Activity

5.3: Learning about questioning and high-quality classroom talk

Time allocation

60 minutes

Instructions

  • Read the information and look at the examples provided.
  • As you do this, make notes in response to the key questions below.

Key questions

  • What is the difference between closed and open questions?
  • How can questioning be used to check pupils’ prior knowledge?
  • How can questioning be used to assess pupils’ understanding?
  • What constitutes high-quality classroom talk?
  • How can it be used effectively?

The intended outcomes of this activity are for you to:

Learn that
4.6 Questioning is an essential tool for teachers; questions can be used for many purposes, including to check pupils’ prior knowledge, assess understanding and break down problems.
4.7 High-quality classroom talk can support pupils to articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend their vocabulary.
Learn how to
Meet individual needs without creating unnecessary workload, by:
5k Reframing questions to provide greater scaffolding or greater stretch.
Stimulate pupil thinking and check for understanding, by:
4m Including a range of types of questions in class discussions to extend and challenge pupils (e.g. by modelling new vocabulary or asking pupils to justify answers).
Check prior knowledge and understanding during lessons, by:
6e Structuring tasks and questions to enable the identification of knowledge gaps and misconceptions (e.g. by using common misconceptions within multiple-choice questions).

Questioning is an essential tool for teachers; questions can be used for many purposes, including to check pupils’ prior knowledge, assess understanding and break down problems

The ability to ask good questions is – arguably – the most important tool in a teacher’s toolkit. We use them a lot – questioning is the most widely used form of teacher-pupil interaction (Muijs & Reynolds, 2017). Significantly, more effective teachers “ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students” (Rosenshine, 2012). Rosenshine’s research findings concluded that “the most successful teachers in these studies spent more than half the time lecturing, demonstrating, and asking questions” (ibid).

Questions allow a teacher to determine how well the material has been learned and whether there is a need for additional instruction. The most effective teachers also ask students to explain the process they used to answer the question, to explain how the answer was found. Less successful teachers ask fewer questions and almost no process questions.

Rosenshine (2012)

Thinking back to what you learned in Block 2 about memory, you already know that learning happens when we are able to connect new knowledge to prior knowledge and present new concepts in easy to understand steps. Questions support both of these things. We can use them to check what pupils already know. We can use them to check that pupils are following our explanations and are ready for us to move on. And where they don’t understand, we can use questions to break these problematic concepts down further. They can also encourage pupils to think hard – a key factor in learning. With our prompting, pupils can be encouraged to articulate their understanding of key ideas, summarising and reformulating them in order to reinforce their knowledge.

Case study – using questions

In one classroom-based experimental study, one group of teachers was taught to follow the presentation of new material with lots of questions. They were taught to increase the number of factual questions and process questions they asked during this guided practice. Test results showed that their students achieved higher scores than did students whose teachers did not receive the training.

Factual questions: Tests pupils on their knowledge of key information, these questions have one correct answer. “What date did World War One begin?” “What is 3×5?” “What is one stage of the water cycle?”

Process questions: Tests pupils on their depth of knowledge and understanding. They require analysis/opinion from the pupil. “How does the reader feel about Lennie at this point in the novel?” “What is the best way to solve this problem? How do you know?” “Can you compare the way colour is used in these pictures?”

Imaginative teachers have found ways to involve all students in answering questions. Examples include having all students:

  • Tell the answer to a neighbour
  • Summarise the main ideas in one or two sentences, writing the summary on a piece of paper and sharing this with a neighbour, or repeating the procedures to a neighbour
  • Write the answer on a card and then hold it up
  • Raise their hands if they know the answer (allowing the teacher to check the entire class)
  • Raise their hands if they agree with the answer that someone else has given

Across the classrooms that the researchers observed, the purpose of all these procedures was to provide active participation for the students and also to allow the teacher to see how many students were correct and confident. The teacher may then reteach some material when it was considered necessary. An alternative was for students to write their answers and then trade papers with each other.

Other teachers used choral responses to provide sufficient practice when teaching new vocabulary or lists of items. This made the practice seem more like a game. To be effective, however, all students needed to start together, on a signal. When students did not start together, only the faster students answered.

In addition to asking questions, the more effective teachers facilitated their students’ rehearsal by providing explanations, giving more examples, and supervising students as they practised new material.

