How to teach small talk questions with how
Summary: Teaching how to ask, respond to and extend conversations with "How are you?", "How was your weekend?" etc.
I’m always amazed by how many of my students have problems dealing with questions like “How has your week been?”, especially given how many times they must have been asked “How was your weekend?”, “How was your presentation?”, “How’s your project going?” and “Really? How was it?” by their teachers, colleagues, vendors, fellow drinkers, etc. I therefore spend between a few minutes and a whole class on this topic with almost all my classes. My students always seem interested in this topic, and with some it’s probably the most valuable thing they could possibly learn from me. My photocopiable materials from those classes can be found in my e-book Teaching Social English: Interactive Classroom Activities, available here: https://www.usingenglish.com/e-books/social-english/
Some time spent on “How…?” small talk questions is a great way into tenses such as Present Continuous (“How’s your project going?”), Present Perfect (“How has your day been so far?”), and Past Simple (“How was your flight?”) You can also link smoothly from these kinds of small talk questions to other How questions whose answers can similarly be ranked (“How important is…?”, “How big is…?”, “How likely…?”, “How often…?”, etc). It can also be useful to do a lesson on comparing and contrasting all those kinds of questions with the opposite group of How questions where “How…?” means “In what way…?” like “How did you get here?” and “How do you turn this thing off?” The topic of How questions is also a nice easy way into the more general topic of small talk questions like “Did you have a good weekend?” and “Did you have any trouble getting here?”
What students need to know about small talk questions with how
To be able to use and cope with these kinds of questions smoothly, students need to:
- Be able to recognise and use the most common questions like “How’s it going?” and “How was your weekend?”
- Not get confused between similar small talk questions like “How’s work?”/ “How’s business?” and “How was your journey?”/ “How was your trip?”
- Know which kinds of questions are most likely to result in good small talk (generally more specific ones like “How was your weekend?”)
- Be able to respond to those questions with the correct kind of and length of answer
- Be able to react to people’s responses (responding to good and bad news with phrases like “I’m sorry to hear that”, etc, with suitable intonation)
- Be able to ask similar (but not too similar) questions back (“How about you? Did you do anything special?”, etc)
- Be able to extend conversations (without it turning into an interview/ Q&A session)
- Understand cultural differences related to this topic
The kinds of “How…?” small talk questions which are most worth present include:
- “How are you (today)?” and more informal versions like “How’s it going”, “How’s life?”, “How are things?” and “How are you doing?”
- More specific present questions like “How’s your project/… going?”, “How are you getting on with…?”, “How’s your hotel?”, “How’s business?” and “How’s work?”, and perhaps “How’s your hangover?” and “How’s your love life?” with people they know very well
- Questions about the past up to the present like “How has your week been (so far)?” and “(Long time no see). How have you been?”
- Questions about the past like “How was your weekend?” and “How was your journey?”, and more specific ones like “How was your trip?”, “How was your presentation?”, “How was the match?”, “How was the traffic?”, “How was your flight?” and “You said that you were going to…/ I heard that you… How did it go?”
- Questions about other people like “How’s John?”, “How are your family?” and “How’s your son getting on at uni?”
More specifically, I would teach How questions in this order:
- How are you?
- How’s it going?/ How are things?/ How’s life?/ How are you doing?
- How was your (long/ three-day) weekend?
- How has your week/ day/ trip/ visit/ stay been (so far)?
- How have you been (since we last met)?
- How’s work?
- How’s business?
- How was your (summer/ Xmas/ New Year/ Easter/ bank) holiday/ vacation?
- How was your flight?
- How was your journey?
- How was your trip?
- How’s the weather (there) in… (now)?
- How’s… going? (e.g. How’s your project going?)
- You said that you were going to… How was it?/ How did it go?
- I heard that you… How was it?/ How was the weather?/ How did you get on?/ How…?
- How are you getting on with…?
- How was your evening?
- How’s your hotel?
- How’s (name)? (e.g. How’s John?)
- How’s your family?
- How’s the weather outside now?
- How was your lunch?
- How’s your meal?/ How’s the steak?/ How’s the…?
- How was the traffic (coming from…/ this morning/ on… road)?
- How was (name of place)? (e.g. How was England?)
- How are you coping with…?/ How are you dealing with…?
- How did… go?/ How did you get on with…?
- How’s your leg (recovering)?/ How’s your cold?/ How’s your…?
- How’s… getting on with/ at/ in…?
I might also present some of the ones below, at least to show that students should be careful when they use them:
- How are you feeling?
- (But) how are you really?
- How’s your hangover?
- How’s your love life?
- How’s life treating you?/ How are tricks?
Students might also come across questions which have basically the same function like “What’s up?”, “Alright?”, “Did you have a good weekend?” and “Did you do anything special last night?”
