The role of questions posed to young learners in classroom interaction
by Ali Karakas


The events taking place in classrooms have been an attention-grabbing topic for the researchers for a few decades. These set of learning environments for social interaction labelled as classrooms are neither static nor stable but fluid and dynamic. They can be likened to a concert hall where the conductor and orchestra players come to stage and actively display their performance. However, the capability to display a good performance requires a great amount of interaction among the conductor and players. Likewise, our setting, the classroom, does not differ from the concert stage on the ground that an effective lesson creates the necessity of high interaction-flow which is generally bidirectional: teacher-student and student-student interaction. David (2007) points out that the interaction between teacher and student constitutes a central focus of classroom research. Especially, the attention paid to teacher behaviour in classroom research is increasing. Regarding this, Brown and Rogers (2002: 81) lists several topics of concern as follows:

1. Teacher questions
2. Teacher error corrections
3. Quantity of teacher speech
4. Teacher explanations
5. Teacher 'wait-time' for students

Out of these, teacher questions play key role in keeping interaction flow. Maybe, it is the reason that Brown and Rogers put it as the first one in top five-list. More explicitly, errors can be ignored, quantity of speech may be of small amount, and explanations might not be available, and wait-time for responses might be too short, even not exist; however, these factors do not cause interaction to stop flowing but lessens the speed of flow. However, classroom interaction without teacher questions cannot be imagined since in many cases it is what makes interaction possible between teachers and learners.

Brock (1986) states that a large amount of questioning is a distinguishing characteristic of second language learning (SLL) to expose learners to the target language. This issue principally becomes much more significant in teaching English to young learners whose mother and second language is not English. The unique source of input for those learners is teacher talk, a considerable portion of which is composed of teachers' questions. They may increase the degree of participation and initiation by the learners even if their language production is limited to one or two words. To make the point clear, in what follows, teachers' questions and their types will be highlighted.

Teacher questions

Richards (2003) claims that the act of questioning and answering between teacher and learner is more manifested than any event in SLL classrooms. Hence, it is likely that classroom interaction compromises a significant number of teacher questions directed at learners. The Cambridge Dictionary defines question as "a sentence or phrase used to find out information and to test a person's knowledge of ability. This definition might work well in out-of-class settings among people since they usually exchange questions to get factual information. However, classroom teachers have a great number of reasons to pose questions to the learners, and testing their knowledge is just one of them. A variety of possible reasons for teacher questions are named by Ur (2009: 229) as follows:

-To check or test understanding knowledge or skill.
- To get learners to be active in their learning.
- To direct attention to the topic being learned.
- To provide a model for language or thinking.
- To find out something from the learners (facts, ideas, opinions)
- To provide weaker learners with an opportunity to participate

These various kinds of questions entail teachers to formulate different types of questions. Considering that teachers pose a significant number of questions per day, according to Darn and Çetin (2008) approximately between 300 and 400 questions, it is most probable that not all questions will be of same type.

Types of teacher questions

The majority of previous studies conducted in different contexts have centred their attention on what types of questions teachers ask, how different types of questions differ from each other in terms of language production, and which types of questions are more frequently posed than the others (Long & Sato, 1983; Brock, 1986; Shomoossi, 2004; David, 2007; Al-Farsi, 2006).

Two question types, display and referential, have been the main focus of above-mentioned studies. Display questions can be defined as questions, the responses to which are already known by the asker. To illustrate, what is the possessive adjective for 'she'? Unlike display questions, referential questions are those whose answers are not known by the questioner since the responses given change from person to person. For instance, what is your favourite food?. Nunan and Lamb (1996) mention two other types of questions: open and closed. Open questions are those that require more extensive responses from learners. For instance, what did you do last night? On the other hand, closed questions demand limited amount of response from the respondents, and normally only one answer is required. To illustrate, where are you from? Much research has been undertaken on display and referential questions; however, yes-no questions frequently posed in classrooms have not taken much attention. This of type of questioning based on using auxiliaries has its own unique functions; that's why it is worth mentioning in this study.

The common findings of previous research demonstrate that all types of questions are posed to learners for a variety of reasons. Display questions outnumber the referential questions; however, referential questions help learners produce more language than do display questions (Long & Sato, 1983; Shomoossi, 2004), and therefore, referential questions should be more frequently posed (Al-Farsi, 2006). However, Shomoossi (2004) also emphasizes that display questions stimulate students especially those beginners to join in interaction and generate language. Finally, Lier (1998) argues that what types of questions are asked does not matter but what matters is how questions can set new tasks and roles for learners to take in classroom interaction (cited in Lynch, 1991), such as being more initiating and active rather than being receptive and passive.

