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Twist on a classic: Discussion questions

A classic

Course books and published materials are full of discussion questions. They’re a chance for learners to react to a listening/reading task, practise new vocabulary or practise speaking fluently. Here’s a typical example from TeachingEnglish (scroll to ‘Discussion’, page 3).

I’ve known teachers to adapt these in all sorts of ways:

  • Learner training. Give the learners discussion phrases and get them used to the routine of using these in group discussions.
  • Playing hard to get. Scramble the words in each question and ask the learners to reorder them before they answer. The scramblinator is a good tool for this job. Very TEFL-y.
  • Random questions. Use some way of randomising the questions to add an element of suspense. Dice corresponding to numbered questions, drawing question cards from a pile, etc.

My twist on this classic activity isn’t exactly ground-breaking, but it’s probably one of my most-used free speaking activities. 

The twist

This adaptation is called ‘Divide and Conquer’. You’ll need a fair number of questions – ideally 1 per learner. If you have fewer, you can give 2 learners a duplicate of the same question, so you would use 8 questions in a class of 16 learners.

  1. Ask each learner to choose one of the questions. Keep track of who has each question by writing their initial next to it on the board – this ensures they all choose different ones. 
  2. Ask learners to stand up and mingle, asking and answering each other’s questions. They shouldn’t sit down until they have asked and answered all questions. They should also remember their classmate’s answers.
  3. Finally, learners sit down again. Now learners tell their partner all the answers they remember and say which answer was their favourite. You can follow up with open class feedback. 

It’s a deceptively simple little procedure. It involves zero preparation, yet provides for a solid 20 minutes of free speaking. It’s a fun and engaging way to follow on from a more sedentary reading or listening task. It breaks away from the usual pair/group work dynamic of discussion questions. Learners report to a partner in the final stage, which encourages active listening prior to this and engages their memory. In the final stage, they also practise summarising, reporting and evaluating the answers they received. This subtly ramps up the complexity of language involved.

NB: This procedure also works very well for new vocabulary. Instead of using a list of pre-prepared questions, just assign a new lexical item to each student and ask them to write a question using it. Be sure to explain that these should be open questions to ask their classmates – it’s worth eliciting an example, too, otherwise you could end up with unusable questions like ‘Is the graffiti black?’.

Featured image adapted from: Image from page 171 of “The American poulterer’s companion”  (1878). For more information on images on TESOLtoolbox, see Imagery.

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