Using yes-no questions to get people talking

A quick internet search of open and closed questions suggests that open questions are considered the better option to get a fuller response from people and to keep the conversation going. That makes sense. Closed questions can be answered in a word or phrase, while open questions require people to provide a bit more detail, describe experiences, give reasons, and opinions. So, when trying to encourage more speaking in order to maximise learning opportunities, we should be asking more open questions and fewer closed questions, shouldn’t we?

Language in the inner cityBut, it may not be that straightforward. Asking yes-no questions in particular could well be a very useful way to get longer stretches of talk from our learners.

William Labov, in his study of language in the inner city in America, described some of the devices the researchers used in eliciting significant amounts of casual speech from the participants.

He writes:

In the section of our interview schedule that deals with fights, we ask “Were you ever in a fight with a guy bigger than you?” When the subject says “Yes” we pause and then ask simply, “What happened?” (Labov, 1972: 354)

In the footnotes, he elaborates:

Note that the original question calls for only one or two words; this is a “Yes-No” question. The subject first becomes committed to a narrative by a simple ‘yes’. He then becomes involved in the more detailed account of what happened as a necessary justification of  the claim made by the first response. The initial impetus provided by the Yes-No question is an important element in this procedure. Many formal interviews use questions of the form “Can you tell me something amusing (dangerous, exciting, important) that has happened to you?” Though such questions will produce some response in some listeners, they are quite unsatisfactory as a rule to both speaker and interviewer; the reasons for their inadequacy make a nice topic for discourse analysis. (Labov, 1972: 354)

Labov wrote this over 40 years ago and there will have been much discourse analysis conducted on this since then. If anyone would like to highlight any in particular, that would be very interesting. It would also be interesting to play around with this and pay attention to the difference using a yes-no question before open questions makes to the responses from learners, particularly from those learners who might be a bit more reluctant to talk.


Labov, W (1972). Language in the inner city: studies in the Black English Vernacular. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

11 Responses to Using yes-no questions to get people talking

  1. Pingback: Using yes-no questions to get people talking | ...

  2. David says:

    Hi Carol,

    Great of you to bring up this topic. Too often teachers swallow advice and “good teaching practices” from education that really doesn’t make sense in TESOL. This is one of them. Years ago I spent a year giving workshops on using questions effectively. Really enjoyed them and this point was top of the list – use more closed questions at lower levels especially. Also give each student the possibility to answer (using response cards / sticks – and now we even have clicks!).


    • Carol Goodey says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Those workshops on using questions effectively sound very interesting. Have you written about them anywhere?

      It’s good advice to give each student the possibility to answer using response cards,sticks or clicks and good to keep in mind for any group you’re working with, whether ELT or not to make sure everyone has a say.


  3. Ohh, that’s something to think about for sure!
    You know what else strikes me? Those open questions to get students talking with longer responses aren’t really very natural. I mean, in conversation, aren’t we more likely to start off with a yes-no question to get to know new people?
    Very interesting post. Thanks for the thinks!

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Thanks Anne! That’s a good point to think about what we would normally expect people outside of the classroom to respond to, or what we would feel able or willing to respond to ourselves in other situations. I sometimes look at questions in ELT materials and think I wouldn’t have all that much to say about it, or wouldn’t be able to remember enough details. Often such details come spontaneously in response to an ongoing conversation that sparks memories rather as a result of being asked to think about it.

      Enjoy the thinks! 🙂 And thanks for posting some of them here.


  4. Agreed. Plus, it’s socially awkward to simply answer Y/N questions with only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ since we know the asker wishes for more information in the obvious next question.

    Where open questions come in more usefully is in investigating levels of comprehension.

  5. geoffjordan says:

    Good to see a reminder of the value of reading Labov. While we’re at it, maybe we should mention Grice (1975) and the Co-operative Principle in conversation:

    “Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged”. Yes-no questions play an important part in all this! . .

    As to new stuff, I found Royce, T and Bowcher, W. (eds.) (2013) New Directions in the Analysis of Multimodal Discourse, London, Rouledge, quite provocative.

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Hi Geoff,

      Many thanks for reading and for your contribution. Grice’s maxims are certainly relevant here and as Tyson Seburn mentioned in an earlier comment, we would normally elaborate where we understood that more information was being sought.

      I’ve had a quick glance at what’s available on the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon of New Directions in the Analysis of Multimodal Discourse. It looks very interesting, if challenging and expensive!


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