How to teach Yes/ No questions
Summary: Teaching tips and classroom games/ activities to present and practise Yes/ No questions like "Is this umbrella yours?" and "Did you have a good time?"
There is a lot to be said for cutting down on the number of Yes/ No questions in class and replacing them with Wh- questions, especially when it comes to closed teacher questions that provoke little student thought and/ or speech like “Is this the Present Perfect?” However, it is also worth spending at least half a class on teaching and practising Yes/ No questions like “Are you ready to order?” and “Do you eat pork?”, as this will mean that you can teach question formation in a quick and easy way that will make life much easier when you teach Wh- questions. The topic of Yes/ No questions can also be revised, practised and extended later in communicative activities when covering Present Perfect (“Have you ever…?”), small talk questions (“Did you have any trouble finding us?”, “Do you have any plans for the weekend?”), etc. Yes/ No questions are also more common outside the classroom than you might suppose, with ones like “Have you come far?” and “Do you live near here?” being common both in language exams and real life conversations. In addition, activities with Yes/ No questions like those below can be used to practise other language like classroom vocabulary and names of countries and nationalities.
This article gives advice on deciding which Yes/ No questions to present, when and how to present them, and how to practise them in fun communicative activities.
What students need to know about Yes/ No questions
The rules for Yes/No questions are basically the same as for Wh- questions, but are easier to explain since students won’t have to worry about question words and subject questions. Generally, Yes/ No questions must start with an auxiliary verb then the subject then the main verb. For example, in “Was it raining when you left?”, “was” is the auxiliary verb (also sometimes known as the grammar verb or helping verb), “it” is the subject, and raining is the main verb (also sometimes known as the content verb). This can be abbreviated as “Y/N Q = aux + S + V”. As their name suggests, modal auxiliary verbs like “can”, “will” and “should” take the auxiliary verb position in questions like “Can you swim?” and “Should I make a reservation?” When there is more than one auxiliary verb in questions like “Has it been playing up again?”, “Might he be pretending?” and “Will it have been fixed?”, only the first auxiliary goes before the subject, making the full rule for more advanced classes “Y/N Q = aux + S (+ aux) (+ aux) + V”.
If there is an auxiliary verb in the equivalent statement, you can simply take the statement and swap the subject and auxiliary verb, for example going from “He’s swimming” to “Is he swimming?” If there is no auxiliary verb in the question, the auxiliary verb “do” has to be added to make the same question structure possible, for example going from “I like ketchup on my cornflakes” to “Do you like ketchup on your cornflakes?” and from “I had a lot to drink” to “Did you have a lot to drink?”
The exception to those general rules is questions with (just) the verb “be”. “Be” is the main verb in sentences like “It was fantastic” but simply swaps with the subject to make questions like “Was it fantastic?” as if it were an auxiliary verb (not “Did it be fantastic?”, as might be expected for a sentence with a single main verb). Students rarely get confused with this, especially once they have seen “be” work that way as an auxiliary verb in questions like “Is your mother coming?” However, it does make it difficult for the teacher to decide what order to present Yes/ No questions in.
The first Y/ N questions that come up in class are often ones with “be” as a main verb like “What’s your name?”, “How old are you?” and “How are you?” and this can naturally lead to questions like “Are you seven?” and “Are you hungry?” However, starting with Yes/ No questions with “be” as the main verb means you have begun with the one exception to the rule, perhaps making mistakes like “Like you cheese?” more likely later on. My messy solution to that problem is to use Yes/ No questions like “Is your name Juan?” as they come up naturally in class, but start specific practice of Yes/ No questions with games like those below with “Do(es)…?” questions. I then usually leave specific practice of “Is your mother home?” and “Was the beach clean?” until I have already taught “Is/ Are… ing?” questions.
The other kind of Yes/ No question to decide your policy on is “Have you got…?” Despite being a British English speaker and so rarely saying “Do you have…?” in normal life, I have decided “Have you got…?” is unnecessary, confusing for students, and too difficult to fit into a syllabus. I therefore leave it out unless it comes up as a student question, generally even skipping any mention of it in the textbook.
I would therefore usually teach Yes/ No questions in this order:
- Do you like…?
- Do you have…?
