How to teach short answers
Summary: Teaching tips and game ideas for short answers like "Yes, I do", "No, he hasn't" and "Yes, there are"
Although no one has ever been more than mildly confused by someone answering “Yes, I am” or “Yes, I like” to questions like “Do you like Russian food?”, it is well worth spending some class time on short answers like “No, there aren’t” and “Yes, he would”. That’s mainly because mastery of short answers could help students stop killing conversations in exchanges like “Lovely weather, isn’t it?” “Yes”. Other reasons for teaching short answers include:
- It’s a good way of making students (consciously or subconsciously) more familiar with auxiliary verbs and how they are used in a range of tenses and other useful forms
- It can prepare students to further improve their small talk interactions with tag questions like “isn’t it?” and combinations like “Yes, it is, isn’t it?”
- The practice activities naturally include lots of useful asking questions practice
What students need to know about short answers
Although it can be difficult for students to produce quickly in natural speech, the rule for short answers is simplicity itself – say “Yes” or “No” and then copy the subject and auxiliary verb from the question, adding “n’t” or similar for negative answers.
I would teach the relevant questions and short answers in this order:
- “Do you…?” “Yes, I do”/ “No, I don’t”
- “Are you…?” “Yes, I am”/ “No, I’m not”
- “Is he/ she/ it/ this/ that…?” “Yes, he/ she/ it is”/ “No, he/ she/ it isn’t”
- “Are they/ these/ those…?” “Yes, they are”/ “No, they aren’t”
- “Can you/ he/ she/ they…?” “Yes, I/ he/ she/ they can”/ “No, I/ he/ she/ they can’t”
- “Is there/ Are there…?” “Yes, there is/ are”/ “No, there isn’t/ aren’t”
- “Did you/ he/ she/ they…?” “Yes, I/ he/ she/ they did”/ “No, I/ he/ she/ they didn’t”
- “Have you…?” “Yes, I have”/ “No, I haven’t”
- “Were you/ Was he/ Was she/ Was it…?” “Yes, I/ he/ she/ it was”/ “No, I/ he/ she/ it wasn’t”
- “Will you/ he/ she/ it/ they…?” “Yes, I/ he/ she/ it/ they will”/ “No, I/ he/ she/ it/ they won’t”
- “Would you/ he/ she/ it/ they like to…?” “Yes… would”/ “No,… wouldn’t”
- “Would you/ he/ she/ it/ they…?” “Yes, I/ he/ she/ it/ they would”/ “No, I/ he/ she/ it/ they/ wouldn’t”
Yes/ No questions with continuous forms like “Are you sitting down?” and “Were you having dinner?” are too rare to be worth specifically teaching, and anyway follow the same patterns as the other questions and short answers with “be” above. They can then therefore be used without any specific presentation stage and/ or be taught at the error correction stage. Ditto for other possibilities like “Yes, there were” and “Yes, I had”.
After some practice of the basic forms above, students will probably need to be told that giving just a short answer can sometimes be insufficient, rude or even misunderstood. For example, if someone asks “Are you Chinese?” and the reply is just “No, I’m not”, it sounds like they are taking offence at the question and/ or think it is none of the other person’s business. Students will therefore need to be told about and maybe practice further points like using “Actually,…” instead of “Yes” or “No” in unexpected answers (“Actually, I’m Mongolian”, etc), and adding “Thanks” and further information in exchanges like “Is your meal okay?” “Yes, it is, thanks. It’s absolutely delicious”.
More advanced classes might also benefit from learning about and maybe practising short answers without “Yes” and “No” such as “Do you have a tie?” “I don’t. (I haven’t worn one for years).”
Typical student problems with short answers
As mentioned above, getting the wrong short answer is not nearly as bad as missing the verb out and simply saying “Yes” or “No”. However, the person asking might wonder if the other person really understood the question in exchanges like “Do you like coffee?” “Yes, I would” and “Would you quit your job if that happened?” “Yes, I will”. These confusions can often be a sign that the students don’t really understand the differences in meaning between similar questions, e.g. between “Would you like…?” and “Do you like…?” In that case, a presentation on what the questions mean is more important than just stressing using the right auxiliary verb in the answer. In a similar way, exchanges like “Do you have a Netflix subscription?” “Yes, I have” might be a sign that students are getting confused by studying “have” and “have got” at the same time rather than a sign that they need more practice of short answers.
Probably the most common student problem with short answers is using the main verb rather than the auxiliary verb. In particular, for reasons I can’t fathom my students very often say “Yes, I like” in answer to “Do you like…?” questions. They also sometimes have other similar mix ups like “Yes, I saw” for “Did you see…?” Although obviously it doesn’t instantly solve the problem, I find that it helps to tell students that they are doing something that is actually more difficult than the simple process of copying the auxiliary verb from the question.
Students sometimes try to add both auxiliary verbs when there are two in the question, e.g. “Had you been waiting long?” “Yes, I had been”. This is both not very natural and unnecessary complicated.
