How to teach indirect questions
Summary: Embedded questions games and teaching tips
If your students, like mine, are polite in their own language but ridiculously direct in English, not being able to properly use indirect questions like “Do you know what time the train leaves?” is almost certainly a significant part of the problem. To give one of numerous examples, it’s surprising how many people have never been told that only police officers directly ask “What’s your name?” Teaching this point will also mean that you’ll be able to ask your students about topics like family and university studies and be understood without needing to resort to direct questions like “Are you married?” and “Did you go to university?” that your students use. It ties in particularly well with topics like:
- enquiries (“Could you tell me what the new ETA is?”, etc)
- checking/ clarifying (“Do you know what… stands for?”, etc)
- presentation Q&A sessions (“I was wondering why you chose data from…”, etc)
- small talk (“I’d be interested in hearing what working for them was like”, etc)
- exams where the candidate has to ask questions (like in the old BULATS Speaking test)
What students need to know about indirect questions
Indirect question starters
The first thing students to do is be able to recognise and then start to use typical indirect question starters like “Can I ask…?”, “Could you tell me…?” and “I’d like to know…” Indirect question starters include (in approximate order of usefulness):
Could you (possibly) tell me…?
Can I ask…?
Can I (just) check…?
Do you know…?
I’d like to know…
I’d be interested in hearing…
Would you mind telling me…?
I (really) need to know…
I’m wondering/ I was wondering…
Do you have any idea…?
Do you remember…?
Do you happen to know…?
Is it okay to ask…?
Would you mind if I asked…?
Have you heard…?
You don’t know…, do you?
Do you happen to remember…?
Did anyone tell you…?
Would it be (too) rude/ (too) nosy/ a bit personal to ask…?
I don't suppose you could tell me..., could you?
There are also some similar but more specific ones like “Do you have the time?” for “What time is it?” and “And you are?” for “What’s your name?” Particularly for email enquiries, students might also benefit from knowing phrases for introducing questions in the next sentence such as “I also have a question about…”
Indirect question word order
I tend to start by eliciting the fact that some of the indirect question starters above are not actually grammatical questions (and so have no question marks). You should then be able to then elicit that we ask “I’d like to know where you are from” rather than “I’d like to know where are you from” because the part after the indirect question starter follows the standard SV(O/C) word order of a statement. This also explains why an indirect question doesn’t need an auxiliary verb when there isn’t one in the statement, unlike in “Where do you live?” etc.
The same grammar is also seen in indirect questions that do end with a question mark like “Can I ask what your boss’s name is?” (not “Can I ask what is your boss’s name?”). In this case the indirect question starter (“Can I ask…?” etc) is the question part and so it is that part which follows “auxiliary verb + S + main verb” word order of questions (as in “Can I…?”), with the following “what your boss’s name is” following the SV order of a statement.
If students are mentally converting direct questions into indirect questions, they therefore need to be able to switch the word order (“Why isn’t John here?” to “Do you know why John isn’t here?”, etc) in real time as they speak. That said, it is almost impossible to misunderstand incorrect indirect questions like “I’d be interested in hearing why did you quit your previous English school?” X. I therefore wouldn’t waste too much class time or too many corrections on the word order of indirect questions, as long as students have had a little chance to try it out in both written and spoken indirect questions. I would also try to avoid wasting time on explaining the exception of “Who wrote this one?” and “Do you remember who wrote this one?” etc by trying to keep subject questions out of the class.
Indirect yes/ no questions
Instead of getting stuck on word order, I would move quickly onto understanding and making yes/ no questions like “I need to know whether you want regular homework (or not)” for “Do you want regular homework?” and “Can you tell me if the last teacher set any homework (or not)?” for “Did the last teacher set any homework (or not)?” (These questions follow the word order rules explained above and so provide extra practice of that anyway).
The basic rule is that “if” or “whether” represent that a Yes or No answer is needed. The reason for having an extra word in that position is presumably because there is nothing else (no wh- word, change in word order, extra auxiliary verb or question intonation) to show that an answer is needed. “If/ Whether” is used in the same way in reported yes/ no questions like “He asked me if I had permission to be there”.
You could argue that “if/ whether” is actually redundant as long as the listener doesn’t miss the indirect starter like “Can I enquire…?”, as these phrases obviously never introduce statements and therefore show that the person listening will need to answer the question. However, a native speaker is likely to be confused by an indirect question without “if/ whether” like “Do you happen to know the bus has already gone?”, perhaps at least briefly presuming that a wh- word has been forgotten or missed by the listener. “If/ Whether” is therefore worth more class time and correction than word order.
Different indirect question starters/ Meanings of indirect question starters
The points above about word order and if/ whether are usually fairly well presented in textbooks (with the exception of usually missing the trick of first presenting the word order with a grammatical statement like “I’d be interested in hearing…”) However, there is another point which is perhaps more important when it comes to comprehension of indirect question but which I’ve never seen dealt with.