Rosenshine (2012)

The section that follows describes some of the key types of questions and how they can be used to achieve these goals

1. Open versus closed questions

In broad terms, we can think of two main types of questioning: closed questions and open questions. When teachers ask a question with a relatively straightforward answer such as, “In the novel, did George shoot Lennie?”, this is considered a closed question. An open question typically elicits longer responses where students need to reflect and use more complex reasoning, such as “Was George justified in shooting Lennie?”. While it may be tempting to think that open questions are “better” than closed questions, both play an important role in the overall learning process.

Closed and open questions

Closed questions can be useful for checking recall of facts or to check simple understanding. They can be asked at pace and keep pupils focused on the lesson.

Open questions allow for more developed responses and can be used to check that pupils’ correct answers stem from a secure understanding. They enable pupils to explain their thinking and explore what they know and understand.

Consider these questions:

Three speech bubbles containing the following questions:

a) has everybody understood

b) Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations in 1860. Who was the Queen at that time?

c) What are the similarities and differences between verbs and adverbs

In your notepad

  • Which of these questions provide the teacher with information that they can use to provide feedback?
  • Why?
  • Example A, a closed question, does not give much useful information about whether pupils have understood what has been taught: they can simply answer “yes” or “no”. They might say they have understood even if they haven’t.
  • Closed questions can be used to scaffold pupils’ learning by providing clues to the answer, as in Example B.
  • Example C, an open question, allows the teacher to assess what pupils have understood and what they have not.

Other starting points for open questions include:

  • How can you explain…?
  • Why do you think…?
  • Why does this…?
  • What would you add to the previous answer?
  • What do you think would happen if…?
  • How could we find out…?
  • What did you mean when you said…?
  • Tell me more about…?
  • How do you know that…?
  • Why did you choose…?

Video

The final version of this video will be available from spring 2021, as the publication of this programme was fast-tracked in response to disruptions to this year’s initial teacher training.

Title

Closed and open questions

Video type

Classroom practice

Short description

A Year 8 English teacher poses several closed and open questions.

What should you focus on in this video?

As you watch the video below, count how many closed or open questions were asked in the lesson segment. Choose two of each and explain why the teacher has used one rather than the other in that place.

Video script

Teacher: “We’re going to be looking at Chapter 1 of Of Mice and Men today. We’ve already done some work on the background. Who can remember where the story is set?”

Pupil: “It’s set in the USA.”

Teacher: “Thank you, can anyone be more specific about the location?”

Pupil: “Yes, it’s set on the West Coast in California.”

Teacher: “We also know that the story is set in the 1930s – what significant thing was happening in the States at this time?”

Pupil: “It was the Great Depression.”

Teacher: “Yes, well done, can you say a bit more about what the Great Depression was like?”

Pupil: “It was triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 when stock prices fell. It had devastating effects on people – lots of people lost all their money and ended up living in poverty. Farmers and rural communities suffered a lot because crop prices fell.”

Teacher: “Excellent. We’re now going to read Chapter 1. These are the following questions I’d like you to be thinking about and we will return to when we have finished reading.

  1. Which characters are involved in this chapter?
  2. What are the main events that take place?
  3. “Lennie dabbed his big paw in the water.” What do you think this says about Lennie’s character?
  4. “‘Lennie!’ he said sharply. ‘Lennie, for God’s sake don’t drink so much.’” What do you think this says about George’s character?
  5. What problems do George and Lennie have? Are they the same or different? What is your evidence for your view?”

In your notepad

Can you write five open questions for an upcoming lesson?

2. Hinge questions

We often want to assess whether pupils understand a key idea before we move on. When this is the case, we can use a hinge question. These are questions that reliably check pupils’ knowledge or understanding and quickly give teachers information to decide whether and how to move on with the topic being taught.

Hinge questions often take the form of multiple-choice questions. Multiple-choice questions are a great way to check pupils’ knowledge and understanding and identify misconceptions. However, they need careful planning, so that they:

  • Do not allow pupils to get the right answers for the wrong reason; i.e. pupils should not be able to guess or work out the correct answers because of the way the question is written, they should only be able to get the correct answers based on their understanding of the concept.
  • Ensure every option in the question provides the teacher with valuable evidence of pupils’ thinking – if pupils get the wrong answer, it tells the teacher something very important.
  • Are written to focus on “troublesome” knowledge, i.e. things that pupils are known to find difficult or common misconceptions that pupils may hold.
  • Indicate both correct thinking and gaps in pupils’ knowledge or misconceptions.

