All ESL teachers are familiar with this awkward moment:
You ask one of your students a question, and in response you get…
Don’t be discouraged, though. Your students have a lot to say!
If they’re not speaking up, they might just be waiting for you to ask the right questions.
In fact, knowing what to ask is half the battle.
The right questions will spark relevant and valuable discussion, help guide classroom time to a specific purpose and optimize your students’ learning experience.
Here are five go-to question types that you can tailor to a wide variety of situations.
Use them to get a conversation started with your students today!
5 Questions for Sparking Conversation in the ESL Classroom
1. The question that targets a grammar point
If you’re an ESL teacher, you teach grammar. It doesn’t matter if your class title says anything about the rules of English syntax. So when you’re trying to get your students to speak up, you may want to target your conversation questions toward a specific grammatical structure.
Questions for verb tenses
Getting your students to use a certain verb tense in their discussions may be one of the easiest ways to target a grammar point. Most of the time, you can give a hypothetical situation that takes place in the past, present or future and have your students put themselves in that scenario.
You can also ask students about real events that happened in the past or will happen in the future. The more complex your verb tense, the more specific you’ll have to be with the scenario you give.
You can find some ideas for discussion starters based on particular verb tenses here, or you can try some of the following:
- What did you do last summer? (simple past)
- What will you do next year? (simple future)
- Describe what your life was like when you decided to study English. (past progressive)
- What are some things you will have done before you die? (future perfect)
Conditionals are another great goal for conversations in class. Try these questions or others like them with your students:
- If your friends go out tonight, what will you do? (first conditional)
- If you were already fluent in English, what would you be doing? (second conditional)
- If you had been raised as a native English speaker, what language would you have studied? (third conditional)
- What are some laws in your home country? What happens if you break them? (zero conditional)
If you are studying dependent clauses and complex sentence structure with your students, try any of the following discussion starters:
- Questions that begin with “Why…”
- Questions that begin with “How long…”
- Questions that begin with “Which one…”
2. The question that targets a topic you’re teaching
I don’t know about your classes, but the best ones I’ve taught have included some real-world content along with my lessons on English. Whether this involved focusing on small businesses while we discussed (and ate) Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or talking about American playwrights after a trip to the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, these are the lessons my students enjoyed most and remembered best.
Using a K/W/L chart
One of the easiest ways to introduce questions about a new topic you’re presenting is to use a K/W/L chart. If you haven’t used one before, a K/W/L chart is a simple three column list about a topic. You fill out the first column with your class before you study the topic.
The K stands for what you know about a topic. To get your students talking, you can have them work in small groups to make a list of what they already know, or you can lead the discussion with your entire class.
After that list is complete, fill in the W column with what you want to know about the same topic. You might have students come up with their own questions they would like answers to by the end of the unit.
The third column gets filled out after you study the topic. The L represents what you learned about that topic.
Common ESL units
If you or your students aren’t ready to tackle big subjects that require a lot of vocabulary and grammar knowledge, you can still focus your discussion questions on a topic you’re teaching.
Common content units in ESL classrooms include those on jobs, sports and food. You can ask your students to share information about those topics in their home cultures and how they perceive U.S. culture in terms of the same topics. You can also use pictures to get your students talking about these topics.
For example, if you were doing a food unit in class, you might give groups of around four students pictures of a family at a restaurant, a fast food advertisement or pictures of a grocery store. Pictures can help naturally raise questions that spark discussion.
3. The question that targets a real-world scenario
Your students are studying English for one reason: They want to use it. The more you can make your classroom activities reflect the tasks your students will have to do in real life, the more prepared your students will be once they are out of the classroom.
That’s why bringing in real-world tasks is great for getting students talking. When they practice conversations first in the classroom, they will be better equipped to handle those conversations outside the classroom. You can also encourage students to share real life experiences they have had with conversation questions of this type.
Here are some topics that are great to talk about in class and that your students will also encounter once they are out of class.
Asking for directions
Try giving your students a map of a town (either real or fictional) and have them give partners directions to a certain location in town.
You can also ask questions like these:
- Who has ever been lost in a foreign country?
- What did you do?
- What travel advice would you give to someone visiting your home country?
Everybody’s got to eat, and restaurant patrons are expected to behave in certain ways. This post contains some ideas and conversation starters for restaurant-related dialogues and conversations.
You can also ask questions like these:
- Have you ever ordered something that turned out not to be what you expected?
- What did you do?
- What is the strangest thing you have ever eaten in a restaurant?
- Does anyone else eat this/that food regularly in their home country?
- What American food have you tried that you thought was really strange after you ate it?
- Have you ever had trouble ordering food in another country?
You may have students who like to shop till they drop, but even they might not know how to navigate their way around stores and marketplaces. Check out this post for some discussion ideas and key vocab to get students ready to spend, spend, spend.
You can also ask questions like these:
- What would you do if you wanted to buy something but didn’t have the money?
- What has your experience been like shopping in a foreign country?
- What is something you cannot buy here that you really wish you could?
Sometimes English conversations aren’t for achieving a certain goal. Sometimes native speakers will just want to get to know your students or make small talk with them.
Here are some questions you might want to practice with your students to get them ready for small talk:
- Questions about the weather: How do you like this weather we’re having? Is it hot enough for you?
- Questions about local sports: Did you see the game last night? How about them Steelers? Do you follow baseball?
- Questions about their home cultures (some of which can be difficult to answer): What is it like where you’re from? What is the biggest difference between the U.S. and your home country? Do you like it better here or in your home country?
4. The question that gives students a chance to share their cultures
One of my favorite aspects of teaching ESL is getting to know people from all over the world. And part of getting to know them is getting to know more about their cultures. If you teach mixed internationals, there’s no doubt your students will want to get to know more about the far reaches of the world, the places their classmates hail from. Encourage students to talk about the things near and dear to them with questions about their cultures.
Ask them about places in their home countries
Try questions like these:
- What is something a visitor to your country should absolutely see?
- What is one of your favorite places back home?
- What is one of the most amazing sites in your country?
- One of the most memorable?
Let them share traditions they celebrate in their cultures
Try asking questions like these:
- What holidays do you celebrate back home that people don’t celebrate here?
- How do you celebrate birthdays at home?
- What do you do on special occasions in your family?
Pose general getting-to-know-you questions
These will often bring up cultural topics. Encourage your students to share whatever they are comfortable sharing.
You might ask questions like these:
- What is it like where you are from?
- What’s been the biggest change for you between living here and at home?
- How does living in the U.S. compare to living at home?
5. The question that targets a controversial topic
Controversial topics may not be the best things to bring up at a party, but they are great to bring up during discussions in your ESL classroom.
When it comes to controversies, everyone has their own opinion. What better way is there to get your students talking than to bring up something they are passionate about? Even if their classmates are passionate about the opposing view. Especially if their classmates are passionate about the opposing view.
Here are just a few reasons controversial topics are good conversation starters in the ESL classroom:
- Students express their opinions. You get to know who they are and what they believe and value.
- Differences in opinion get conversations moving.
- Students learn appropriate conversational strategies and concepts like interrupting or disagreeing.
Ultimately, just make sure your students know it’s okay to disagree and talk about differences in opinion if you plan on using controversial topics for discussions in your ESL class.
Your students have more to say than you might realize. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions and then letting them speak. Whether you choose questions for their grammar impact, a topic you are teaching, real life, culture or controversy will depend on the day and the personality of your class.
And don’t hesitate to use all five types of questions in class.
After all, what’s most important is getting your students to speak!