- Do you…?
- Does… have…?
- Are you… ing?
- Is… ing?
- Is/ Are…?
- Is there…?/ Are there…?
- Has/ Have…?
- Would you like…?
- Will you…?
- Will you… if…?
- Would you… (if…)?
There are many other useful Yes/ No questions with modal verbs such as “Shall I…?”, “Shall we…?”, “Could you/ I…?” and “May I…?” However, I would teach them in lessons on offers, requests, invitations, etc, not as part of a segment on Yes/ No questions. Other possible Yes/ No questions like “Had you (already)…?” and “Should I…?” are so rare as to not be worth presenting at all, although Yes/No questions can be a good way of students getting their head around the meaning of Past Perfect, in which case most of the games below would work.
Practising Yes/ No questions will inevitably lead to a need for short answers like “Yes, I do” and “No, she hasn’t”. There is a separate article on that topic on this site. Particularly if students usually give just short answers, you’ll also probably want to introduce some useful follow-up questions like “Why…?” Introducing follow-up questions can also be a good way of linking from Yes/ No questions to the very similar but slightly more difficult topic of Wh- questions.
Typical student problems with Yes/ No questions
As mentioned above, students can have some problems with putting the main verb first in place of the auxiliary verb in questions like “Get you up early in the morning?” This is most likely to happen in examples like this when there are no auxiliary verbs in the statement/ answer. Even so, this problem can simply be dealt with simply through early and constant practice of asking and answering questions like “Are you ready?” and “Do you like blue cheese?”
Problems with specific verbs like “have/ have got” are more common. For example, students often produce the non-standard question “Have you time to speak?” when “have” is the main verb and so needs “Do you…?” My main tactic is to teach “Do you have…?” with or straight after “Do you…?” questions like “Do you like…?” and “Do you live near here?”, so hopefully students get used to using it naturally without too much thought. As mentioned above, not teaching “have got” also helps avoid confusion. However, I don’t correct “Have you your own office?” questions, as the form is fairly common in English dialects and older literature and it is unlikely to cause communication problems.
More problematic are semi-modal verbs like “have to” and “want to”, because they have similar meanings to forms like “must” and “would like” but need an extra auxiliary in “Do we have to…?” and “Do you want to…?” In this case, student mistakes like “Have we to…?” and “Want you to…?” can be confusing for the listener. I tend to just deal with these errors as they come up, especially as “Do you have to…?” is a rare question. I tend to completely avoid presenting “want” even in questions as it might tempt student to try using the verb in rude statements like “I want sugar in my tea”.
How not to teach Yes/ No questions
The main thing that made me write this article was being confronted with a textbook that had questions like “Do you drive on Wednesdays?” and “Do you have breakfast at eight o’clock?” I think you can justify questions like “Do you need to stand up all day?” to practise “need to”, but even in that case you can add questions that people are more likely to really ask and answer outside the classroom like “Do you need to do any special training?” The same philosophy can turn “Do you like swimming?” into “Do you like spicy food?” and “Do you have many toys?” to “Do you have the new Nintendo Switch (yet)?” Unfortunately there is no way of making suitable questions with times and days in, but you can make similar ones like “Do you get up late at weekends?” that will produce suitable language in the answers.
Even worse than using questions that are ridiculously unlikely is the just as common textbook activity of converting back and forth from statements and Yes/ No questions, such as going from “I went to the beach last weekend” to “Did you go to the beach last weekend?” and from “Have you been to Disneyland?” to “I have been to Disneyland”. This is fine when eliciting the structure of Yes/ No questions in the presentation stage. However, these kinds of exercises are actually counterproductive in the practice stage, as this process is completely different to what students should and will actually being doing in their heads as they make and answer Yes/ No questions in real communication, and so could slow their speaking down.
Another common problem, and the one I have been most guilty of, is expecting too much imagination and/ or language from students when I ask them to make Yes/ No questions. This can particularly be a problem when using Yes/ No questions to practise other language in activities like 20 Questions below. The simplest solution to this is just making (and perhaps keeping as a backup) a list of suggested questions to use during the activity, e.g. “Is it near me?” if they are guessing which classroom object their partner chose. As well as being useful for class, the process of drawing up the questions and thinking about which students will actually understand and be able to answer can sometimes warn the teacher off using an activity which is too difficult for that class of students.