Hinge question examples

1. Science

In which part of a daffodil does photosynthesis occur?

  1. All of the daffodil
  2. The leaves and petals
  3. The leaves and roots
  4. The leaves and stem
  5. Just the leaves

Photosynthesis occurs in the chloroplasts, which are found in green leaves and stems of plants. Pupils will need to understand that this is not restricted to the leaves (E) and that petals and roots do not contain chloroplasts (B/C).

2. French

Which of these translations is/are correct for the text below?
L’été dernier, ma sœur avait un petit job donc elle est restée chez nous.

  1. Last summer, my sister had a small job so stayed at our house.
  2. Last summer, my sister had a part-time job so stayed at our house.
  3. Last summer my sister had a job, therefore she stayed at ours.
  4. This summer, my sister has a part-time job so stayed at our house.
  5. This summer, my sister had a part-time job so stayed at our house.

The correct answer here is B – Last summer, my sister had a part-time job so stayed at our house. This checks that pupils have a good understanding of tense (this is in the past) so “last summer” not “this summer”. It checks that pupils understand that “chez nous” means “our house”. It also checks that “petit job” is understood as a part-time job as opposed to the literal translation of a small job.

3. History

Which of these pairs of dates in ordinary numerals and Roman numerals is/are correct?

  1. 1996 – MCMXCVI
  2. 1332 – MCCCXXXII
  3. 1514 – MDXVI
  4. 2019 – MIIXIX

A and B are correct. 1514 is actually 1516, which checks that pupils understand that a I before a V means 4 whereas a I coming after a V means 6. The last one is incorrect as it uses MII instead of MM.

Hinge questions can be used before, during or following exposition. Pupils may respond verbally, in writing, or through an action or activity of some kind, through individual or whole class responses, for example on whiteboards, on paper, using technology or using hand signals.

For example, with the questions above, the teacher could ask pupils to raise their hands when the teacher says the correct answer. If they don’t want pupils to copy others’ answers, they could ask pupils to close their eyes while answering or answer electronically.

Video

The final version of this video will be available from spring 2021, as the publication of this programme was fast-tracked in response to disruptions to this year’s initial teacher training.

Title

Hinge questions

Video type

Classroom practice

Short description

Teacher asks pupils hinge questions and gets responses.

What should you focus on in this video?

Hinge questions can be a useful way to quickly assess pupil understanding.
How does the teacher use hinge questions?

Video script

NARRATION

Hinge questions are questions which reliably check pupils’ knowledge or understanding and quickly give teachers information to decide whether and how to move on with the topic being taught.

They can be used before, during or following exposition. Pupils may respond verbally, in writing, or through an action or activity of some kind, through individual or whole class responses, for example on whiteboards, on paper, using technology or using hand signals.

Hinge questions are a great way for us to assess whether pupils understand a key idea before we move on.

CLASSROOM INTERACTION

We have been learning about magnetic fields and I want to see how much you know. I am going to ask you a question and read out four potential answers. When you hear the one that you think is correct, put your hand in the air. I will be asking questions after to check your thinking.

Which object can be picked up with a magnet?

  1. An iron nail.
  2. A copper wire.
  3. A piece of wood.
  4. A piece of glass.

Harry, I saw you put your hand up for (A) an iron nail. Can you tell me why you think that is correct?

You will have further opportunities to practise hinge questions with your mentor in Session 5.3.

3. Follow-on questions

We can scaffold, extend or challenge pupils’ thinking by reframing questions. One way to do this is to use follow-on questions. The type of follow-on question, and how much guidance it offers to pupils, will depend on pupils’ knowledge and understanding.

For pupils who need more support, more scaffolding is appropriate and the form is more likely to be a closed question; for those who need further stretch, we can ask open questions that encourage them to explore their answers further or respond to each other’s answers.

Example: Forces

Pupils are going to be studying the topic “forces” and learning how balanced and unbalanced forces affect an object. This learning will then be built on to develop an understanding about Newton’s laws of motion, with quantitative approaches to calculating answers taught last.

The teacher has planned a series of questions to use: some are to scaffold the necessary knowledge needed; other questions are to stretch the pupils’ thinking by getting them to explain, analyse, apply and link ideas.

