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)
- Choose a relevant text for your class or (better) let learners choose a text.
- Put learners into groups of 3/4
- Ask them to prepare ten questions on the text to be passed on to the next group
- 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
- 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).
- 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.....
- Extra photocopies can be rotated once or twice more with each group adding comments.
- 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!