from texts.
- Read the extract, but ensure some mystery is left to be considered. Students describe the event/character in a couple of words in the middle of their page. For example, reading a scene from The Woman in White, they simply write: ‘Woman in white is out late at night, alone’.
- This is where the 5ws can be used to support students.
- Around the edge of the page, students need to write all the possible questions they can think to ask about the event or character.
- These are then shared with the class and can lead to great discussions about various theories. This activity is particularly effective for building up tension or suspense for when you eventually read the rest of the extract.
#5 Picture It
This questioning technique aims to foster positive self-esteem. Having confidence in their own ideas and feeling comfortable with putting forward notions that may be considered ‘wrong’ is a key step to learning.
- Project an image on the board. A landscape or cityscape tend to work best. The idea is that students should think about key characters, themes, messages and events in the text they are studying metaphorically. This is also a powerful way to develop evaluative and interpretive skills.
- In pairs, or as a class, students observe the picture and write a series of questions about how parts of it could represent the aspects of the text they have been studying. They then ask each other these questions and develop interpretations; these are then shared with the class. For example: How does the bird represent Mr Birling’s character? Mr Birling’s character is represented by the bird in the tree: he is capable of flying to the top by marrying above his station and through making money, but a stone or the wind might topple him. Like a bird, he sings loudly, but is fragile and easy to catch (out)!