Fun classroom practice of Yes/ No questions
Good and bad yes/ no questions
There are many good small talk yes/ no questions like “Did you have any trouble getting here?” and “Do you have any plans for the weekend?”, but there are also ones which are best avoided like “Are you religious?”, “Are you married?” and “Have you put on weight?” There are a few possible activities that can be done with a collection of such useful and less useful real-life Y/ N questions. The simplest is to get students to ask each other only the good ones, afterwards crossing off the ones they should not have used. The same thing can also be done with just a list of topics, with students only making up and asking each other good Y/ N questions like “Do you work near here?” and “Are there any good restaurants near here?” and avoiding questions like “Does your company pay well?” for the “workplace” topic. After finishing the communicative stage, they can write good and bad questions for the topics.
This can be turned into more of a game by students asking any question they like and then flipping a coin to decide if they can ask the question to anyone else (heads) or have to answer their own question themselves (tails).
Yes/ No questions longer and longer answers game
This game deals with the biggest potential problem with lots of practice of Yes/ No questions, which is that students get too used to giving short answers and so don’t really communicate. One student asks their partner exactly the same Y/ N question over and over again, to which their partner should try to give a longer and longer answer each time, for example “Are you from round here?” “Yes” “Are you from round here?” “Yes, I am” “Are you from round here?” “Yes, I am. I live about ten minutes from here.” “Are you from round here?” “Yes, I am. I live about ten minutes from here. My family are from Andalucía, though”, etc. After their next answer is actually shorter or they give up, they can then discuss which answer was actually best.
Make me say Yes
Students ask each other Yes/ No questions and get one point for each time they get a “Yes” answer from their partner. They get no points for a “No” or “I don’t know” answer and so have to think carefully about their questions, for example not asking “Do you have a pony?” if their partner is unlikely to have one. However, it can be fun as a later round to play the same game with points only for “No” answers or only for “I don’t know” answers (to questions like “Does your mother like jazz?”)
This game can also be played as Make Me Say Yes Double or Quits, in which they get one point for each “Yes” answer until they give up and hand over to their partner, but if they get the wrong answer they lose all the points from that round.
Yes/ No questions answer me
This is like a more sophisticated version of Make Me Say Yes above. Students are given cards with short answers like “Yes, I can” and “No, she doesn’t” on and have to get those responses from their partners with questions like “Can you ride a unicycle?” and “Does your mother have green hair?” to discard those cards. The winner is the first person to discard all their cards, or the person with fewest cards in their hand when the teacher stops the game.
Yes/ No questions board games
This is another fancier version of Make Me Say Yes above. Make a board game with topics, subjects, question starters, auxiliary verbs, etc in each square. Students ask questions about or using the things in the square they are on to someone else in their group and can move:
- Two squares if they get a “Yes” answer
- Only one square if they get a “No” answer
- No squares if they get a “I don’t know” answer or an answer with the wrong auxiliary verb (because they used the wrong kind of question)
Yes/ No questions bluffing games
Perhaps the best solution to students getting bored with asking and answering these kinds of questions is getting students to lie some of the time, with their partners trying to work out when they are lying. It’s quite difficult for students to decide when they should lie when there are only two easy answers like this, so it is best if it is in some way decided for them. Possibilities include:
- Answering “Yes” to every answer (and then maybe perhaps answering “No” in the next round), whether that answer is true or not and whatever the question is
- Flipping a coin and saying “Yes” if it shows heads and “No” if tails is top
- Secretly flipping a coin and giving a true answer is the heads side is up and giving a false answer if it shows tails
- Dealing out “True” and “False” cards and deciding which to lay face down on the table when they are asked questions
- Giving one false answer and four true answers when they are asked five Yes/ No questions
In all games, the students asking the questions should be encouraged to ask for more details with follow up questions like “Why not?” before guessing if the “Yes” answer or “No” answer was true or not.
