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Feb 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Using Questions the Way We Did back in the Last Millennium

Mario Rinvolucri is a Pilgrims Associate and co-author with Jane Arnold and Herbert  Puchta of Imagine That – Mental Imagery in the ELT Classroom, published by Helbling. The same text has been brought out in a Spanish version by Helbling, Para profesore y alumnos de ELE.


Students prepare their own comprehension questions

In class

  1. Ask your students to ignore the comprehension questions in their coursebook.
  2. Ask them to read the coursebook text through a couple of times and write 10 comp questions, each one addressed to a different member of the class. Go round helping them with language.
  3. Tell the students to get up and move around the room. They put their questions to the different people they have chosen.
  4. Round off the exercise by asking them to go back and quietly read the text again. Any doubts they still have they put to you, the teacher.



It is plain crazy for the coursebook writer to think s/he is in a position to know what the individual student will fail to understand in a text. Minimum respect for the learner surely requires that we allow them to individually define their own areas of wobble or ignorance. Think of the amount of paper that would be saved if coursebook writers and publishers were to grasp this simple notion.

It is remarkable how well students often manage to pick a relevant classmate to answer a particular question. It is clear that the choice of question-answerer is far from random.

I learnt this technique from Marjorie and Richard Baudains back in the 1980’s.

Why is this simplest of techniques only used across the globe by maybe one in ten thousand teachers?  (Maybe I am hopelessly optimistic!)

This way of elucidating text is not confined to language classes- It can be used in working on a text in any subject.


The teacher prepares imagination-expanding questions about the chosen text

Here I am going offer you a very short text just to demonstrate the method:


Baa-baa black sheep have you any wool?                                                                                                                          

Yes Sir, Yes Sir three bags full.

One for my master and one for my dame

and one for the little boy who lives down the lane.


Here are a possible set of mind-expanding questions:

                        Is the baa-ing sound near or far away, in your mind?

                        Does the scene take place in your country or somewhere else?

                        Where are they speaking, indoors or outdoors?

                        What can you see behind the speakers?

                        As you listen to them, do you yourself feel warm or cold?

                        What kind of little boy is he?

                        Is it important that he lives “down the lane” and if so why?

                        What is the lady, the dame, wearing?

                        Is she at all like your mother?

                        Does this poem remind you of anything you have read in your own language?

                        Why is there no shepherd in the poem or nursery rhyme?

                        Do you like the nursery rhyme and if so, why?


In class

  1. Read the text to the students slowly, then a little faster and then very fast.
  2. Give out the text and let the students read it silently a couple of times. Answer any language questions they have.
  3. Get different students reading the rhyme to the whole class softly, loudly, sweetly, tiredly, seductively, angrily.
  4. Group the students in small groups of four or five, and give out the questions.
  5. Tell them to give their different answers to the questions in their groups. Make clear that they are each answering from their own imaginations and that there is no “right” reply.
  6. Bring the class back together and ask students to tell the whole class which answers they most liked from the small group work.



Please don’t let the choice of a nursery rhyme colour your way of thinking about this activity… any humanly focused text will fit the bill.


A bit of theory

Whenever you read a text you will elaborate it in your own mind. The aim of the exercise is to get students to consciously notice that they do this a lot and might as well enjoy it and share it. You could say that this way of reading is enrichment and a personalising of the foreign language text. Hopefully it makes the FL less, cold, less bizarre, less at arm’s length. You’ll find an example of this idea more fully explained in John Morgan’s ONCE UPON A TIME, Cambridge University Press; the book is still available on the market if a client asks the Press for it.


My life story outlined in 20 questions

In class

1 Ask your students to write 15 to 20 questions that cover their autobiography so far.

2 Give them half a dozen examples of what you might write if you were doing the activity as 

   a student:

                                   Where was I born?

                                    Was this birthplace important in my life?

                                    What big event happened when I was three?

                                    Why did I only go to primary school for one autumn term?


4 Ask your students to put one of these three messages on their desk:

                                    CORRECT MY WRITING WHEN YOU WANT

                                    LEAVE ME IN PEACE TO WRITE WHAT I CAN

                                    HELP ME IF I CALL YOU, AND ONLY THEN

5 Tell your students to get writing.  You should strictly obey the instructions on their desks

6 Ask the students to work in pairs and answer the questions they have written about

    themselves. This can develop into seriously involving pair work.



You may well ask why you should ask the students to write in the interrogative form about things they probably regard as factual.  The question form invites them to think more openly and enquiringly about these facts and to be more open to new ideas about apparently well known things.

You may well ask whether an FL language classroom is the right place to deal with content that is pretty personal?  It is by dealing with areas of personal concern that you help students to feel that English is as much a real language as their mother tongue has always been for them without them thinking about it consciously. If you want to explore this idea further                                        have a look at Bernard Dufeu’s  OUP book, TEACHING MYSELF.


Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.         

Tagged  golden classics 
  • Golden Classics: A Blast From the Past
    Magda Zamorska, Poland

  • Using Questions the Way We Did back in the Last Millennium
    Mario Rinvolucri, UK