My students often respond straightaway with a little anecdote about their weekend etc, but I always stop them and tell them that they are not answering the question. Instead, they should always start by saying how it is/ was/ has been, usually meaning how good or how bad. These kinds of basic responses can be graded from positive to negative, for example for the questions “How’s work?” and “How’s your project going?” the standard responses are often, respectively:
- Absolutely hectic
- Really busy
- Fairly busy
- Not so busy
- Really well
- Pretty well
- Fairly well
- Not so well
- Don’t ask!
Most of the other questions above can be answered with these words, in approximate order of positivity:
- (Absolutely) wonderful/ fantastic/ superb/ perfect
- (Really) great
- (Pretty) good/ Very well/ Not (so/ too) bad
- Okay/ Alright/ Nothing special
- Not so good/ Not so great.
- (Absolutely) terrible/ awful
Some of those responses don’t match particular questions. For example, “How are you?” “Perfect” sounds strange, something that can be pointed out/ explained by eliciting the whole sentence “I am perfect”. There are also ones which only go with one particular question, such as “How are you?” “Fine, thanks (and you?)” However, what matches what is difficult to generalise about and so I don’t tend to bring it up in class unless it causes a particular problem. Also, some of the ranking above depends on pronunciation, for example a long and hesitant “(Hmmm) okay (I guess)” being possibly more negative than “So-so”. Other responses which are difficult to rank include “(Oh, you know) same ole same ole”, “Mustn’t grumble” and “(I) can’t complain”. Students may also occasionally hear the answer “Bad!”, but this is almost always used in a joking way and is difficult to use correctly, so I wouldn’t specifically teach it.
After the basic answer and perhaps “Thanks (for asking)”, they should then usually add something such as “I got a little lost but someone helped me”. The main exception is “How are you?” In short conversations with people who you don’t know well, “How are you?” has no special meaning and it’s often okay to answer with the “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” response that they probably learnt at school, perhaps with the conversation moving onto more specific questions with longer answers like “How was your flight?” after that. “How are you?” and more casual versions like “How’s it going?” are also occasionally used to mean “Nice to meet you” in situations such as being introduced to friends of friends where “Nice to meet you” would be too formal, in which case the answer is often just the same question back without answering it (“How’s it going?” “How’s it going?”, “Alright?” “Alright”, etc).
The other possible exception to needing to add an extended answer is with negative answers like “Terrible!”, in which case it is okay to wait for the other person to respond with “(That’s a shame./ That’s a pity./ I’m sorry to hear that./ Really?) What’s up?/ What happened?/ What’s the matter?/ What’s wrong?” before giving more details.
After students have answered the question with just the right amount of detail, they should then ask a question back. It’s best if this at least a slightly different question, because otherwise it means the first person has to think of all the new questions each time. For example, they could ask “How about you? How was the traffic coming from Osaka?” if the original question was “How was your journey?”, rather than just “How was yours?”
A smooth conversation starting with a how question might therefore go something like this:
A: Hi, John. How’s it going? How was your weekend?
B: Pretty good. It was my daughter’s birthday, so we went roller skating and then to a buffet restaurant nearby. How about you? How was your match?
B: That’s a pity. What happened?
A: We lost ten-nil! And I scored an own goal!
B: That sounds awful! And how is your family?
A: Great. Everyone’s busy. How…?
Common student problems with small talk questions with how
Students sometimes share the common teacher problem of asking “How was your weekend?” on Wednesday, when it is unlikely that the other person can quickly remember. Always asking “How are you?” can also have the same effect of quickly killing the conversation, being both too formal for many situations and unlikely to produce a long and interesting answer.
The other major problem with asking questions is confusions between different ones. For example, many of my students seem to think that “How about you?” means “How are you?”, leaving me stumped when they start the class by asking me that question (which is like starting a conversation with “And you?”/ “What about you?”) Some others have a similar problem with “How do you do?”, not realising that it means “Pleased to meet you” and so is only used when meeting people for the first time.
There are also possible confusions between two or more of the How small talk questions that this article is about, for example:
- “How was your journey?” (meaning to the place where you are now, perhaps from their own office)/ “How was your trip?” (to somewhere and back again, e.g. a business trip from this office to New York and back)
- “How’s (your) work?” (meaning their own work, and often answered by “…. busy”)/ “How’s business?” (meaning business conditions, and answered by “Getting better”, “Not so good. …is decreasing”, etc)
- “How was your holiday?” (meaning some kind of special time off like a public holiday or summer vacation) and “How were your days off?” (meaning regular days off, so the same as “How was your weekend?” for most people)
As mentioned above, students often answer as if the question was “What did you do at the weekend?” rather than “How was your weekend?”, missing out the basic answer like “Not bad”. Some students also answer before they have even been asked, or answer a different question to the one they have been asked. This could be due to always being asked the same question, preparing their answer beforehand, or simply not being familiar with questions like “How’s your project going?” and “How was your trip?”
