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June 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Are You Talking to Me? The Importance of Asking Questions

Giulia Sepe is a teacher at Hablaworld Learning Center. She is interested in the neurological side of language learning. She has already published about teaching dialects (Quaderni Migranti, Italian), editing an essay using art (GRAO Revista, Spanish), BICS and CALP learning skills (ETP, English). Her current professional interests are creation of language materials, process-approach to writing, neuro-linguistics. Email: 



“Teach students to ask questions instead of answering them” said Bowker M.H. in an inspiring article in 2010, where he encouraged teachers to provoke children’s curiosity, and booster critical thinking. He suggested to provide only the answer, to then lead students to guess what the correspondent question might be. This, of course, led to more and more different questions, and that was exactly the purpose: if they were able to ask questions themselves, he says, it would be less difficult to answer them. Had not he addressed children in primary school, this would be the perfect technique for my English classes for adults. Notwithstanding, it provided me with an insightful question: how interesting is it to be the one answering, and how powerful is it to be the one posing the question?.

I tried to adapt the concept to my language class, using the star method. This consists of writing five answers in form of words only (i.e. Edinburgh, one, pasta etc.) on the five edges of a star on the whiteboard, and then ask students to formulate the appropriate questions that would give those answers (i.e. “What is your favourite city?”, “How many sisters do you have?” etc.). They had been warned that the questions were unpredictable (i.e. the question for pasta could be “what did your flatmate cook last night?”). It’s incredible how powerful this warmer is, as when it comes to the students writing their answers and letting their partner guess the question, the results are extremely creative. Whereas the predictable, “safe” answer (and some of the few attempts are) would be “What is your favourite food?”, students get to propose sentences like “What would you like to eat tonight?”, “What is your mom’s favourite food?”.  In other words, I see my students using the language outside of the “language boxes”, trying to create new questions, making the language personal and significant. Indeed, an emotional response. 

Thus, the question comes natural: “What happens in our brains when we answer a question?”

Neurological explanation

I am not an expert nor do I pretend to be, and I will try to answer this question at my best, from my own knowledge and my own understanding, and draw some examples of possible classroom practice from empirical experience. Now, possible answers are infinite, and possible reactions are just as many. But two of them serve our purpose. We have four lobes (frontal, temporal parietal, occipital) and two hemispheres (intuitively, left and right), then eight lobes in total.

On the one hand, we might find it surprising but, when we receive information as a statement, for example a fact report our brain reacts by activating only one of our lobe: the frontal. This is the lobe usually reacting to shallow encoding tasks, which is what helps us store short term information.

On the other hand, what happens when we are not reported a fact, but posed a question? And, what if we are not only asked a general question, but a personal one?. You see, three (not only frontal, but also temporal and parietal) out of the four lobes (occipital out!) of our brain are active. That is to say, when we process the answer to the question, it is the agymdala (or orbital prefrontal division) that protagonizes the scene. This is because not only is it encharged of implicit representation, experience and expression of emotions, but also emotional behaviour.

And answers imply, indeed, an emotional response. They address our own interpretation of facts, when not our personal experiences and individual knowledge. When someone asks us “how was your day?” we are bound to “navigate” into our brain and somehow recollect all the events of the day and make a purposeful utterance to express how they made us feel. 

Diana I. Tamir and Jason P. Mitchell, 2012
(Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. PNAS 109 (21): 8038-8043)


Practical implications

Covered the activation of the lobes, what is that really happens in our daily life? What happens when we are talking, in our English (or any other second of foreign language) class? How much can our students retain of what we say?

To answer these questions, first and foremost the crucial factor to consider is the listening and speaking rate. For example, when it comes to English, the average person talks at a rate of about 125-175 words per minute, while we can listen at a rate of up to 450 words per minute. Have you done the maths? Because of the difference between speaking speed and listening speed, we have a 75% time differential. This is the moment where listeners encourage their minds to wander. In other words, at the best of our capacity, we have the attention of our interlocutor for a 25% of its potential. How could we keep that differential at minimum? The answer is pretty straight forward:  If we asked questions, indeed, the listeners’ brain would be engaged in “navigating” the brain to answer the question, rather than wondering about. And full attention would be conquered!


Classroom implications

Having said that, how do we decode all of this in classroom practice?
First of all by reducing our statements and facts: the answer, whenever possible, has to be “conquered” by the student, engaged by the teacher in a continuous problem- solving. For instance, “What is the difference between this sentence and the other?” (for grammar enquiries) or “What series of images would you link with this expression?” (for vocabulary enquiries). No wonder this is the basis of the inductive method, where we start from the specific (the sentence, or the expression), and extrapolate a general rule by aligning examples with the same features (so different sentences with a reduced relative clause for example)
But even beyond that, language class should always start with a question, to introduce the topic of the day. However, questions shall not be asked randomly. I personally order the questions in this warmer phase into three categories: (1.) closed questions, (2.) open questions and (3.) general opinion questions. That is because, no matter how strong the will is to answer, we should not forget that we are always facing learners, therefore inhibited by the medium of communication they are supposed to use. I am sure it must be a common situation, when a widespread and elegant silence is the only answer your class can give to a long-thought and provoking question of yours.

  • Category 1. Closed Question Example “Have you ever been hiking?” (i.e. “Yes, I have/ No, I haven’t)
  • Category 2. Open Question Example (using question words) “When was the last time you went hiking?” “Why haven’t you tried hiking?” (i.e. “I went three months ago”, “Because I’m scared”)
  • Category 3. General Opinion Questions “Do you think hiking is dangerous?”, “Would you say hiking should be more popular?” (i.e. unpredictable answer).

This last category may well fall into the first one, as the students could just limit their answers to “Yes, it is dangerous”. But, if we have been thought-provoking (never better said) enough, to provide them with the linguistic tools to answer (i.e. hiking pole, breath-taking, best scenario ever etc.) as we were eliciting responses from their brains, well then there is little to worry about: we will have our students' attention and, in most cases, the answer will come quite natural.

So, bear in mind, next time you start a class, a lecture, a talk, the famous “Any questions?” is just the beginning.


Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the English Course for Teachers and School Staff at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Are You Talking to Me? The Importance of Asking Questions
    Giulia Sepe, Spain

  • Homework is Wrong?
    Douglas J. Rogers, US

  • Mindfulness Practice to Enhance Well-Being and Learning
    Monica Mulholland, Argentina and US