How to teach question formation
Summary: Tips on presenting and practising making questions in English, including wh- questions, yes/ no questions, subject questions and indirect questions/ embedded questions
Perhaps the most important communicative skill for students is to be able to ask the teacher and each other questions. This article gives advice on everything from teaching the most basic questions with beginners to trickier points like embedded questions. There are also individual articles on this site on personal questions for kids, how questions, yes/ no questions, subject questions, and indirect questions.
What students need to know about question formation
Initial practice of question formation
The first thing to do is to get students asking questions to you and each other as soon as possible. As well as showing them how easy it is to really communicate in English, this should plant plenty of evidence in their brains that they can use when you later ask them to work out the rules of question formation. The stages of getting students started with asking questions could be:
- getting them to ask the same questions back to you and/ or on to the next person
- getting them to choose what to ask you or each other from a list of options
- getting them to make their own variations on those questions
- allowing them to ask any questions they like
With kids the most basic questions are “What’s your name?”, “How old are you?” and “How are you?”, but after that you really need to get them asking questions with “do”, yes/ no questions, and at least one question with a different auxiliary verb/ modal verb such as “can”. Suitable ones which students like asking each other and can quickly make their own questions from include:
- What time do you…?
- Do you like…?
- Do you have…?
- Can you…?
Most of those are not very suitable things for adults to ask each other, so with adult classes I would start with a selection of more real-life small talk questions like:
- What do you do?
- Where are you from?/ Where do you live?
- Do you use English in your work/ studies?
- Can you speak any other languages?
Question words should probably be presented and practised in approximately this order:
- How many
- What time
- How often
- How (as in “How are you?”)
- How long
- How much
- How + adjective (“How far”, “How wide”, etc)
Word order in basic question formation
Once students have enough useful questions and answers in their conscious or subconscious brains, they should be ready to work out the pattern of basic English questions like those above. This can be written as:
- (Wh…) + auxiliary verb + subject + main verb (+…)?
- (Wh…) + aux v + S + main V (…)?
- (Wh…) + v + S + V (…)?
This same pattern will work when you later do more complicated tenses like “What is your mother doing right now?”, “When did you last eat ice cream?”, and “Have you ever seen anyone famous?” As the use of brackets around “Wh-” above is supposed to show, Yes/ No questions are exactly the same, but without the initial question word.
The main exception at this basic level is questions with just the verb “be”. In “Where are you from?” and “Are you hungry?” there is only one verb, so “be” is technically the main verb. However, in questions, short answers and negatives it follows exactly the same rules as an auxiliary verb like “do” and “can”. “Be” also works in exactly the same way when it is an auxiliary in “What is he doing?” and “Is this working?” You could therefore perhaps fudge the question by saying that in “Where are the pens?”, “be” is basically both an auxiliary and the main verb.
Another complication that students are likely to come across as soon as you give them the chance to make their own questions is ones where extra words are inserted after the question word, such as:
- How many books do you have?
- How many times a week do you get up late?
- Which flavour ice cream do you like best?
This doesn’t break the pattern explained above, and can be explained by putting everything before the auxiliary verb in the Wh- question part of the question formation structure. To justify this, you can show that “How many times a week do you get up late?” basically means “How often do you get up late?” and that when the context is clear “Which flavour ice cream is your favourite?” can be simplified to “Which is your favourite?”
Subject and object questions
A much more complicated exception that students often come up with when given the opportunity to make their own questions is subject questions like:
- Who recommended this school to you?
- What happened then?
- Who helped you?
- Who spoke first?
- Who gave you chocolates on Valentine’s Day?
In many of these questions there is no “you”, so it is clear that the subject of the question must be the Wh- word. This is one possible reason why we call them “subject questions”, but what is more important is that the basic answer is the subject of a full reply. For example, if the answer to “Who recommended this school to you?” is “John”, that is short for “John (recommended this school to me)” and so the short basic answer (and the important new information) is the subject of the whole sentence.
