How to teach subject questions
Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for wh word + main verb questions, including subject question games.
Even with young and low-level learners, it is quickly possible to get students to ask their own questions, be it “What’s your favourite candy?”, “Do you want an elephant?”, or something more serious. This is great for showing students that anyone can really communicate in English. Enough of this kind of speaking practice should hopefully also give them lots of examples when it later comes to presenting the grammar of question formation with rules such as “Wh… + auxiliary verb + subject + main verb (+…)?” The danger of giving them that freedom to make their own questions is that sooner or later they will come up with awkward exceptions to those simple rules, often including subject questions like “Who does the cooking in your house?” and “Which station is nearest your house?” It is therefore virtually impossible to avoid this tricky grammar point in a truly communicative classroom. This article gives tips on both how to come up with an instant explanation and how to teach a whole lesson on the topic, including lots of subject question games.
What students need to know about subject questions
In a “normal” question, the basic answer is the object of a longer reply. For example, in the question “Who did you give Valentine’s chocolates to?” the answer could be “All my workmates”. This is short for “I gave Valentine’s chocolates to all my workmates” and so is the object of the fuller sentence. The wh- word could also be said to be object of the question.
In contrast, if the question is “Who gave Valentine’s chocolates to you?”, then the answer is something like “Nobody”, which is short for “Nobody gave chocolates to me”. The answer to the question is therefore the subject of the longer reply. In this case the wh- word is clearly the grammatical subject of the question, as there are no other candidates. In some ways the construction of a subject question is easier than that of an object question, as it has none of the inversion and extra added auxiliary verbs that can make English question formation difficult. Instead, it simply follows the word order of an English statement, namely “Wh- + verb (+…)?”, like “subject + verb (+…)” in the answer.
“Who…?” being the grammatical subject of the question also explains why you don’t say “Who are singing?” even when you know there are two singers, as the verb must follow the singular subject “who”, the same as in “Everybody has something to say”.
As well as the rules for how to make subject questions and how they are different from the more common (normal/ object) questions, students also need to get used to using and replying to typical subject questions. There aren’t that many, but they include “Who’s calling, please?”, “Which is better (,… or …)?”, “What happened?”, “Whose pen is this?”, “Which button…?” and “What causes…?” As with those examples, students also need to notice which question words most often start subject questions, with “Who…?”, “Which…?”, “Whose…?” and “What…?” being the most common, in approximately that order.
It is also often worth presenting and/ or practising typical short answers to subject questions like “My brother does” (in reply to “Who in your family speaks most during meals?” etc) and “Global warming will” (if the question is “What will have the biggest impact on our grandchildren’s lives?”)
Possible things to avoid in subject question lessons
Especially if you want to practise short answers, it is well worth checking that the questions which you choose can actually be answered in this way. For example, “What brings you here?” is rarely if ever answered with “Wanting to meet new clients brings me here” or “Wanting to meet new clients does”. This is perhaps because the question is a more polite way of asking “Why are you here?”, and so the reply has the same structure as that more direct question. For that reason, I might not include it in my list of questions to present and practise in a lesson on subject questions, instead leaving it for a lesson on meeting people at trade fairs. However, for more advanced learners it might be good to learn that “What kind of jobs interest you?” is likely be to answered “I’m most interested in…” rather than “Doctor does”.
There are also a few questions which could be either subject or object questions depending on how you see them. For instance, “What is the best thing about this area?” could be answered “The nightlife is the best thing about this area” or “The best thing about this area is the nightlife”, depending on how you interpret the grammar of the question. This means that it’s difficult for students to make any mistake, but you might want to avoid these kinds of questions if you don’t want to deal with difficult questions.
There are also lots of rhetorical subject questions that people are not expected to answer like “Who cares?”, “Who knew?” and “What’s stopping you?”, something that can form part of a lesson on rhetorical questions, but might confuse students in a lesson on subject questions.
Typical student problems with subject questions
The biggest communication problem with subject and object questions is misunderstanding ones which are similar but have different meanings. For example, if the question is “Who told you the rumour?”, the questioner wants to know the source of the misinformation, not who they spread it on to, which would be the answer to “Who have you told the rumour to?” Some textbooks try to practise this kind of contrast with situations in which it is important that students correctly ask and answer pairs of questions like “Who did Jane shoot?” and “Who shot Jane?” or “Who loves Paul?” and “Who does Paul love?” in order to work out crime stories, love triangles, etc. However, my students always get more confused, often also losing faith in their ability to ask and answer the normal object questions!
Instead of these kinds of confusing and very artificial situations, I usually just present subject questions when students misuse them in more realistic communicative situations. For example, while doing telephoning practice they may think that “Who’s calling, please?” means “Who would you like to speak to?” (perhaps because it sounds a bit like “Who are you calling?”). You can use the grammar to show them that the subject is the person who is calling, which is themselves, but you can also reassure them that there is no possible confusion in real life because we don’t use the question “Who are you calling?” in phone calls, instead saying “How can I help you?” It should be fairly easy to choose a similar example to correct or present which doesn’t have a confusing similar object question.