Common student problems with the basic answers include not realising that “So-so” is negative and that “Not bad” usually means “Good”.
How to present small talk questions with how
These kinds of questions are the easiest thing in the world to bring into class, by simply asking students naturally “How are you (today?)”, “How was your weekend?” (as long as the class is on Monday or Tuesday!), and “How has your day/ week been (so far)?” (as long as it isn’t Monday or Tuesday). Alternatively, these are among the most useful questions to present and practise when teaching tenses, for example using “How is your thesis going?” to practise Present Continuous.
I then absolutely insist on students answering with an adjective and the right amount of detail. If they don’t know the right response or always just say “Fine, thank you” even when they don’t mean it, I then elicit more positive and more negative responses in order on the board with “Wonderful” etc at the top and “Terrible” etc at the bottom. I then elicit what question(s) I asked and some other suitable “How…?” questions, explaining why questions like “How do you do?” and “How about you? don’t count if students suggest unsuitable ones. If students already know all that well, I then elicit the differences between similar questions, how they should respond to good and bad news, etc.
Other ways of presenting this language include:
- Dialogues with the “How…?” questions missing for students to complete
- Jigsaw texts for students to put in order
- Bad dialogues for students to improve
- Getting students to classify “How…?” questions by whether they have this “How good…?” meaning or have the other “In what way?” meaning (“How can I get to the bathroom?” etc)
- Giving questions and responses as an open cloze (“How was _____ weekend?”, “How has your week been _____ far?”, etc)
- Getting them to decide which “How…?” questions and/ or responses are most suitable
- Doing something on small talk more generally such as crossing off taboo questions from a list of possible small talk questions, then concentrate on the “How…?” questions in that task
- Asking students to listen and choose the best responses to some how questions that they hear
With most of these, I then tend to test them on their memory of the phrases that they have just seen or heard, usually with a brainstorming task. Some of the practice activities below such as the Simplest Responses Game can be used at the presentation stage in a similar way (something I call “Use Recall Analyse”).
How to practise small talk questions with how
As mentioned above, the simplest way of practising these small talk questions is just to naturally ask students “How…?” questions at the start of the class, probably starting with “How are you?”, moving onto more casual ones like “How are you doing?” and then more specific ones like “How is/ was work?” You can then get them to ask the same or similar questions to each other. Whenever you need to do a more formal presentation of suitable questions and responses, though, you’ll probably want to use a more intensive practice activity such as one of the ones below.
How questions better responses for points game
Elicit or give students a list of basic responses ranked from 1 for the worst (e.g. “Terrible”) up to perhaps 7 points for the best (“Fabulous” etc). Students ask each other questions like “How was your last holiday?” and “I remember you said you were going to the Picasso exhibition. How was it?” and get points depending on how positive the (true) answers are, e.g. three points if their partner says “So so”. They get no points if their partner couldn’t answer the question, e.g. if they were asked about a trip to somewhere that they have never been or if they can’t remember how their summer holiday was.
How questions longer and longer answers game
One student asks the same question over and over again and their partner(s) must respond with a longer (preferably true) answer each time, e.g. “Not too bad. I went shopping and found a reasonable suit”, “Not too bad. I went shopping and found a reasonable suit in the first shop we went to”, etc. When the next answer is actually shorter or they give up trying to say anything longer, they discuss which answer is probably best in real life, then switch roles and do the same with another question.
How questions bluffing games
Students answer “How…?” questions with one of the words left on their worksheet or on the cards in their hand such as “Not bad” or “Fantastic”. Their partner asks follow up questions like “What was wrong with it?” and “What did you do?”, then guess if the original answer was true or not.
A bluffing game could also work with the cards or worksheet having the answers to the follow up questions, e.g. “lose” or “win”. Students listen to the question, choose one of the words in their hand to answer with, choose any adjective they like to match the story that they are going to tell, and use both in their response. For example, if the card says “warn”, they could say “Awful” and then “My boss warned me that I could lose my job”, then answer any additional questions about that story. However, note that in this case it will be difficult for students to tell true stories unless you have chosen the key words very carefully, so it’s best to just have it as a challenge to come up with suitable stories, without the guessing whether they are lying or not stage.
How questions competitions
In groups of three or four, one student asks a “How…?” question like “How is your (daily) commute (to uni/ to work)?” or “How was your long weekend?” and the other students take turns using one of the adjectives and following it up with a true or imaginary story that matches the adjective that they chose like “So so. The weather was terrible, but we’d hired a caravan so at least we weren’t camping”. The person who asked the question then decides whose story was most interesting.
