A recent conversation with a teacher-in-training colleague has prompted this blog.
My friend was given the task of preparing and delivering a 45-minute lesson on the question mark. This is pretty typical of the type of lesson we work with in normal circumstances.
Now I can’t think of anything more tedious. As a topic for a 45-minute lesson, any joy in the purpose and use of this delightful curlicued interrogative indicator could be utterly destroyed.
I find punctuation in general an excellent tool for making meaning in writing, and when I read, to ensure I get the author’s clear intent. I love the Oxford comma debate, semi-colons, the visual of the poetry of e e cummings.
The starting point for working with any topic in English and English literacy, is communication. The ‘question mark’ belongs solely with the question – the need or desire to find something out, or to make a request, or to exercise some rhetoric, wouldn’t you agree?
The question is a ‘resource for interaction’ (Derewianka 2011 p.110).
It is through asking questions that we stimulate interaction. Questions are used primarily in oral conversation, though you will also find them in written texts (such as on the dialogue sections of a story or as rhetorical questions in a persuasive text).
(Derewianka 2011 p.112, A.Gray emphasis)
As the question is primarily an oral structure, then the attention it deserves is in the oral context. So if I was working with this group of Year 5 students, I would begin by providing an opportunity – and convincing purpose – to ask questions. We’ll get to the written form a bit later.
What is a question?
But we need to be very clear in our own thinking as to what exactly a question is.
- What makes a sentence a question, and not a command?
- How can a listener tell if they are being asked a question?
What is the grammar of the question? (An introduction)
A question begins with a word that functions as an interrogative:
• this could be a determiner: which, what, whose – these modify the noun in the question; the answer requires choosing one from many options – as in
‘Which woman do you think is the most powerful in the world at the moment?’’
‘What problems do you have at home with recycling household waste?’
‘Whose responsibility is it to lessen our use of plastics?’
• it could be an interrogative pronoun: which, what, who, whose – these stand alone, followed immediately by the verb, as in:
‘Which is the correct solution to the puzzle?’
‘What are the possible outcomes of ocean warming?’
‘Who makes the decisions about availability of ETs in our state?’
‘Whose is the decision for creating new National Parks in Australia?’
[‘Whom did they arrest outside the convention venue?’ NB formal, archaic]
• or an interrogative adverb: why, when, where, how – usually followed by a verb, and the answer will be focused on an adverb, adverbial phrase, or adverbial clause (the circumstance) as in:
‘Why are there so few EV charging stations around?’ (Ans: ‘Companies need incentives to provide them.’
‘When will we get a glass recycling centre in our town?’ (Ans: ‘There is one planned for 2025.’)
‘Where will the waste water from the factory be treated?’ (Ans: ‘’In the tanks at the rear of the main buildings.’)
‘How is the Great Barrier Reef being protected?’ (Ans: ‘The reef is surrounded by a marine park for its protection.’)
Oh dear! Do I have to teach ALL that to my students in this 45-minute lesson?
Of course not. This information is for you to have in your knowledge bank about questions. Just know and understand it. You’ll find opportunities to remind, or comment, throughout the lesson.
So what do I put into the lesson?
The interactive context where questions are most frequently asked is the interview.
Step 1: Find a suitable model of a short spoken interview, or an excerpt from a longer one you could use later, perhaps on a topic you are working on in another subject, the novel you are studying in English – anything where there are several clear questions and answers. This example from Lily Craft on BTN could work.
Watch the interview a couple of times so everyone is clear about the questions. Remember, we are focusing on the question.
Step 2: Talk with the students about how they identified the questions, how they KNEW that the question sentences were in fact questions. They should come up with things like upward inflection at the end, the words used which helped (draw on all that information above to support learning here) and their construction.
You could ask students to identify which questions they thought were most effective.
All oral to here.
Step 3: Each of your students is an expert in their own field. This may be a topic you have studied in class, or a game or sport they have played, or an interest they have. Students may even have to ask around the class, with your guidance, to see what topic could be a good one for an interview.
Students will work in pairs. You can set this up now, or a little earlier in the process if you want.
Step 4: Students need to determine what they want to find out from their partner. So they have to construct questions which will do this.
THIS is where we link the non-verbal cues (upward inflection), the grammar of questions (those ‘question words’, which may need a bit of re-teaching at this point, with the visual support of the words on a board), with the writing convention of the question mark at the end of each question sentence, as students write down their questions.
Step 5. Students practise reading their written questions (5 minutes or so), by asking the chair, the bookcase, outside to a tree or shrub, and using their best interview voice and technique.
Step 6. Role play in groups of 6 – that’s three pairs. Seat them as interviewer and interviewee at the ‘front’ of their audience of the other two pairs. You should be able to fit 5 groups in the classroom, one in each corner and one in the centre of the room.
Each pair conducts their interview, reversing roles so everyone gets a turn at each. Change pairs.
Step 7: Students will need to ‘de-brief’ with each other for a couple of minutes. Give them time, and visit each group to ask a couple of your own questions – ‘Did you prefer being the interviewer or the interviewee? ’Did you get the answers you anticipated?’ Did your partner ask you the questions you thought they would?’
Students are to ‘mark’ their own written questions, and interview, by using the set of marking criteria you established at the beginning.
Use three criteria – remember the focus is on the use of the question mark in written questions.
- ‘Did I use question words to construct my questions?’
- ‘Did I put a question mark at the end of each of my written questions?’
- ‘Did I use effective non-verbal cues with my questions ?’
Students mark themselves, giving the appropriate response to each criterion. Using a tight set of criteria such as this means that it is obvious what a student has to do to get a tick for each one. They can correct immediately, receive the good vibes from achievement, and have the benefit of knowing they have learned something useful. The pairs can discuss with each other, and with the other students in their group.
- Return to the questions, and, based on the responses already received, make the original questions more useful/specific, or prepare some new ones to find out more.
- Deliver the interviews to the rest of the class – perhaps one pair from each group. Film the best ones if you like – if the students want to.
- View Victor Borge’s ‘Phonetic Punctuation’ monologue. This is a 2-minute version, and will fit perfectly with this lesson and its understandings. It is also very funny. Repeat as often as you and your students enjoy. Students may decide to create a short piece of text to deliver their own ‘Phonetic Punctuation’ monologue.
Borge has been delivering this entertainment in various forms for many years. Here is a longer version, with some similarities, and similar features, more jokes, and a much more youthful Victor Borge.
You will have heaps of outcomes covered!
Poetry – e e cummings: hist whist
For other resources regarding question structures see Michael Swan’s ‘Practical English Usage’, (2005) Oxford University Press