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.

Encouraging Talk, Encouraging Learning

I was asked recently to give an ESOL workshop to volunteer literacies tutors. While all are experienced and well trained to use a social practices learner-centred approach with a range of literacies learners, the majority would not have had ESOL specific training. Also, many would be working one-to-one with a learner, either on their own or in a group setting. I thought for a long time about what would be most useful for them and what we could look at in the one hour we would have. After a few false starts in my planning, this is what I went for in the end (without the interactive bits).

ESOL Curriculum Framework The ESOL learner, like the literacies learner, is at the centre of the process. It’s what they want and need to be able to do in their contexts that should be the focus, helping them to become confident language users, successful language learners, responsible multilingual citizens, and effective communicators (and contributors!) The starting point should be the learner – not the grammar, the vocabulary or the skills.

The wealth of material around English language teaching can be confusing and overwhelming to those new to it. The focus on grammar and skills that comes across in many publications and in initial training courses can lead new practitioners to wonder how we can apply a social practices approach to working with ESOL learners. The approach outlined in Teaching Unplugged offers what seems to be an ideal solution. As the authors, Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury, remind us:

“Learners are your primary resource. They have stories to tell, ideas to explain and feelings to describe.” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009: 24)

They go on to say that:

“Allowing learners to express themselves, encouraging them to do this to the best of their ability, and showing them how they can do this more effectively, is the essential work of the unplugged teacher.” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009: 24)

This is also the essential work of a literacies worker. The main differences  would be that there is usually less shared language and often more focus on improving speaking  with ESOL learners. So, building on the previous two quotes, we had one more from an NRDC Effective Practice Study which suggested that:

“One of the main tasks is to encourage classroom talk, transforming talk into learning and learning into talk.” (Baynham, Roberts, et al, 2007: 54)

As this study also highlighted, ‘talk is work’ in ESOL. But before we can take advantage of the learning opportunities offered by talk, we need to encourage the learners to talk. Some learners are very keen to express themselves and have lots to say. Others though, particularly new learners who are getting to know us, are nervous, hesitant, not sure if they should talk, if they can talk, and will need encouragement. So how do we do this?

Create the right atmosphere. We all do this already. Put the learner at ease, smile, laugh. Show interest and respect. Establish good rapport and treat them as equals and as fellow speakers of English (and other languages). This is what I was getting at in the post Language use for learning.

Allow space for the learner to make contributions. Build longer pauses into your own talk. It’s not comfortable to do this. We don’t easily tolerate pauses in a conversation but it’s worth getting used to. Learners need time to process what’s been said and what they want to say. Leaving space before we start an activity or topic will provide an opportunity for learners to bring up their own topic and this will usually be more relevant and memorable for them – you can always save what you’d planned for the following session. Not rushing to speak when a learner hesitates will allow them to continue their turn, to have the time to find the words and phrases themselves, and to allow them to initiate a topic change. A study by Scott Thornbury and trainee teachers showed that the time a teacher waits after asking a question was usually very short but that “even slight increase in wait time result in an increase in the quantity and quality of learner contributions and an increase in the number of learner questions.” (Walsh, 2011: 39-40)  (I’ll let Rachael Roberts tell you more about the wonder of wait time.)

Use prompts. Bring something along that you think will interest the learner. This could be anything – questions, texts, activities. It could be photos (ELTpics perhaps? ;-)), visuals, or visualisation tools like those featured in the Reflect ESOL approach.  When getting to know learners, I’ve found that things like maps & visualisation tools often work well. The focus is off the language and the conversation and on something that can be understood without much language, but a lot of information can be shared. It is, of course, important to be sensitive to difficult areas in a learner’s life that they may want to avoid talking about. You can also encourage learners to bring things along and to ask questions. It’s important for learners to get a lot of practice asking questions so that they’re not always the ones in the less powerful position of answering and responding – whether in the learning situation or the wider community.

By encouraging learner talk, by conversationalising all work, and being open to ‘off topic’ contributions, we find out more about them – both their interests and what they can do in the language – even about complete beginners, communicating through mime, drawings and dictionaries. This continues to give us information we can use to plan future sessions and gives us a place to start building on their language. So, how do we help learners develop their language? Selecting and adapting ideas from Teaching Unplugged… again, the following are some of the ways that practitioners could work with the language.

React, recast, record, research, repeat, review, recycle

Before focusing on the language, react first to what is being said, to what the learner wants to communicate.

Recast the learners utterances by reformulating what they say to make it more like what we would usually hear. A lot of people, whether language teachers or not, will have a tendency to do this anyway. Parents and teachers do it with children as they are learning the language and university lecturers do it with new students becoming part of a new discourse community.

As we reformulate or help with vocabulary, we should make sure that we record the new language so that we can focus on it and come back to it. One of my favourite ways of recording the language that comes up in a session with small groups is on little pieces of paper (you can move them around, notice patterns, add to them). As you help learners with words and phrases they need to express themselves, write them down and keep listening. At an appropriate point – you may not have to wait until the end of their story (as long as you come back to it) – focus on some of the language more closely.

That appropriate point might need to be the following session after you’ve had a chance to research the language. You can refer to other sources – grammar books, coursebooks and online reference sites – between sessions and you can also refer your learner to them.

But your own knowledge of the language – through using it (& increasingly reflecting on it) yourself –  is also going to be useful for your learners. You know what sounds right. You’ll know if a word is missing or if something doesn’t sound right and how it would sound better. [In the workshop, we looked more closely at some language that had come up in one of my recent ESOL groups, prompting the participants to notice similarities and differences, patterns, pronunciation and collocation, and how a focus on the language could then bring us back to conversation.]

