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The Direct Method
by Steve Schackne

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Here is a brief inventory of my recently-asked questions:

1) You said you were going to Miramar for dinner last night; how was it?
2) Who won the first leg of the Thailand-Vietnam game?
3) Jane gave me a small gift for you; are you going to stop in for a drink tomorrow?

4) When do you want me to give you these course descriptions?
5) What are you doing after work?
6) Are you going anywhere during the break?

7) Excuse me, do you need any help?
8) Is this the Ka Ho building?
9) Do you have change for a 500?

Questions 1-3 are questioner to friend; questions 4-6 are questioner to colleague; questions 7-9 are questioner to stranger. Now what about the purpose of each question?

One--seeking information to make a choice; if it’s good I’ll go to the restaurant.
Two—seeking information based on personal involvement; I had a bet on the game.
Three—seeking information based on an obligation; I’ll stop by and give you the gift if you’ll be here.

Four—seeking information in order to manage time, meet a responsibility.
Five—seeking information in order to arrange a social engagement
Six—seeking information to satisfy curiosity.

Seven—seeking information in order to render assistance; I saw a tourist wandering the streets lost.
Eight—seeking information in order to meet an obligation; I needed to pay a bill in the building.
Nine--seeking information in order to complete a transaction; I was paying a small bill.

This list could go on, of course. I often ask my students, Now when is the essay due? I am not seeking information, just checking on their comprehension, do they understand when the essay is due? The most basic is, How are you? which is most often asked as a greeting, not an inquiry into your health. Be careful not to ask the non-communicative or purposeless question, such as John, what color is your shirt? John and the questioner both know what color the short is, so this would be an unnatural question.

Once we know what kind of questions we ask and why we ask them, we can easily develop questions for our students which conform to real language events. The following is a list of actual questions I have asked students in the last year based on 1-9 above:

One—I’m free on both days; which is more convenient for you?
Two—I heard you participated in the Shakespeare contest; how did you do, Trevor?
Three—Can you come by at 3:00 today? I’ll return your notebook then.
Four—Are there any changes requested for final examination week?
Five—Are you free after class Friday?
Six--Any special plans over the break?
Seven—Vicky, do you have any time this week? We can go over the essay then.
Eight—Do you know where the academic affairs office is? You can pick up an add/drop form there.
Nine—I can give the final grade through email, over the web site by student number, or I can give it to you in my office. Which is more convenient for you?

An added benefit here is that both vocabulary and grammar are subsumed in the question-answer paradigm, so the student is also being exposed to more traditional elements of language learning.

A Legitimate Criticism and an Answer

Many teachers argue that question-answer modules are good for launching real communication, but they can’t be readily adapted to the tight demands of a syllabus. True, but a syllabus and a textbook are not natural approaches (strictly speaking) to language acquisition, and we are looking at a direct, natural approach. Since this emphasizes an inductive approach, one might apply it to the question-answer module; that is, after an hour or two of questioning students, list language that was covered—structure, vocabulary, functions. Much of what appears on standard syllabi ends up being covered in a normal semester of questioning students. It just isn’t covered linearly, but in a more schematic fashion.

And Into Infinity

Question-answer paradigms are used at the elementary stages of language learning, often to model either pronunciation or grammar. Many of the questions are non-communicative, as mentioned above, and are, by definition, unnatural. Questioning with a communicative purpose, however, can not only serve as a useful approach to intermediate-stage learners, but can also be expanded to engage advanced learners.

The Socratic method tasks the questioner to explore the implications of others’ positions, thereby stimulating rational thinking and illuminating ideas. Here the original question is responded to as though it were an answer, forcing the first questioner to reformulate a new question in light of the progress of the discourse. Granted, few learners reach this stage, at least in the classroom, but it is a useful reminder that questions and answers are genuine ciphers of real communication, both at a basic and advanced level, and their use in a classroom can combine both tuition and authentic language production.


I have a friend who is a highly regarded teacher here in the Macau SAR. He uses no textbook and has no syllabus—he simply talks to his students about their interests and their life, often introducing them to new experiences, such as cooking, painting, and word games. He is a well-known artist, a student of music, history, and language; in short, he brings a lot of knowledge into the classroom, but eschews almost all traditionally structured teaching approaches. His students, although quite young, often achieve amazing results. It is not uncommon for them to end up conversing effortlessly with native English speakers. What is his secret? He engages his students in a way native speakers engage each other; he uses a natural approach to impart and receive information from his charges. Granted, life is not only a series of questions and answers, but the question answer paradigm is a key language event. Using it in the classroom not only makes sense, but also involves students in real communication.

Suggested Reading

Direct method (education). Retrieved January 20, 2009 from Wikipedia: (a useable introduction to the Direct method, contributed to this article)

Socratic method. Retrieved January 20, 2009 from Wikipedia: (a useable introduction to the Socratic method, contributed to this article)

Schackne, Steve. The Common Sense Approach: How One Teacher Organized a Speaking Course for 200 Chinese Graduate Students in DevelopingTeachers.Com, 2004. (of possible interest to those who conduct listening-speaking classes)


Steve Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics. In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher training, program administration, and online-distance learning. He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York, and has taken post graduate language training at Taipei Language Institute and the University of Macau.
His postings have included Taipei Language Institute, Tunghai University (Taiwan), Kansas University, Culver Educational Foundation, University of California--Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State University, University of Macau, Ming Chuan University (Taiwan), and Fooyin Institute of Technology (Taiwan). He has lectured and published all over the world, but is now best known for his educational resource web site, Schackne Online.

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