How questions answer me
Students are given cards with answers like “Okay” and “Fantastic/ Perfect” on and have to get (exactly) those responses from “How…?” questions to be able to discard the cards and score points. For example, if they ask “How was your trip to Germany?” and their partner says “Alright. I’m getting a bit bored with going there all the time, but it’s always very easy and the hotels are nice”, they can discard the “Okay/ Alright” card if they have in their hand.
How questions coin game
One student chooses a “How…?” question such as “How was your lunch?” Their partner reacts naturally (e.g. “Not bad. I had the set lunch and it was slightly better than usual”) and then asks the same question back. Before answering the same question, the first person flips a coin to see if their answer should be more positive (heads) or more negative/ less positive (tails). They try to answer with that level of positivity or negativity and a believable reason why (e.g. “Not so good. The steak was a little undercooked”), then ask the same question back again. They continue asking the same question, flipping the coin and giving more or less positive answers until someone runs out of ideas or actually says something that doesn’t follow what the coin told them to do. They then do the same thing with other questions.
How questions boasting game
Students try to think of and ask questions where their partner might have a more negative/ less positive answer than they do, for example asking “How was your lunch?” if their own lunch was excellent. If their partner’s answer is indeed more negative than their own answer when their partner asks them “How about you(rs)?” back, they score one point. You could also have a more complicated version where the number of points is the difference between their two answers, e.g. three points if their partner answers “Okay” and their own answer is “(Absolutely) perfect” but only one point if their partner answers “Okay” and their own answer is “Not bad”.
How questions answer me 2
Give students worksheets or cards with responding to responses phrases like “I envy you” and “That’s a pity”. They ask each other questions like “How was your last TOEIC test?” and “How are the transport connections where you live?”, listen to responses like “Terrible. My score went down from last year!” and “Can’t complain. I have two stations just two minutes away” and get points if they can use one of their phrases naturally in reaction to that.
How questions ladder game
Students try to get the answers on a ladder going from “Terrible” at the bottom to “Wonderful” at the top in the same order as they are on the ladder, e.g. asking “How was the train this morning?” to get a “Terrible” answer, then “How was maths lesson yesterday?” to get a “Not so good” answer, etc. If they get a different answer to the next one up on the ladder, they slip down to the bottom and have to try again from “Terrible”. However, they can ask exactly the same questions again if they remember them.
How questions list dictation
The teacher or a student reads out a list of phrases with the same word missing until someone listening works out what the missing word is, e.g. “is” for “How _______ Jane?”, “How ______ your project going?” and “How _______ business?”, or “your” for “How’s _______ new product doing?”, “How was ____ flight?” and “How was _______ weekend?” They can then fill in the same words on a worksheet and use that worksheet to test each other in the way.
How questions responses guessing
In this simplest version of this, students ask each other “How was your journey this morning?”, “How was your hotel in China?”, etc and then secretly point to an answer on their worksheet or lay a card face down on the table before their partner responds. After they listen to the response, they show what they guessed and see if it was the same as the real response or not. If they guessed correctly, they get one point.
Perhaps after a few minutes of this basic version, you can also get students to hum their answers and then ask the person who asked the question to try to work out what the hum means from the stress and intonation. This is particularly useful if your students aren’t good at using different intonation for positive and negative responses, e.g. saying “Great” with a very flat voice. Note that in these games there is a danger of facial expressions and other body language giving away the response, so you might want to do it with students sitting back to back to make sure they can’t see each other.
How questions simplest responses game
To present or practise both kinds of How questions, give each student two cards, one saying “Good or bad/ Ranking” and the other saying “(In what) way”. Students listen to questions like “How was the meeting with your boss?” and “How can I improve my English?” and hold up one of the cards depending on what kind of question they think they have just heard. They can then label the same questions on a worksheet with “R” for “ranking” and “W” for “way”, thinking about what the answers might be if they get stuck.
The same simplest responses game might also possible with good and bad “How…?” small talk questions, with students holding up “Good/ Okay” and “Bad” cards depending on whether they hear “How’s work?” or “How’s your wife’s cooking?” Whether phrases are okay or not of course depends on the situation, so you’ll need to tell them to imagine that they are asking such questions to their classmates, to colleagues who they don’t know well so well, etc. Alternatively, they can listen to two possible phrases and hold up “A” if the first one was better and “B” if the second one was better. The same can also be done for good and bad responses.
For both questions and responses, in a variation on the Simplest Responses Game you can also give students cards saying “The same” and “Different” for them to hold up when they hear pairs of phrases like “How’s it going?”/ “How are things?” (which have the same meaning) and “Okay”/ “So so” (which usually have different meanings).
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