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.

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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