Mario in one of his contributions last month, queried the value of textbook comprehension questions.

Mario in one of his contributions last month, queried the value of textbook comprehension questions.  I'm with him all the way.  They are not always interesting or challenging; they typically engage only lower order thinking skills and seldom motivate learners. They also encourage teacher-dependence to the detriment of learner autonomy. 

Here is an activity that I use to penetrate more deeply into a text and to engage learners in an altogether different way.

Version 1 (any level)

  1. Choose a relevant text for your class or (better) let learners choose a text.
  2. Put learners into groups of 3/4
  3. Ask them to prepare ten questions on the text to be passed on to the next  group
  4. Give them a time limit and ask them to write their questions clearly on one half of a vertically folded sheet of paper, leaving the other half blank.  Stay out of the way unless you are called in to advise on a language point
  5. When they are ready, ask each group to pass their questions to the next group clockwise (or if you go for step 7 below, you may want to make one or two photocopies of each sheet first).
  6. Receiving groups try the questions and then write a comment next to each question on the empty half of the sheet, e.g We liked this one because ......; We found this one difficult because..... 
  7. Extra photocopies can be rotated once or twice more with each group adding comments.
  8. All sheets are then returned to the 'authoring' group, who may then decide to revise or retain their original questions.  Finish by asking each group what they learned from the task.

Version 2 (higher levels)

     1-3 as in Version 1 above

4.  Ask them to write each of their ten questions  on a slip of paper.

5. Combine the original groups of 3-4 into larger groups of 7 - 8, and ask them to sit in a circle with floor space   in the middle (or use an empty table)

6. Ask them to sort/categorise their questions using any criteria they want (e.g. interesting/boring; relevant/irrelevant; made us think/didn't make us think)

7.  Each larger group then reports on what they learned from doing the task


Both versions of this activity involve productive interaction, critical thinking, evaluation, developing autonomous learning, deep study of the text, reversal of the usual teacher-led questioning work in the classroom, reflection and a competitive edge which encourages learners to improve the quality of their questions.  Teacher intervention is low  and preparation minimal. The teacher simply acts as a language resource and classroom manager (timekeeping etc). However, I find it helps if I comment encouragingly on any good work that emerges from the task and spur learners on to take risks and expand their thinking.

There must be some other good questioning activities out there.  Please do share them! 








I really like this activity. I'm planning on using it with one of my university classes in the next few weeks.

Here's a similar activity I use to help students review a text:

First, I ask them to write at least 7 questions based on the text and tell them to make some of them language-related (How do you spell ______? What does ______ mean?),  some of them content-related (Where is the man from? When did he write his first novel?), and some of them personal questions related to the text (What is your opinion of ___________? If _______________, what would you do?).

Once I'm sure they've all written at least 7 questions, I use one of the two following methods to get them to practice.

1) Dyadic circles - I ask students to memorize their two best questions. I have students stand in two circles, one inside the other. I ask the students in the inner circle to face the ones in the outer circle so everyone has a partner. Then I get students to ask each other their questions, and raise their hands when both questions have been answered. When I can see that everyone has finished,  the students in the outer circle move one place to the right, so they all have a new partner. Now, they can either ask one of their own questions, or a question from a previous partner. I repeat this 6 or 7 times, so everyone gets to ask and answer several questions.

2) Interrogation - I put a chair in the front of the class. I ask one student to sit in the chair while the other students ask their questions for one minute. The student in the chair answers the questions.  At the end of the minute, the person in the chair gets to choose a new student to sit in the chair. Repeat 5 or 6 times.

Dear Pedagogue,

 Thanks a lot for these two activities.  I'll look forward to trying them out.  I particularly like the addition of a kinaesthetic dimension in the Dyadic Circles and the element of drama in the Interrogation.




Dear Pedagogue,

                          I join Rod in applauding your use of the dyadic circles frame for the asking of student-generated comprehension questions. To bring more movement into class has to make sense and the bigger the class the more important this is. The circle is a configuration that generates strong socially imposed discipline and focus.


Dear Rod and Pedagogue,

                                      While preferring student-generated questions around a text toquestions asked by the coarse book writer or the teacher, I am also aware of the interrogative's mental power and ability of over-ride what really went on in the student's head as she was reading. My worry is that the teacher request to generate questions about the "source text" may well cause her to abandon her own internal elaborated text and focus back onto the source text. 

