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.

Reference:

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

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