How to ask ELLs questions without embarrassment

Teacher Helping Boy With SchoolworkTeachers often don’t like to ask English Language Learners questions in class because of their limited language proficiency, according to a recent article in the Journal of Staff Development. But to better engage ELLs in learning, it is important for educators to ask them questions just as they ask their other students questions, the authors say.

Rather than avoiding questions with ELLs, teachers should instead focus on asking questions  appropriate to the student’s level of language development, write Jane Hill and Kathleen Flynn, authors of the book “Classroom Instruction That Works With English Language Learners.”

“To use the strategy we recommend, which we call tiered questions, teachers must know the stages of language acquisition and be able to determine what stage each ELL is in,” write the authors. “By knowing the stages of language acquisition and stage-appropriate questions, a teacher can engage students at the correct level of discourse.”

Research shows that teachers frequently use questions in their classrooms. In fact, they use questions even more than they realize, the authors write. And, in general, research also has found that teachers tend to ask lower-level questions, e.g. questions that ask students to simply recall or recognize information rather than higher-level questions that require them to analyze and evaluate knowledge, the authors write.

“Research indicates that this occurs with all students, but the practice is particularly prevalent with English language learners because teachers believe that these students cannot understand or respond to higher-level questions.”

The language barrier creates an impression that ELLs cannot understand or respond to higher level questions, the authors observe. But ELLs often can understand and respond to higher-level questions if teachers pose questions that are appropriate for students’ levels of language acquisition.

According to the article, the 5 stages of second-language acquisition are:

1. Preproduction

  • Minimal comprehension
  • Does not verbalize
  • Nods yes and no
  • Draws and points

2. Early production

  • Limited comprehension
  • One or two-word responses
  • Uses key words and familiar phrases

3. Speech emergence

  • Good comprehension
  • Can produce simple sentences
  • Makes grammar and pronunciation errors
  • Misunderstands jokes

4. Intermediate fluency

  • Excellent comprehension
  • Makes few grammatical errors

5. Advanced fluency

  • Speaks almost as well as a native speaker

“A teacher should not mistake ELLs’ limited level of output for their ability to think abstractly,” the authors write. If teachers ask ELLs to point to something or to answer yes or no, they still can ask them questions that do more than have them merely recall knowledge, the authors say.

Knowing the level of language acquisition allows a teacher to work with the student’s “zone of proximal development,” that area between what the student is capable of at the moment and the point the student can reach next, the authors say.

Below are guidelines for the types of questions teachers should ask based on the student’s stage of development.

1. Preproduction

  • Show me
  • Circle the
  • Where is

2. Early production

  • Yes/no questions
  • Either/or questions
  • Who, what and how many

3. Speech emergence

  • Why, How
  • Explain
  • Questions requiring a short sentence

4. Intermediate fluency

  • What would happen if
  • What do you think

5. Advanced fluency

  • Decide if
  • Retell

Teachers should become more aware of their questions in the classroom and ask themselves:

  • Are my questions aligned with my students’ stages of language of acquisition?
  • Am I asking higher-level questions of all my students?

Teachers could invite one of their colleagues to come to class and observe their practices, the authors suggest What questions were asked of native English speakers? Were ELLs asked questions? If not, why not?

Language learning is not something that will just happen, the authors write. Teachers need to make language learning purposeful, intentional and explicit. Teachers are being explicit when they pay close attention to their questions.

“Asking the Right Questions,” by Jane D. Hill and Kathleen Flynn, Journal of Staff Development, Volume 29, Number 1, Winter 2008, pp. 46-52.

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