Everyday Questioning

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Photo Credit: Ekspresevim Flickr via Compfight cc

A lot of subjects rely on questioning.  Teachers of English, History, Geography, Science and RE can elicit huge amounts of discussion, understanding and thought through questioning techniques.   Maybe your SLT are keen on Blooms, SAMR,  lolly sticks, think/pair/share or pose/pause/pounce/bounce.  It is first worth remembering that MFL is very different.  This quote sums up much of my thinking around questioning:

“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.”  Quote from Steve Smith Frenchteacher.net

Steve mentions scepticism, not rejection.  I believe that other subjects do have a few things to teach us and some of the CPD I have experienced around questioning can and has been useful.

This post is about some ways to sharpen your questioning in MFL lessons in the classroom.  Some of the thoughts come from experience, others from seeing other colleagues.

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Hands up or no hands up?

In one school that I trained in, hands up was considered pure evil, you simply did not do it.  In the other school, hands up was fine. Since training and teaching I have tended to take a 50-50 approach.  I personally like to see the enthusiasm and speed of recall that hands up reveals.  I also like to challenge my students and keep them on their toes.

It seemed worth summarising the three approaches in a table below so you can make your own decision:

Hands up 50-50 No hands up
Pros Enthusiasm clear.
Students rewarded for effort.
Clear engagement and participation.
Effort rewarded.
Opportunities to build confidence.
Keeps pupils on toes whilst rewarding
keenness.
Keeps everyone on their toes.
Clear engagement
Students forced to pay greater attention.
Might be less likely to pick same kids.
Cons Some students will not put their hands up.
Tendency to pick the ones who know it.
Some students remain unchallenged,
Students will not always be clear on which
is required.
Some students find it very disconcerting.
Could be demoralising if they genuinely do
not know.

Think/pair/share

A much-used technique from other subjects that we can use in MFL.  Tom Sherrington writes about this as “washing hands of learning”.  I was slightly alarmed by the title but I see his point.  This can be a really useful technique when you have presented students with a grammar structure and you want them to work out how it works, rather than simply telling them.  Here is how it works:  THINK:  Give them at least 30 real seconds thinking time on their own (“teacher seconds” are a completely diifferent time frame). PAIR: discuss with partner or table group.  SHARE: share with the class or another group.  Tom writes “in doing this you are creating a small bubble of security around each pair; a safe space where they can think for a while and say whatever they like.”

Going off topic for a second.  Tom Sherrington was a headteacher and his series of pedagogy postcards and great lessons blogs were really useful in my first few years of teaching.  Worth a look.

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Targeted questioning

Who are you selecting?  Who is contributing in your lessons?  One of my colleagues (who will probably read this), talks about first responders and second responders.  I have tried to emulate this.  First responders are any of the following:

  • Pupil Premium, underachievers, disengaged.

Second responders are the rest of the class.

  • More able.
  • English as an additional language.
  • Special educational needs & disabilities.
  • The rest of the class.

Random name generators

Targeted questioning could also be brought about by random name generators.  I’ll be honest.  I am not a massive fan of lolly sticks.  It seems like a lot of preparation every year, you have to have somewhere to keep them and there is a yearly cost implication.  I used to use random name generators and have not used them for a while.  So that is my mission for this week.

Super Teacher Tools is a personal favourite

Classtools.net  has an excellent one

Have you tried stacking the generator slightly?  The first of the two above websites allows up to 40 names and maybe your class is only 28 strong.  Some names could accidentally find their way in there twice or three times.  If the kids start to question this then perhaps remind them that random means the same name could come up 3 times in a row.

You might want to consider when to use these generators as they will not always be appropriate:

Steve Smith (author of The Language Teacher Toolkit) writes the following:

“I understand the theory that we should have the same expectation of all students and that students need to be challenged and ready to respond at any time, but I also believe that as teachers we should be using our skill and knowledge of our students to pitch questions at an appropriate level. This is sensible differentiation. Each student can be challenged at their own level and we know all too well how great the variability is in language learning aptitude.”

With that in mind, let’s look at the next bit…

Planning your questions

There is a story that suggests a child was asked by an inspector what their favourite part of a lesson was.  The child replied “the plenary”.  The inspector was impressed that the child knew the word and pressed them as to why.  The child responded: “because that’s the bit when we get to pack up and go home”.

Most language teachers will conduct a plenary at the end of a lesson.  How many of the plenary questions do you genuinely plan ahead of that time?  Similarly, when you are teaching grammar, what questions have you planned to check understanding?  How are you going to seek the answers?  Who are you going to ask?  What questions could you add to challenge your high achievers?

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No opt out

This comes from Doug Lemov’s “Teach like a Champion”.  Doug insists that “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer.   I would largely agree unless you have asked a question that all students might not know the answer to.  Looking at his ways of implementing this, my personal preference would be for formats 3 and 4.

Format 1. You provide the answer; your student repeats the answer.
Format 2. Another student provides the answer; the initial student repeats the answer.
Format 3. You provide a cue; your student uses it to find the answer.
Format 4. Another student provides a cue; the initial student uses it to find the answer

Source: teach like a champion field guide sample chapter

Occasionally on a reading text when going through answers I may accept that a student didn’t know the answer on number 3 but will tell them that I want the answer to number 8.  They have until I get there to find it.  This way you maintain your standard of everyone trying hard but accept they may simply not have found the answer.  You know your pupils and can decide when this is appropriate.

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