In contrast, in the more common basic questions mentioned first above, the short answer is the object of a full-sentence response. For example, if someone asks “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” and you answer “Two brothers”, that is short for “(I have) two brothers” and so the short basic answer (and the important new info) is the object of the whole sentence answer. To make this contrast clearer, the kinds of “basic questions” explained above can more properly be referred to as “object questions” when it becomes time to explain subject questions.
Indirect questions/ Embedded questions
The second major exception to “(Wh…) + auxiliary verb + subject + main verb (+…)?” is indirect questions such as “Can I ask where the toilets are?” and “I’d like to know what the problem is”, which are more indirect and therefore more polite versions of “Where are the toilets?” and “What is the problem?” These follow the rule “indirect question starter + wh- + S (+ aux) + main verb (+…) (?)”. This means that the part after the wh- word changes word order to become like an SV statement.
This change in word order is easiest to explain in indirect questions like “I’d like to know…” which are not grammatically questions, and so obviously both end with a full stop (not a question mark) and follow the same word order as any other SV statement. In indirect questions which do end in a question mark like “Can I ask…?”, the question part with “aux + S + main verb” is the indirect question starter, so the rest of the sentence doesn’t need to be written that way. This also means that extra auxiliaries like “do” and “did” no longer need to be added, as in “Where do you live?” with “do” but “May I ask where you live?” without “do”.
It’s a little trickier when it comes to converting Yes/ No questions into indirect questions, as “if” or “whether” needs to go in place of the Wh- word, as in “Could you tell me if/ whether I need to bring ID?” (from “Do I need to bring ID?”) However, some students might have seen the same thing in reported questions like “He asked me if I was Chinese”, and in fact there are situations in which a question is both a reported question and an indirect question such as “My boss would like to know when the project will be finished”. In both indirect and reported questions, “if/ whether” has the implied meaning of “or not”, as in “He asked me if I was Chinese or not”.
These kinds of polite questions are often called “embedded questions”, as the basic direct question is stuck into the polite question starter (with the changes explained above). The term “indirect questions” is often used interchangeably with “embedded questions”, but it might be better to use “indirect question” as a more general term to also include things which are indirect but don’t follow this grammatical pattern such as “What brings you here?” (not “Why are you here?”) and “Can I check your name?” (not “What’s your name?”).
How to present question formation
As I said above, the first step towards presenting question formation is simply to get students asking you and each other questions.
With young learners I start every class with everyone asking each other “What’s your name?”, “How old are you?” and “How are you?” then their own choice of questions like “Do you like spiders?” and “What’s your favourite kind of pizza?” I usually do this with a game element like throwing and catching a ball, pushing a toy car around, or building a tower out of blocks as each question is asked. You should insist on full short answers when they ask each other Yes/ No questions like “Do you like strawberries?” and “Can you speak Spanish?”, as they need the auxiliary verbs in “Yes, I do” and “No, I can’t” to make the questions and to later explain how English questions are made.
In a similar way, you can start each adult class by asking natural questions like “What do you do?” (in the first class) and “How was your weekend?” (in later classes), then ask them to have similar conversations with their partners. You could also give them a list of questions to choose from, maybe including some unsuitable taboo questions to avoid to provide some challenge and amusement.
Starting by giving students questions to ask each other is also the best way of starting the topic of subject questions. The same thing can also work for indirect questions. For example, you could ask them to choose suitable direct questions like “How was your day?” and suitable indirect questions like “Can I ask if where you are from?”, but completely avoid taboo questions like “How old are you?”/ “I’d like to know how old you are”.
You can then move onto a grammar presentation of whatever parts of question formation you want to present by asking students to recall and analyse the questions that they were just asking each other. For basic (object) questions, this should include fitting example questions into a five-column table with the parts “(Wh-) + aux + S + main V (+ …) ?” Grammar words like “auxiliary verb” can be either a help or a hindrance to students being able to understand question formation and use it to make their own questions, so jargon should only be used with care. Especially with young and/ or low-level learners, I often put no headings in the five-column table. At other times, you may want to avoid scary words by just using “v” and “V” for auxiliary and main verb and/ or call that “v” a “helping verb” or “grammar verb” instead of “auxiliary verb”. Alternatively, especially with young learners there is often no need to present this point at all until they have problems converting their knowledge into question formation in another tense such as Past Simple.