Yes/ No questions roleplays
Give out roleplay cards that have problems on, e.g. “Your longest job was three days” and “You have never used a computer” for the topic of job interviews or “You are already married” if they are roleplaying speed dating. Students ask each other questions until they find what is wrong with their partner. They can answer anything they like to other questions not related to their card(s). The game can be played with just Yes/ No questions, but it is more realistic and manageable if you allow a mix of Wh- and Yes/ No questions but insist on a Yes/ No question to confirm what they think their partner’s problem is.
More and more yes/ no questions brainstorming games
Students choose a topic, question starter, main verb or subject from the worksheet and take turns asking different questions about or using that thing until anyone repeats a previous question, goes off topic, or runs out of ideas. They then do the same with another thing from the worksheet. If you want to turn it into a competition, you could give one point to the last person to ask a good question before each round ends. You could also decide that taboo questions like “Do you have children?” and “Do you like alcohol?” are forbidden. If students are still likely to get bored before they run out of questions, you can get them to throw a ball back and forth or make a tower with blocks as they ask and answer the questions, with the ball being dropped or the tower falling down also being the end of that round.
20 questions Yes/ No questions guessing game
This is probably the most well-known game involving Yes/ No questions. One student picks something such as an object in the classroom or one of the jobs on a worksheet and answers questions like “Is it made of glass?” and “Do you have to wear a uniform?” until someone guesses which thing they chose. The game can be used with virtually any topic, for example:
- Food and drink (“Did you eat it yesterday?”)
- Prepositions of position (“Is it under the whiteboard?”)
- Countries (“Is it a large country?”)
- Vocabulary for describing places (“Can you buy stamps there?”, “Is it a natural place?”)
- Verbs (“Have you done this since you this class started?”)
This can be a great game to practise both Yes/ No questions and vocabulary but there are some problems with it. Perhaps the biggest problem is that students who are learning the words “window” and “bus driver” are unlikely to need to or be able to make or even understand questions like “Is it made of glass?” I therefore tend to save this game for practice of the language in the questions rather than the vocabulary they are choosing from. For example, I usually do the guessing jobs version when we are practising modal verbs and the describing objects one when we are doing passive voice, and so long after we have studied the names of the jobs and objects.
The other problem with 20 Questions is that such Yes/ No questions as “Can you sit down in your job?” are unlikely to ever come up in real life, but I don’t think this matters too much as long as the questions include useful language for other purposes and you also spend time on more realistic Yes/ No questions and/ or Wh- questions like “What time do you usually start work?” and “Is this your first time in Madrid?”
Particularly in classes or with topics where guessing would be too difficult, you can also have pairs of students acting out a version of the conversations for other people to guess from. For example, if both students choose “tea”, they can ask and answer questions like “Is it usually hot?” and “Does it come from China?” until the people listening guess what it is.
Yes/ No questions reversi
As I mentioned above, I’m no fan of transferring back and forth between Yes/ No questions and similar statements like “I went to the park yesterday” and “Did you go to the park yesterday?” However, if you really can’t ignore it, for example because students need to do it for some kind of exam (a depressingly common situation), there is a suitable game. Make a pack of cards with the statement form on one side and the Yes/ No question on the other. Make sure that there is a mix of easy ones like “I can swim”/ “Can you swim?” and trickier ones like “He made breakfast”/ “Did he make breakfast?” and “He has been breaking the rules”/ “Has he been breaking the rules?”
Students spread the cards across the table, either side up. One student guesses what is on the other side of the cards and turns them over to check, stopping whenever they make a mistake. Any cards which were guessed correctly stay the other way up to be tried the other way round the next time. The next person can try the same cards again and/ or new cards. The winner is the person with the longest string of cards without a mistake, so they should count how many cards they manage each time (hopefully more and more each time!)
I’ve never tried it, but the same activity could also possibly work with Yes/ No questions on one side and similar Wh- questions on the other, e.g. “Do you live near here?”/ “Where do you live?” and “Are you working or are you a student?”/ “What do you do?”
Yes/ No questions stories and songs
I have yet to find one that has a good range of different Yes/ No questions, but there are quite a few kids’ songs and picture books that are based around a single closed question and answers, for example the songs Do You Like Broccoli Ice Cream on SuperSimpleLearning and Can a Flea Climb a Tree on LearnEnglishKids, and the stories Ketchup on your Cornflakes and Is it Dark Is it Light?
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