Although indirect question starters are often treated as interchangeable, there is, for example, no situation in which both “Do you know…?” and “Can I ask…?” are both suitable. This is because “Do you know…?” is used when the person listening to the question maybe doesn’t know, whereas “Can I ask…?” has almost the opposite meaning, being used for private information that they might not want to share. Other examples of meanings of indirect question stems include:
- “Do you know…?” – “You might not know, but…”/ “I will understand it if you don’t know, but…”
- “Do you happen to know…?” – “You probably don’t know, but…”
- “You don’t happen to know…, do you?” – “You almost certainly don’t know, but…”
- “Can you tell me…?” – often a more indirect way to mean “I need to know…”
- “Can I (just) check…?” – “I think I know, but…”/ “I need more information/ detail about…”
- “I’d be interested in hearing…” – “I’d like to hear about your opinions on/ experiences of…”
How to present indirect questions
The rules above about word order, “if/ whether”, etc are quite easy for students to work out for themselves, as long as they are given enough examples. This is easily done with a model polite conversation, phone call, an email enquiry, etc. After a comprehension task or two, you can ask students to match direct versions of the questions to the indirect questions in the text, then work out the differences between them, as well as the reason for using the indirect versions. They should also be able to match the individual indirect question stems to the meanings above.
You can also use a URA (Use Recall Analyse) approach by getting students to use suitable indirect questions that you give them in a situation such as interviewing a celebrity. They then try to remember some of the indirect questions that they used, before trying to work out how those questions are made.
Direct, Indirect and Taboo Questions
This is my favourite URA activity for this point. Perhaps after getting students to roleplay meeting people and meeting people again, give them a list of some questions which need to be indirect like “Do you know what the population of your hometown is?” and “Can I ask what it is like, working for…?” mixed up with questions which are okay as direct questions such as “What do you do?” and some questions which would be taboo even if they were direct such as “Are you married?” Students ask each other suitable questions for each situation, avoiding the taboo ones. They are then given a version with all the questions in direct form and are asked to cross off the taboo ones and rewrite ones which aren’t taboo but need to be indirect, leaving ones which are fine as they are. If this will be too overwhelming, you can give them just the taboo ones to cross off and the too direct ones to make indirect, from memory or their own ideas. After comparing with the original worksheet, they can analyse the language and use it in a freer version of the roleplays.
Checking/ clarifying and presenting indirect questions
Give students a list of direct and indirect checking/ clarifying questions to use during a communicative situation such as meeting a useful business contact during a conference/ trade fair/ trade conference, perhaps with a list of things to ask about and check like names of most famous products and website addresses. After some practice of that, students match the direct and indirect versions of the questions (“How do you spell…?” with “Can I check how you spell…?”, etc) and/ or convert the indirect versions into the direct versions and then the other way around.
How to practice indirect questions
The checking/ clarifying task above is just as useful in the practice stage. Direct, Indirect and Taboo Questions above can also be used at the practice stage by giving students the all direct questions version and asking them to avoid the taboo ones and convert any which need to be into indirect questions as they ask them.
Direct and indirect questions simplest responses game
This activity could also be used in the presentation stage. I prefer to use it as very controlled practice, but with a few new things like “You don’t happen to know…, do you?” and “Do you have the time?” added for interest and challenge. Students hold up cards saying “Direct” and “Indirect” as they listen to “Can you swim?”, “Can I check if you can speak Japanese?”, etc. The same can also be done with just hummed questions, as direct and indirect questions have different intonation. You could also hum the beginning of the question and just say the SV/ VS bit, as in “Hmmmmm he looks like” and “Hmmmm does he look like?” for more noticing of the different word order.
After labelling the same questions with “D” and “I” on a worksheet, they can test each other in pairs in the same way. If you made sure that the indirect questions need to be that way, they could then look at another worksheet with all direct questions and try to convert any which need to change.
Indirect questions dice game
Make a list of six different indirect question starters, preferably ones with different meanings/ functions like “Do you know…?” and “I’d be interested in hearing…” Students roll a dice and try to ask a suitable question starting with the words next to that number on the worksheet or board, e.g. “Can I just check how to spell your family name?” if they really don’t know that.
Indirect questions chain writing/ Indirect questions consequences
This is based on the traditional game where someone writes part of something, folds the paper so (most or all of) what they wrote can’t be seen, then the following people continue it in the same way. Finally, the paper is unfolded and students discuss which piece of chain writing makes most sense, is craziest, is most amusing, etc. This can be done with blank paper and instructions on what to be put on each line (“1. email greeting, 2. opening line, 3. first indirect question, 4. reasons for that question”, etc), or each line can have sentence starters already printed (“Dear _________”, “I’m writing to you _________________”, “Firstly, I really need to know ________________________”, “This is because _____________”, etc)
Indirect questions reversi
I’d only recommend this with classes who really need to be able to master this such as maybe staff in an expensive hotel. Make cards with direct and indirect versions of useful questions for your students on opposites sides. It’s best if these are questions that students need to be able to use both versions of such as “Where is…?” and “Do you know where… is?” On the side with the direct question, also give a key word which should be used in the indirect version such as “possibly” for “Could you possibly tell me…?”Students take turns guessing what is on the other side of the cards, with one person continuing until they make a mistake. The winner is the most successful converter of the questions, e.g. the person who has the longest string of correct answers in a row over the length of the game.
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