Questions that scaffold knowledge

  • What is a force?
  • What forces can you name?
  • How are forces measured?
  • How are forces represented?
  • What must be present on any force arrow to help describe a force?
  • How many objects must be present for a force to act?
  • Give me one example of a contact force.
  • Give me one example of a non-contact force.
  • Where do contact forces act on an object?
  • Where do non-contact forces act on an object?
  • What is a resultant force?

Questions that stretch thinking

  • Where are the forces acting on a moving car?
  • Explain the motion of an object when forces are balanced.
  • Explain the motion of an object when forces are unbalanced.
  • In this picture what would be the motion of the moving car? Explain your reasoning.
  • What patterns can you describe when forces are balanced?
  • What patterns can you describe when forces are unbalanced?
  • Is it always true to say that objects with balanced forces on them are stationary? Explain your reasoning.
  • Can you predict the motion of objects in space using ideas about forces?
  • Using ideas about forces, explain why it’s incorrect to say that heavier objects fall faster than light objects.

In your notepad

Think of a key concept you will be teaching in an upcoming lesson. Write three scaffold questions and three stretch questions.

High-quality classroom talk can support pupils to articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend their vocabulary

Of all the debates in education one of the most contentious is the amount of time teachers should spend talking versus the amount of time students should spend talking. Research in this field is notoriously tricky; it is very difficult to grasp the import of spoken work with all its complexities and nuances.

Lemov & Robinson (2017)

While there are interesting arguments about the type and quantity of “talk” that is optimal in classrooms – you will see very different dynamics in different schools for example – at a basic level pupils “need to practise new material. The teacher’s questions and student discussion are a major way of providing this necessary practice” (Rosenshine, 2012). Beyond this there are a number of other benefits that high-quality classroom talk can deliver, providing pupils with the opportunity to:

  • Practise using new vocabulary in full sentences and in different contexts
  • Articulate their ideas, thoughts or feelings
  • Explore and consolidate a new idea or topic through dialogue
  • Expand and deepen their understanding of a concept
  • Learn social skills such as having a conversation, taking turns, making a point and responding to other alternative viewpoints

The most recent large scale study on classroom talk carried out by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust and the University of York funded by EEF found that “dialogic teaching”, where teachers were trained on strategies which enabled pupils to “reason, discuss, argue and explain rather than merely respond, in order to develop high order thinking and articulacy”, found on average, students gained an additional two months’ learning compared to groups who did not receive the intervention.

Lemov & Robinson (2017)

So perhaps the key question then is: what makes classroom talk “high quality”?

Robin Alexander, a well-known proponent of dialogic teaching (2004), distinguishes five central elements of effective classroom talk as being “collective, reciprocal, supportive, cumulative and purposeful.”

Element of classroom talk What does it look like in the classroom?
Collective
  • Teacher and pupils engage together in dialogue as opposed to the teacher doing all of the talking.
  • Anyone in the classroom can offer ideas, agree or disagree, ask questions or extend thinking.
  • The teacher must set up the expectations and encourage pupils to engage in active dialogue rather than passive listening.
Reciprocal
  • Pupils must listen to each other so they can respond.
  • Pupils might react to each other’s ideas with their own viewpoint or a different suggestion.
  • Answers should be justified and built upon by other pupils.
Supportive
  • All contributions should be valued and respected.
  • The teacher might introduce group discussion guidelines for pupils to adhere to.
  • Even better, the pupils could negotiate these themselves so they have greater ownership and agency of the classroom talk.
Cumulative
  • In contrast to closed questions and recall, open-ended questions allow ideas to be explored and built upon.
  • The teacher might help link previous learning and ideas to deepen understanding.
  • It may be thought of as a continuous conversation throughout a lesson, a scheme of work or over an academic year – new ideas build on previous contributions.
Purposeful
  • The teacher should have a goal in mind for any classroom talk – is it to explore a new idea, deepen understanding, reflect or clarify?
  • The talk should be well planned, including protocols such as how to contribute, length of time for the discussion and what happens next.
  • The teacher plays an important role to skillfully manage any classroom talk and keep it focused on the purpose intended – this might include giving sentence stems or facilitating the discussion.

References

Alexander, R. (2017) Towards Dialogic Teaching: rethinking classroom talk. York: Dialogos.

Lemov, D. & Robinson, M (2017) Classroom Talk and Questioning. In Hendrick, C. & McPherson, R. (Eds.) What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? Bridging the gap between research and practice. Woodbridge: John Catt.

Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2005.00507.x