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Interactive Student-Generated Questioning Techniques

Sarah Young
Center for Adult English Language Acquisition
Arlington Education and Employment Program

As an ESL instructor of high-beginning adult students, my students are always asking for more speaking practice. I’ve developed an interactive speaking activity called Hot Seat (HS) that gives students opportunities to interact in English, to practice certain grammatical structures or vocabulary, and to get to know each other. Little to no preparation or materials are required. One student sits in the “Hot Seat” chair in the front of the room. While in the HS, the student has control of the class. She is responsible for calling on students who have a question and addressing them directly, by name, rather than looking at the teacher. The audience is responsible for listening to each other to avoid repetition of questions, for asking inoffensive questions, and incorporating pre-determined themes, vocabulary, or grammar structures as much as possible. HS becomes a communication session by and for the students – I disappear into the audience and jot down each question as it is asked and the name of the student who asked the question. Although there are bound to be mistakes, my job is to write down the students' questions in the structurally correct form, while the students’ job is to use various clarification techniques if their fragmented questions or answers have not been understood. The HS student knows how to refuse to answer a question if he chooses. For students who have limited experience in the classroom, this student-led process of asking and answering, turn-taking, clarifying, and taking responsibility provides an excellent opportunity to practice classroom protocol and behaviors.

At the end of the session, I have the list of questions asked and do a quick listening comprehension check to see what the audience retained about the HS student. Before the next class session, I type the questions up, noting who asked which question, and give each student a copy at the next class. After reviewing the questions, the students practice asking and answering them in a rotating line dialogue.

Hot Seat works for many reasons. As a weekly routine, it takes little preparation or explanation while serving as a way to hold students accountable for effort and participation in class. It encourages student ownership by using the authentic ideas, questions, and opinions of the adult students themselves, often ranging in topic from family background and everyday activities, to deeper thoughts about life and the immigrant experience. The students also enjoy learning about and discussing the countries, geography, languages, and cultures of their fellow students. HS provides many ways to incorporate specific vocabulary or grammar that the class is studying by asking students to gear their questions to a specific topic. Communication strategies for lower level students are implicitly taught by practicing clarification, confirmation, and comprehension checks; more advanced students work on paraphrasing skills. At the end of the class semester, students have a collection of questions they can use as conversation starters with coworkers, to study question structure, or to use as journal writing prompts.  

Hot Seat lends itself to many different variations. Students can correct a few questions that represent common mistakes students make. At higher levels, a student can be the scribe; at lower levels, a student could type up the questions from the teacher’s notes.Instead of orally asking the questions, the students can write their questions and the HS student chooses which ones to answer. With the final list of questions in hand, students might group questions into categories, such as by favorite questions, by whom they would likely ask, by question words (who, what, etc.), or by thematic topic; they could also randomly pick 5-7 questions and make a dialogue/sketch in which they have to ask and answer the questions. Teachers can help connect the students to the world outside the classroom by assigning questions to ask someone and share the answers, or by inviting guest speakers into the class to answer the questions within the group.

Hot Seat encourages student communication both inside and outside the classroom by providing scaffolding to students in a variety of ways. By recycling the students' own questions, students become more invested in the process of communication and become better at tracking their own progress.