Even with well-chosen practice, there is still the danger that once students realise that they don’t always need “do”, etc in questions, they will go back to making elementary question formation mistakes like “Who you work for?” and “Who do work for?” Therefore, the intensive practice of subject questions ideas below should only be used for a short time, with higher-level learners, and/or with a realistic balance between object and subject questions such as 90% object questions.
How to present subject questions
If you choose typical real-life subject questions which are not too similar to object questions (as recommended above), it should be possible to start by getting students to use and reply to such questions as part of a speaking activity. For example, if you give them the question “Which is better for the planet, soya or chicken?” or “What causes global warming?”, they should be able to answer without even thinking about the grammar of the question. You can then get them to recall and analyse the forms of the questions that they have just been using.
Perhaps the most interesting initial speaking activity of this kind is Good and Taboo Subject Questions, in which students try to choose and ask only the questions which we might really ask in real conversations like “Which station is nearest to your house?”, skipping difficult and very personal ones like “Who is a better parent, your father or your mother?” and “Who would be a better prime minister than the present one?” This is also a good solution to the problem of there not being that many very common social/ functional subject questions, as the teacher can add as many grammatically correct but weird subject questions as they like to the worksheet.
The other possibility is to give students a communicative task that doesn’t have suggested questions but is likely to bring the topic up, after which you can correct mistakes like “Who did inspire you to study English?” X and do a quick grammar presentation. Ideas from the practice section below like job interviews should work for this.
There are quite a few songs with subject questions in. After doing another exercise such as filling gaps, you can test students on their memory and understanding of the questions in the song. Unfortunately, even songs with subject questions in the title like Who Wants to Live Forever only usually include one or two subject questions, and most of those are usually rhetorical questions. The only exception I have found is Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? This has a different problem of lots of useless vocabulary, but it should be possible to design an initial task in which students don’t need to understand the more obscure words.
Similar things are of course also possible with other texts such as made-up celebrity interviews, perhaps with students trying to match the questions and answers, reading or listening to check, then analysing the questions that they just matched up.
I wouldn’t do any actual grammar presentation of subject questions with children under ten years old. However, there are a couple of activities which they can do without any grammar explanation. The first is the classic children’s chant and game Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar? in which student accuse each other with “Juan stole the cookies from the cookie jar” etc, making sure that they are word perfect and that they don’t accuse the same person back.
Another good subject questions activity for young learners is a detailed picture for students to test each other with questions like “What is flying across the sky?” and “Who is sitting in a bucket?” This can be done as a searching race if the picture is detailed enough. Alternatively, it can be done as a memory game with one person testing the others on what they can remember. This can also be done as a practice activity with older classes.
The drawing game in the practice section below can also be done before or without a grammar presentation.
How to practise subject questions
Most of the activities below are described with just subject questions but are as good or better with a more realistic number of object questions added. A good way of having both a good balance but enough subject questions for useful practice is to limit students to questions starting with “who”, “which”, “whose” and maybe “what”.
Subject question interviews
Although the taboo questions activity described above and below is amusing and can be good practice for the few subject questions that students might be asked in everyday conversations, in fact this grammar is more likely to come up in less common situations. Perhaps the most realistic is job interviews, in which interviewers might ask “Who told you about this job?” and “What kind of job most interests you?”
Interviewing each other for subject questions practice also works really well with questions about English use and studies like “What inspired you to study English?” and “Who last wrote to you in English?”, perhaps as a needs analysis in the first lesson and/ or linking to self-study tips.
Subject question drawing games
Give students subject questions and short answers which connect to a picture which is unique enough to help someone answer the question in the right way. For example, if they ask the question “Who wears this hat?” and they draw a hat with huge spaces for ears, their partner should be able to come up with the correct answer “A rabbit does”. After a few examples like this from a worksheet, they can make up their own questions like “Who has this tail?”
Subject question vocabulary quizzes
There are a few ways to use subject questions to test students’ knowledge of words and expressions and expand their knowledge of vocabulary. As “Who…?” questions are the most common subject questions, this is especially good for nouns describing people such as jobs and relationships, with questions like “Who looks after kids when their parents want to go out for a date night?”, “Which word describes someone who has stopped working due to old age?” and “Which relation is your grandfather’s brother?” You can connect this word formation by using words for people ending in -er, -ian, -ist, -ee, etc.
They can also test each other on differences between the words with subject questions like “Which is better paid, a bank clerk or a banker?”, something that also works for synonyms and common confusions of almost any group of nouns.
Describing cultural differences subject questions practice
The family words practice described above can be made into more of a discussion with questions about possible cultural differences like “Who gives speeches at a wedding?” and “Who receives presents at Xmas?” This can also work for other cultural difference topics with questions like “Which is the most important festival or celebration in your city or country?”
Subject question trivia quizzes
Although it doesn’t form a large part of most people’s lives, subject questions stand out most of all in quizzes. Common subject questions in quizzes include “Who directed…?”, “Who invented…?”, “Which country has…?”, “Who holds the world record for…?” and “What company produces…?” After trying to answer some example questions (perhaps with multiple choice answers) and analysing the questions that they were asked, students can make up their own similar questions.