How to practise question formation
There are almost infinite possibilities for activities to practise asking each other questions, especially if you include specific games on embedded questions, yes/ no questions, etc. However, the most useful activities for specifically practising question formation are of two kinds – those that practise questions which they will need to ask and/ or answer outside the classroom; and those that expand the range of questions that they can make, ask and answer.
Practising questions for outside class
Outside the classroom, as well as the small talk questions mentioned above, students will need to be able to ask and answer more transactional questions in the post office, in their jobs, in their studies, etc.
To present and practise small talk questions, students will need more practise of meeting for the first time than you can realistically have with just new students, as well as conversations with people not in class like foreign colleagues and fellow travellers. It is therefore important to mix up asking about each other’s summer holiday etc with small talk roleplays on chatting at reception in their office, in a restaurant, etc. Roleplays are obviously important for practise of answering questions in immigration, in a car hire company, etc as well.
Expanding the range of questions
To expand the range of questions that they ask each other, you basically need to do something to stop them repeating the same few questions. The easiest way to do this is to give them a list of suitable (and maybe unsuitable) questions which they tick off and then can’t be used by anyone else. The same thing can also be done with lists of question starters (“Which”, “How long”, “How many people”, “Do”, etc), topics (“weather”, “hometown”, etc) and key words (“old”, “far”, etc).
A simpler way of stopping repetition is to give points for new questions and/ or take points off for repeating something that someone has already asked. This can be made more challenging by getting them to stick to one kind of question as long as they can until they actually repeat a question, for example taking turns asking “Do…?” until someone asks exactly the same thing as some did before.
A more natural activity is for one person to give a mini-presentation on something and the other students to ask as many different questions as they can afterwards to get more details.
There are also many games which don’t necessarily involve realistic practice of things they have to do outside the classroom but do prompt lots of (hopefully grammatically correct) question formation.
Question formation games
With young learners, passing a ball, toy car etc back and forth makes question formation already seem a bit like a game, especially when it is combined with trying to think of new questions that no one else has before. Perhaps the best combination of those things is with a kind of volleyball with a ball or (usually) a balloon, in which with the person who has it bounces it up and down until they can think of something new to ask.
Question formation memory chains
This also involves passing things. One person passes a pen and asks a question for the next person to answer. That person then passes the same pen and asks the same question, then passes something else and asks a new question. The same thing continues with more and more classroom objects and questions until no one can remember what object goes with which question.
Getting particular answers games
Perhaps my favourite kind of activity for question formation is students trying to get one particular kind of answer by asking the right kind of question. The simplest game is Make Me Say Yes, in which students ask “Do you have any brothers or sisters?””, “Have you ever been to France?”, etc and get one point for each “Yes” answer. You can also do basically the same thing with one point for each “No” answer or each “I don’t know” answer.
A more complicated version is Answer Me, in which they try to get the answer which is on a card, which is on a worksheet or which they have written down, e.g. trying to get the answer “Sometimes” by coming up with the question “How often do you feel tired in the morning?” Something similar can also be done with Answers on the Board, in which the other person writes down five to twelve personal answers like “Southeast London” and “12 years”. The other students then take turns trying to get one of those answers with questions like “Where were you born?”
Question formation drawing games
Some drawing games work well for this point. For example, students will need to ask each other questions in order to draw personal information like their partner’s family tree, how to get from their partner’s house to where they are now, and the layout of the inside of their partner’s house. For less personal but even more intensive practice, you can also do a drawing dictation, where one person explains the picture in front of them for the other person to draw, with the second person asking questions to find out anything that isn’t clear.
Question formation bluffing games
Lying is another kind of activity that naturally brings up questions a lot. For example, you could ask students to always reply with “Yes I do/ am/ will/…” to Yes/ No questions, then the others to ask follow-up questions until they can guess if that yes was true or not.
There are many more specific practice ideas on the articles on this site on teaching personal questions to kids, how questions, yes/ no questions, subject questions, and indirect questions.
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