I am happy enough to go to the cinema with other people but as we leave the place I dread the comments they sometimes come up with and the questions they have the cheek to ask me. If the film has been magic I want to stay in its trance and do not want to be asked clunking, intellectual questions about the plot, characterisation etc....all the rubbish that educated people have been taught to help them distort their sensibilities.

Maybe any questions about a text are in some way odd....maybe there are other ways to get at the reality of each student's reading process.  What are your thoughts?

 Warmly yours, Mario ( Rinvolucri) ( Pilgrims)


Hi Mario,

Thanks for your comment.  For me, a source text is only ever a point of departure, and as students build their capacity for questioning, a bridge is built, often co-constructed, from the source text to what you describe as 'internal elaborated text'.  For some learners, this process of co-construction is an important step, which is also why some people feel a need to exchange perceptions about a film or any other text.  They are not being cheeky!  They just work with different text-processing tools or need to articulate an experience in order to make sense of it - or even to attempt to 'undistort' their 'educated-people sensibilities'.  Given the nature of classrooms as social settings, it would seem natural to share the experience of text, though I also believe in silences when the impact of a 'text' (I'm using this in its broadest sense) seems to demand it.

 Not sure if I've touched the essence of your concern, but I've tried!

 Warm wishes, as ever


I could never have imagined 20 years ago when both of you, Rod and Mario were so much a part of my 'formation' as a teacher at the Bell School, that I would be privileged to share in your present exchange of ideas, so pregnant with all your experience over the years. I am so glad to renew contact with you through these pages, and to experience ideas with you, as of it were only yesterday! In Trinidad it is an uphill struggle at some levels to change attutudes and approaches among professionals.  However, it is by far more difficult to engage learners, particularly from the South Americas, in approaches to which they are unaccustomed, although we do so with limited success. I want to almost throw away the text book; they cling to it. Finding a balance is a challenge.

Please keep in touch

Seasons greetings

Kate (nee Innes, now Wong)

   Dear Rod,

Thank you for such interesting techniques of asking questions. I often find boring asking comprehension questions but there is no way out ,as I have to check the content . I sometimes vary and do the following :

1. Distribute parts of the text to the groups of students

2. Ask them to put 3-4 questions depends on the length of the text . ( While they make up questions , I monitor and if they make any mistakes, help them to correct.

3. Tell the first group to put    their      questions to other groups .At the same time the group which asks the questions turns into kind of checkers  because they check the information given by groups .

I found that my students become more involved and interested and at the same time they practise making up questions.

               With best wishes,

                            Neli Kukhaleishvili ( Georgia ) 


Dear  Rod and Mario!

I am happy to read  and  reflect  on your comments , because you are the people who made EFL teaching so exciting, creative and profound.I think Rod' way of asking questions affects students' emotional side which leads to their involvement .

What I am sure of is one thing : I have to try and  then think about the results.

But it is variety again which is an absolute necessity in our classes.

     With best wishes,

              Neli Kukhaleishvili ( Georgia)

Dear Kate,


Thanks for being in touch.  Actually it's nearly 30 years since we were all in Cambridge - scary isn't it,  Great to hear from you and good luck with your work in Trinidad.

 Very best


Dear Neli,

 Thanks a lot for your reply and for your classroom idea.  I hope more readers will also learn from it.  Good luck with all your questioning activities, and yes, the affective, emotional side of classroom work is soooo important.

 Warm wishes


Dear Rod,

Thanks so much for responding. You know, my maths was never up to scratch, but what's a little 10 years between friends! Indeed, I left Bell in 1984 to get married, and have been in Trinidad since 1989. I worked for the University of the West Indies for about 13 years, and did some teacher training and teaching until 2003, then I branched out on my own and have a little Academy, called Angels (achieve new goals in english language skills), which Mario knows about, if he remembers.

The teacher training was great and offered so much that was totally unheard of here at the time, so in some way, all of us contributed to that input with all our shared ideas and innovations from the Bell days, and after.

One of our main problems here is that bookshops do not want to carry extra stock, so we are confined by financial restraints to a very limited selection of course books, and professional books which is frustrating.  I have yet to persuade any bookseller to take a chance even with inspection copies and set up a book exhibition. I wish this paucity of published materials would encourage innovation on a wider scale.  In fact, it is only the students on the TESOL Resources course that show real interest and enthusiasm for anything out of the ordinary. People are really set in their ways. Nevertheless, I hope 2009 will bring me new energy  to persist. In this regard, meeting you and Mario and others on this site is exciting, and I am passing on everything to teachers for their edification!

Please keep in touch

Warmest wishes,