Questioning Makes a Difference for English Language Learners

There are days when you hope you do your best, but don’t necessarily walk away feeling like you’ve accomplished anything. And then there are days like yesterday, when you get an #eduwin! My role as Leader of Pedagogy is loosely defined as ‘change agent’ and ‘capacity builder’, and for a large part of my time I am lucky to be available to work with individual staff members on areas of need. What I love is when I can see how a tiny seed I’ve planted blossoms when a teacher takes something on board, runs with it and owns it.

Our ESL teacher had discussed her concerns about her Stage 6 ESL class with me on several occasions, but she was really tearing her hair out a few weeks ago. Her class is comprised of 9 boys, all who have been in Australia fewer than five years. One student is Sudanese, two Filipino, the rest Chinese or Korean. She was concerned that factions, built around language, had developed in the class and she was really struggling to get the boys engaged and speaking English. Two of the more confident speakers seemed to monopolise the conversations and the rest said, and did, very little.

Scratching my head, I suggested a few tactics.

  • Playing cards: giving the boys three cards each and require each student to play a card and contribute to the conversation before anyone was allowed to play a second card.
  • Putting desks in a circle, or “conference” table set-up, as per a Harkness Table, which I learnt about at the recent StudentMeet.
  • Using Dylan Williams’ “basketball questioning” instead of the standard “ping pong” or call and response methods we teachers usually use.

I’ve long been fascinated by questioning methods, and was exposed the notion of “wait time” (or “latency”) in the early days of my teaching in LA as part of the TESA program. But this year, through blog posts and Twitter bits and pieces, I’ve picked up some really good links and have been exploring how we can use more effective questioning to deepen student learning. (Apologies if you were someone who sent me a link, I can’t remember where I picked up what!)

Some of the links I passed along to Robyn (literally just sent via email) included the following:


But aside from that, she just went away and worked her own magic.


Robyn had been working with the boys on viewing, discussing and analysing “Rabbit Proof Fence”. Yesterday, she asked could I come to her class and observe as a “critical friend” to see how the boys were using questioning and conversation as a result of her recent efforts. What a privilege!


Students had previously been asked to choose an image from the film that they felt represented “belonging”. With their own image, they had to record why they chose it, how it related to belonging, what film technique was used and what effect that might have on the audience. Their work was uploaded to Edmodo and Robyn printed a selection of images and information for all the boys.


At the start of the lesson, Robyn reminded the boys that the focus was on “belonging” and the language related to “how”. The boys moved their tables quickly into a conference set up (4 x 2 desks, facing each other – Exeter on a budget!) And one by one, they talked about their chosen image, techniques, effects, etc.


Some of the dialogue?


S1: My chosen image is a long shot from a low angle. It shows Molly, but the angle is coming from the ground. It shows how, despite the hot weather, she shows responsibility to her sister. The low angle communicates her strength and her power.


S2: I think it also emphasises loneliness and separation because… no, not separation, isolation is a better word, because…


S1: Does anyone else have any other comments to add to my description?


S3: Yes, in my opinion, it is not a long shot. Your image shows the whole body, but it doesn’t show any of the rest of the environment. It emphasises her feelings but not her journey.


S4: No, I think it is a long shot because it emphasises how far they still have to walk.


When they had finished discussing a student’s image and information, one student would prompt the discussion to move to the next student. Robyn only stepped in to help the students stay on track, or in one case to remind a quiet student that he needed to use language to describe his image, not merely point to it.


And on they went. About 40 minutes of discussion, questioning, answering, justifying, challenging each other. This, from a group of boys who up until about 4 weeks ago wouldn’t speak in English, let alone speak to each other.


Robyn’s gentle manner, the change in classroom set-up, some instruction and practice in questioning – they were transformed. I congratulated the boys on their use of specific language, their willingness to challenge and clarify, their great questions, and most of all their manner. Robyn and the boys had created an environment which allowed all students to be heard and created a safe space for these English language learners to feel safe and take risks, not only in their use of language, but in using the academic language of English.


Next step? Moving from oral to written. But they’ve had a great start and a good grounding. And Robyn got a shout out at today’s staff meeting. #eduwin!!!