Students can sometimes become confused with short answers again after studying the similar grammar point of tag questions. For example, at least some of the class are likely to come up with combinations that were never a problem before like “Yes, I didn’t” after studying “You went there too, didn’t you?” Correcting this simply takes time, so there is no point over-correcting until the students have had some time to subconsciously get used to the similarities and differences between tag questions and short answers.
Students can also mix up their intonation after studying tag questions, producing answers that sound like “Yes, I am?”, but this is unlikely to cause confusion and again usually naturally clears itself up with time. More important is the confusion caused by avoiding contractions in short answers. “No, I did not” sounds argumentative and even aggressive, like “No, I DID NOT”. Students should therefore be very strongly encouraged to say “No, I’m not” rather than “No, I am not”, “No, it wasn’t” instead of “No, I was not”, etc. Written exercises should also always have contractions in, as short answers are only really used in speech and very informal writing such as online chat and so there is no need for students to ever practise a more formal written version without contractions.
Students can sometimes overgeneralise from the need for contractions in negative short answers to also produce positive forms like “Yes, I’m” and “Yes, there’s”. This is worth correcting because hearing this can cause temporary confusion as the person listening waits for them to finish their phrase (as in “Yes, I’m + waiting for him right now”). I’m not sure that they are actually reasons, but if students ask for an explanation I tend to say that the contracted negative forms and uncontracted positive forms have the same number of syllables, that there is little danger of sounding aggressive in positive answers and/ or that there are no contractions of other positive forms like “Yes, I do” for us to use even if we wanted to.
Finally and possibly most importantly, by the time you have students quickly and naturally producing “Yes, he did” and “No, there weren’t”, there is a considerable danger that the students will think this is almost always the best answer to questions like and “Is it nearly finished?” and “Have you come far?” when in fact “Yes, it is. I’ll get it to you by the end of today” and “Not so far. I live about an hour away” are more suitable.
How to present short answers
Especially with young learner classes, I tend to introduce short answers with no explanation at all. Instead, from day one I simply insist on them answering with the correct short answers to questions like “Are you sad?” (in a lesson on feelings), “Is the book on the table?” (for prepositions), “Do you like…?” (for likes and dislikes), etc. If they later get confused when having to deal with a different set of short answers, they already have a well-remembered set of questions and answers for me to elicit the rule from. For example, if we have already done “Is it an elephant?”, I elicit the correct short answers to those questions onto the board. I then get them to tell me which bits are the same in the question and answer and how the word order changes. They should then easily be able to work out the correct short answers for “Do you have…?” or “Are there…?” from the same rules. With higher level classes, you can also ask them to extend those rules to ones they have almost certainly never studied before such as “Yes, there had” and “Yes, he could”.
There are few real-life texts which have enough Yes/ No questions and short answers to provide a good model of a range of different forms, but you should be able to find or produce a recording or transcript of some people playing one of the practice games below such as a bluffing game. You can then ask students to underline and match the questions and answers, then make rules for making a short answer for each kind of question.
How to practise short answers
Most short answer games follow one of three patterns:
1. Brainstorming suitable questions games
2. Make me say… games
3. You must say… games
The rest of this article describes each of those three kinds of activity and variations on them, then there is some description of ways of using classroom materials to make the activities more fun, easier to explain and/ or simpler to play.
1. Brainstorming suitable questions games
Students try to make as many suitable questions as possible, for example asking and answering “Do you…?” questions while throwing a ball back and forth without repeating a question or without pausing too long for thought.
2. Short answers make me say yes/ make me say no/ make me say I don’t know
2a) Basic version
In this activity, the person asking the question has to try to get particular answers from their partner. In the basic version, this can be the same answer each time, for example one point for each “Yes, I am” answer from their partner to questions like “Are you a student?” in the first round. In the next round, you can then play the opposite game of one point for each “No, I’m not” answer. With some kinds of questions like “Is your grandfather…?” you can also have a third kind of round, with one point for “I don’t know” answers (and no points if their partner answers “Yes,…” or “No,…”) If all this isn’t fun enough, you can make the game into a version of Double or Quits, with students getting more and more points until they decide to stop but losing all their points from that round if they get the wrong answer before they call it quits.
2b) Different answers each time
You can also have a different suitable answer in each go, for example picking cards that say “Yes, I have” and “No, she wasn’t” and getting points for getting those answers with questions like “Have you brushed your teeth today?” and “Was your mother asleep at eight o’clock this morning?”
A variation on this is for the person answering to choose an answer and then their partner trying to think of a question that matches it, e.g. asking “Have you eaten anteater today?” if their partner chose, wrote and/ or said “No, I haven’t”.
2c) Make me say yes board game
You can also make board games for short answers, with people allowed to move one square if they get a “No” answer, two squares if their partner says “Yes”, but no squares if they get other answers such as “I don’t know” etc. This works just with blank squares and so a free choice of questions, but I would use the squares to add auxiliary verbs, topics and/ or key words to put in their questions like “ice cream”.
3. Short answers you must say… games
This is kind of the opposite of the games above, with how the person listening to the questions has to answer them being decided in some way.