Subject question personalised quizzes
There are three ways of personalising the idea of subject question quizzes. The first is simply to for students to see if their partners can guess something about their life with questions like “Who is my hero?” The opposite is to see if they can come up with questions about their partner which their partner can’t answer like “Who was your first teacher at primary school?” They could also ask impossible to answer questions about family members like “What is in your father’s coat pockets now?”
People’s possessions subject questions
One student takes the same thing from two or more different people, hides them, then test the other students with questions like “Whose is square?”, “Who has the red pen?” and “Which one has stickers on it?”
Classmates subject questions
Students test each other on their knowledge of the other people in the class with questions like “Who has four brothers and sisters?”, “Whose grandparents live in Hong Kong?” and “Which of our classmates likes watching ice hockey?”
Subject question challenges
Students take turns asking questions about the abilities of their classmates like “Whose singing voice is the highest?”, “Who can jump the highest?” and “Which of our notebooks is the messiest?” Two people or more people who were nominated then try to do that thing so the class can see whose prediction was correct.
Subject question roleplays
Communicative situations in which subject questions should hopefully come up naturally include job interviews, celebrity interviews (“Who gave you your first acting job?”, etc), giving tourism advice (“Which line goes to the Coliseum?”, etc), asking how things work (“Which button makes the coffee stronger?”, etc), and forgetful people like me who can’t remember the names of the movies etc that they are trying to talk about (“Which movie won the Oscar last year?”).
Subject question discussion questions
Students asking each other questions like “Who can fix global warming?”, “What causes fake news?” and “Which problem will have more and more effect on this city?” is probably the least fun of all the activities mentioned in this article. However, answering discussion questions does have the advantage of being an activity that students are familiar with, which could be a good thing if they are still finding the grammar confusing. It could also be good practice for speaking exams. The restriction of including lots of or only subject questions might mean that the questions are even more difficult to answer than usual IELTS Speaking Part Three questions etc, so it is worth getting students to choose questions carefully. For example, you could allow anyone who is asked a question to ask the same question back in revenge.
Subject questions ask and tell
To make more of a game out of choosing questions carefully, you can add a coin. One student chooses a question, then flips a coin to decide if they can ask the question to someone else (heads) or have to answer the question themselves (tails, for “tell”). This works with discussion questions, personal questions, or a mix of both.
Subject questions coin games
As well as if someone should ask or answer a question that they have chosen, a coin can decide:
- If the next question should be a subject question or an object question
- What the wh- word should be (e.g. heads = which or who, tails = what or whose)
- If they should ask a personal question/ small talk question, or a discussion question/ conversation question about their opinions
Subject questions songs
As mentioned above, there are a few songs with subject questions in such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire? You can also use songs at the practice stage, for example asking students to choose between paired subject questions and object questions or correct and incorrect subject questions, then listen to check.
Subject and object question titles
Rather than using the lyrics of songs, it is probably better to use a collection of titles of songs, movies, books, etc. Perhaps the best activity with these is getting students to choose the correct version of the titles from their memories, grammatical knowledge, etc. For example, if you give them “Who Does Want to Live Forever?” “Who Do You Want to Live Forever?” and “Who Wants to Live Forever?” as three versions of the Queen song’s title, they can choose the last of those from knowing the song or by eliminating the other two as nonsensical and/ or grammatically incorrect.
Good and taboo subject questions
The choosing typical subject questions for normal conversations activity described above can also be used at the practice stage if you include some kind of language task such as also avoiding grammatically incorrect questions or forming the suitable questions from cues like “What kind of jobs … common … in your hometown?”
Subject and object questions accusations game
This game consists almost entirely of subject questions we wouldn’t ask in real life, but that does make it fun. One student asks a question about who is guilty of something such as “Whose bicycle is parked right in front of the school’s entrance?”, “Who is stealing money from my wallet?” and “Which students copied their last homework from other people?”, and someone accuses one or more other students of that thing. The accused denies responsibility and tries to prove their innocence, with the other students asking them interrogation questions (probably mainly object questions at this stage) to see how well their alibi stands up.
Subject and object questions reversi
This game is the absolute opposite of my advice above to avoid too much practice of subject questions, but does at least avoid confusingly similar subject and object questions, instead showing that many subject questions can be avoided or rephrased.
Make cards with two sides. On one side put a subject question and on the other put an object question which has exactly the same meaning and so would get the same short answer. For example, one card could have “Which station is nearest to your home?” on one side and “Which station do you live nearest to?” on the other. Make around twelve cards, with one pack per group of two to four students.
Students take turns guessing what is on the other side of the cards, each time doing as many as they can until they make a mistake. Play then passes to the next person. They should leave the cards turned over if they guess correctly, so that the next person has to guess the other way around. The winner is the first person who manages all of the transformations without making any mistakes, or the person who manages the longest unbroken run of guesses.
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