So you react to the message, you reformulate and help as needed (but not jumping in too quickly), you record and focus on the language. Repetition is a useful strategy. Learners can repeat a word or a phrase to make sure they have the pronunciation right, or to practice producing a longer sentence after you.

Repeating an activity can be a really valuable exercise. Studies have shown that simply repeating a task improved learners’ accuracy and fluency. I’ll let Rachael tell you more about this too, because this post is getting too long – Task repetition: helping students to improve accuracy, repertoire and fluency.

It’s then important to review and recycle the language. The language can be reviewed at the end of the session. Learners can be asked to recall the language by being reminded of the context it came up in, or by giving a definition or a synonym that they’ll recognise. Learners can select some of the language they think they’ll be able to use after the session, think of how they’ll be able to use it, in which contexts, rehearse and then use it and report back. Language can be reviewed and recycled in future sessions, in a range of planned activities or further conversation. As you become increasingly aware of the learners’ needs and interests, it’ll be easier to select other activities from the many sources around – in course books or resource books, on blogs or websites, or from colleagues.

That’s an as-brief-as-I-can-make-it overview of what we did. There is so much more I would have liked to talk about but we only had an hour. There were good discussions and I’m hoping it was useful for and useable by the participants. I’ve heard that the feedback on the day was positive.

If you’ve made it this far… well done and thank you! I wasn’t sure I was going to manage to the end myself 😉

So, as a wee reward, here’s some suggested further reading.

  • A Multilingual Lesson by Sam Shepherd’s blog. This is a lovely example of creating the right conditions for genuine communication and consequently language learning.


Baynham, M., Roberts, C., Cooke, M. and Simpson, J. (2007) Effective Teaching and Learning: ESOL. London: NRDC. (Also available online.)

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Walsh, S. (2011). Exploring Classroom Discourse: Language in Action. Abingdon: Routledge.

Language Use for Learning

This afternoon I was reading over one of my son’s assignments with him. I suggested an alternative way to say something, using specific subject related language. His response? “I don’t use words like that.” Essentially, “that’s not who I am”. Or, as I’d like to think, that’s not who he is yet!

This brought to mind how our tied our language use is to our sense of identity. Our perception of who we are in any interaction is reflected in how we use language and is influenced by other people’s language use. Roz Ivanič wrote about how identities are constructed through discourse:

by ‘address’ – the way we are talked to by others
by ‘attribution’ – the way we are talked about by others
by ‘affiliation’ – the way we talk like others
(Ivanič, 2005: 7; original emphasis)

The construction of a person’s identity does not simply lie with that person and the decisions they make but is also affected by others. What we feel we are capable of, what we are entitled to do, and the kind of person we are, can be influenced by others – family, friends, colleagues and teachers!

In an ethnographic study of L2 learners in a Canadian university, Naoko Morita found that the way the students were talked to and about in the classrooms influenced their sense of self and the way in which they constructed themselves as members of the classroom community. While an identity of a less competent member of the community was in part based on their actual difficulties with the language – in understanding reading materials, lectures or discussions – it was also based on how they were perceived by others. One student who, while initially acknowledging that she was a non-native speaker, understood this identity in negative terms as someone who has limitations and deficiencies in their use of the language. Over the course of the study, this student made a conscious effort to change her perception of herself and to see herself as an “English speaker in a more positive light” (Morita, 2004: 586). As the student describes in her final report “It took a long time to empower myself. Still I can’t say I’m confident… But I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a nonnative speaker anymore” (Lisa, weekly report, March 30, 2000, quoted in Morita, 2004: 586). Another student who received positive feedback for her contribution in class began to see herself as a competent and valued member which in turn “seemed to enhance her participation” (Morita, 2004: 584).

The way we talk to and about learners can have a significant impact on what they feel able to do, what they feel ready to do, and what they feel they have a right to do. This can be very subtle – ways we are not fully aware of and ways they are not fully aware of – but the way we talk to someone can communicate whether we value them as a person or not, whether we expect them to do well or not, and whether we think of them as speakers of English or not.

Unless someone feels that they are a member of a particular discourse community, they will be hesitant or resistant to using the language of that community. My son, as with many new students in an academic setting, isn’t yet comfortable using the technical language expected for his subject. I, living in and having been born in Scotland, don’t use language like a lot of the people around me because, having grown up in Ireland, that’s not who I am. My Saudi students from a few years ago could do a really good Scottish accent but chose not to use it when speaking English. ESOL Learners who can express their ideas effectively in an ESOL group shy away from doing this with neighbours and colleagues.

My son might one day see himself as someone who can talk the talk. The ESOL learners may start to see themselves as members of the wider community with something to contribute. Neither I, nor the Saudi students, will be speaking Scots any time soon. So, to what extent should we encourage and help learners to speak like others and how much should we let them be who they are and who they want to be in their new language?

In Teaching Unplugged, Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury suggest that we “make the classroom a discourse community in its own right, where each individual’s identity is validated, and where learners can easily claim the right to speak.” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009: 11). And, as they write, a conversation mode would seem to be a good way to establish such a community.

But, to get the best out of our learners (and for our learners to get the best out of us) we may need to understand more about how conversation works, about how what we say, how we say it, the turns we take and the ones we leave open for learners affects people’s sense of identity as learners, contributors, and speakers of English and how this, ultimately, affects their learning.


Ivanič, R. (2005). Language, learning and identification. Paper presented at British Association for Applied Linguistics Conference, Literacies and Learning in Further Education. Bristol, September 2005. available at

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teacing. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Morita, N. (2004). Negotiating participation and identity in second language academic communities, TESOL Quarterly, 38(4), 573-603.

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