3a) Short then longer and longer answers game
This is a great way of making sure that students go beyond just simple short answers, and is especially good for practice of IELTS Speaking Part One and other oral exams. Students ask each other exactly the same Yes/ No question again and again and reply with a longer and longer answer each time, for example “Do you like cheese?” “Yes, I do.” “Do you like cheese?” “Yes, I do. I love it.” “Do you like cheese?” “Yes, I do. I love it. Especially blue cheese.” etc. When they finish a round, they can then discuss which answer was actually best (in real life and/ or language exams).
3b) Short answers Simon says
This game is based on the well-known children’s game, with hearing a Yes/ No question being equivalent hearing “Simon says…” in the original game. Students listen to questions and must answer only with short answers, meaning that they must stay silent if they hear Wh- questions, statements, etc. The first person to reply with a correct (and true) short answer when they hear “Are the curtains open?”, “Is it seven o’clock?”, etc gets a point. If they answer questions like “What colour is it?”, they lose that round and perhaps have to be the questioner in the next round.
You can also play an even stricter version where students should only use one kind of short answer. For example, if you are practising answers with “do”, they must ignore questions starting with “Did you…?”, “Are you…?” etc, as well as Wh- questions, statements, etc.
3c) Short answers bluffing games
I haven’t used this option for specific practice of short answers, but you can also play bluffing games where they have to answer each question a particular way, whether that answer is actually true or not. For example, they can secretly flip a coin after each question and answer “Yes,…” if they got heads and “No,…” if they got tails. Perhaps after asking follow up questions like “Why…?”, their partners guess if that answer is true or not.
Using typical classroom materials to practise short answers
A ball, dice, blocks, cards, coins, etc can be combined with one or more of the ideas above in many ways, some of which are explained below.
Short answers ball games
As mentioned in the brainstorming section, you can get a lot of fun out of students simply throwing back, bouncing back or rolling back a ball as they ask and answer a string of (suitable) Yes/ No questions. This can be done with the serving side asking the questions each time, switching who serves if they pause too long, drop the ball, hit the ball out of bounds, repeat a question that has already been asked, ask the wrong kind of question, or answer with the wrong kind of answer.. Alternatively, the game can be played with students answering the question that they received and asking a different question back each time that they return the ball. Student lose a point and/ or the right to serve if they pause too long, etc.
Especially with a sticky ball (= sucker ball), you can also get students to throw at short answers on the board and then ask questions to try to get the answer that they hit, e.g. asking “Are there chairs in your kitchen?” if the ball landed on “Yes, there are”.
Short answers blocks games
Students build a tower from blocks as they ask and answer Yes/ No questions. You can let them add a block to the tower with one or more of these systems:
- Each time that they think of a suitable Yes/ No question (perhaps only with the one or two auxiliary verbs that you are practising)
- Each time that they answer a Yes/ No question
- Each time that they get a particular answer from their partner (e.g. one block per “Yes, I did” answer in the first round, then one block per “I don’t know” answer in the second round)
Short answers coin games
A coin is perfect for short answer games as it has one side for “Yes” and one side for “No”. With that system, the two sides can decide what answer they should try to get from their partner, or it can decide what (true or false) answer they should give to the questions in a bluffing game. The other possibility is for the two sides to be two different auxiliary verbs, e.g. “Yes, I have” for heads and “Yes, I did” for tails if you are practising the contrast between Present Perfect and Past Simple.
The other thing that students can do with a coin is flick it across a worksheet with all the different possible answers on it and then try to get that answer from their partner, e.g. asking “Will you retire in your sixties, do you think?” if the coin lands on “Yes, I will”.
Short answers dice games
If your students might waste time flicking coins all around the room as they try to get heads or tails, dice can also be used to decide which of two answers they should try to get from their partner or use in their answer, e.g. “1, 2 or 3 = Yes” and “4, 5 or 6 = No”. It is also possible to add more options, e.g. “1 = Yes, I did, 2 = No, I didn’t, 3 = Yes, he/ she did, 4 = No, he/ she didn’t, 5 = I don’t know, 6 = I don’t know”. A dice can also decide the topics, e.g. “1 = food, 2 = colours” etc for “Do you like…?” questions.
Short answers card games
Especially if you want more than the six options that a dice supplies, you can make cards with short answers (plus maybe related ones like “I don’t know” and “Actually,…”), topics or questions to use in the games above such as having to get that answer from their partner.
Short answers worksheets
Suggested short answers, topics and/ or questions can also be put onto a worksheet for students to choose and then cross off. To add more fun and challenge, instead of choosing whatever topic etc they like, students can close their eyes and put their finger down on one of the options. As mentioned above, they could also flick a coin across the page. Alternatively, you can let students choose whichever they like but set up a system that they must follow to win the game. For example, if you put all the short answers in a grid, you can play a kind of Short Answers Noughts and Crosses/ Short Answers Connect 4 by telling them that they must get a certain number of answers in a straight line in the grid to win the game.
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