“The Art Of Questioning”: How To Get A Discussion Going

by Katie on January 7, 2008

by Katie | January 7th, 2008  

Do you have a specific strategy for getting the discussion going when your questions receive blank stares?

I came across some tips for group discussions from a Princeton handbook for teaching assistants which has some interesting, if not always totally relevant, insight on leading lively discussions.

Keep in mind that the questions given as examples are geared towards university classes on topics like literature. I left them in partly for amusement, because it’s pretty hard to imagine those specific questions coming up in an EFL class, even in a higher level one. Students are rarely put into a position to look for underlying meaning – that’s hard enough for people in their own language! – and most questions will be about the content itself or students’ opinions. Still, I think the examples illustrate the types of questions well.

According to the guide, types of questions that generate discussion well:

  • The playground question: “Well, that’s a very rich sentence [after reading an excerpt from a book]. . .there’s a lot there. . .OK, what’s there?”
    In EFL this would probably be too vague.
  • The focal question: “Is Ivan Illych a victim of his society, or did he create his problems by his own choices?”
    I think this type of question does often lead to a good discussion, as long as students recognize the implicit “why”.
  • The brainstorm question: “What kinds of things is Hamlet questioning, not just in his soliloquies, but broadly throughout the whole play?”
    In a format relevant to something you’ve done in class, and in understandable language – yes (“What kind of people might find this text most useful?” “ Remember the text we read last week, about global warming – what parts of this text would that author agree with? What would he add?”)

Types of questions that don’t generate discussion well:

  • The general invitation: “What about the lecture?” “Any comments on Plato?”
    I agree.
  • The shotgun question: “So, we’re talking about the fact that everybody’s roles are changing, we’ve mentioned religion and education, how did religion and education during this period affect these changes, or how did the changes affect the kind of religion and education people had?…Let’s start with religion…have women always had a divine place in religion?
    Especially relevant in EFL. Prepare questions in advance so they are clear!
  • The analytic convergent question: “What was the most important reason for the revolution’s failure?”
    The reason given is that the discussion may be short as the question requires complex thought but aims at a certain answer. In EFL, if it is about a theme your students know enough about to have an opinion, they could discuss it in pairs and give reasons for why one answer is best. I don’t think this is necessarily bad.
  • The quiz show question: “What was the name of the institution?” “He talks about envying one character. Who was it?”
    This definitely won’t lead to discussion, but has its uses in EFL – to check understanding or maybe elicit a summary if students start to lose confidence because a text seems “too hard.”

One activity they did not mention is having students come up with questions themselves. This is probably easier to do in EFL because questions tend to be about content or opinions more than underlying meaning or symbolism…but I do have dilemmas about this. Sometimes students are creative enough to come up with good questions, and sometimes they are not. Do you use this technique a lot?

Do you agree about the usefulness of particular types of questions above – or have any others to add?


David January 7, 2008 at 6:48 pm


An excellent topic (as was your student centered post but I was too busy to respond!).

I might categorize the kinds of questions differently but it really is important to quality teaching that the teacher be GREAT at questioning. Even just to check for comprehension and get feedback to adjust the lesson but also for creating discussion and real communicative dialogue and response from students.

I also think a major shortcoming of the majority of students I see (and thus a shortcoming of their teachers in a way), is that they don’t know how to form questions early enough in their language learning cycle. Teachers should start this from day one — just like basic verb knowledge, so important. If students know how to ask/form questions, it really helps the class have authentic language production. You can’t have conversation, real conversation without that ability. So the sooner students learn how to make questions,the better.

So your point at the end is the best – get the students making the questions! In my opinion.


PS. be careful of those higher order, thinking questions…. they can really slow down language learning though at times, very fruitful.

Katie January 7, 2008 at 9:03 pm

Yes – even advanced students I’ve taught have had problems with questions! I hadn’t thought of that yet here, so I am glad you mentioned it.

I’m not sure if your PS about the higher order thinking questions is in response to a particular point from the post or just generally – my point was more that it can still work to ask “what is the most important reason character X did Y” because students can discuss it. I understood the link to be saying that wouldn’t work because it pointed too much to one answer only.

But as for “underlying meaning” questions … I agree! I can’t even always answer those…

Thanks for your comment, David, and keep up the good work with your site!

Larry Ferlazzo January 8, 2008 at 1:13 am

Katie & Dave,

Great post and comments.

I have students formulate lots of questions in small groups and in pairs — in a variety of activities. It works well. The key is providing lots of question “stems” — the beginnings of questions. I particularly teach the difference between literal — “right there”– and interpretative — “think about” questions.


Katie January 8, 2008 at 2:19 pm

Good tips, Larry! I like the idea of giving question stems…


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