The study

In this current study, a qualitative study, the primary aim is to identify the types of questions posed by one ESL teacher to five young ESL learners in a small amount of teaching hour – 05 min. 37.sec-. The secondary purpose is to look at the impact of questions on learner language production. The participants comprise two boys and three girls and a classroom teacher, the estimated age range of participants is between nine and eleven. The proficiency level of students in English is low but enough to comprehend teacher talk and questions. The main concern of the teacher is to teach the modal 'can' and third person singular's' both in affirmative and interrogative forms. The lesson takes place in a formal ESL classroom setting where English is the sole medium of instruction. The data analyzed were downloaded from YouTube, a well-known video sharing website, through real media player software. Its total duration is 5 minute 37 seconds. The total amount of video was first converted into mp3 file and then transcribed with relevant transcription conventions via software 'sound scriber'. The whole report of the transcript and transcription conventions is provided in appendix X.

Results and findings

The analysis of lesson transcript demonstrated that the ESL classroom teacher posed a significant number of questions in 5-minute-37-second sketch of the recorded classroom interaction. In accordance with the findings of previous research, the teacher asked open and closed, display and referential, and yes-no questions at a wide band of frequencies. To see the overall pattern much clearly, the teacher questions together with their types are presented below:
Table 1: Types of teacher questions posed to students

Types of questions asked
Yes /No
Closed and Display
Open and Referential
Total number /percentage

As is clearly seen in Table 1, less than a third of the teacher-initiated questions comprise yes/no questions, which do not demand learners to generate a large quantity of output. This might be misinterpreted as limited and unproductive interaction on the part of learners. For intermediate and upper level students, it may remain true, but for weak and beginner students, such questions are effective means of getting involved in classroom interaction. Plus, these types of questions keep interaction flow smoothly. To illustrate this issue, Extract 1 is offered below:

Extract 1
1. T: =can fly ok or you can say superman (0.3) fly … superman fly is that good
2. L3: {low}yes
3. T: ok I fly {acts like superman}
4. L2: no=
5. T: =no … you fly
6. L2: no=
7. T: =no but he superman

The teacher is trying to teach third singular –s in an affirmative sentence. He starts the sentence with an expectation that one of the students may complete the sentence. He keeps building the sentence 'superman fly' and asks a yes-no question to direct their attention to the topic. L3 fails to recognize the teacher's intention in asking the question and gives a positive answer. This time the teacher tries to proceed with subjective pronouns 'I' and then 'you' to direct their focus on superman (he) to produce 'flies'. However, students focus on the semantic level of the question and fail to recognize the linguistic point. Though the teacher's attempt was off target, he got students to play a large part in the interaction process.
Another point to be highlighted here is in line 5 that the teacher's questions are not always recognized by interrogatives with a question mark at the end. You fly in line 5 is perceived as a yes-no question due to the teacher's falling intonation. Hence, such affirmatives aimed to elicit responses from learners were treated as yes-no questions in the counting of question types.

Closed and display questions constitute almost one-third of the questions. Similar to yes-no questions, they do not initiate long answers when posed to learners. Generally, the teacher applies these questions to get the learner to be active and to provide weak learners with opportunity to be involved in interaction, which are illuminated in Extract 2:

Extract 2
8. T: so what are these {teacher shows a few comics to learners}
9. L1: com
10. T: comics {teacher leans towards L1 to hear what she says}
11. L1: comics {humming}

The selection of comics as a classroom material serves a purpose. First, comics are interesting for young learners and they might know some words and characters. The purpose of the teacher is to make learners contribute to classroom interaction. For young learners, answering even a simple question with a few English words is of great significance since it makes them feel like a participant in the interaction.
Open and referential questions are the most frequently asked questions according to table, more than one-third of the total questions. These questions are expected to generate more language by the learners. Although a number of responses to open and referential questions consist of single-words, they enabled learners to produce slightly more than one-word answers. Here is an example from the transcript:

Extract 3
12. T: =climb ok good … he can climb {writes the word on the board} ok what else
13. L2: jump
14. T: jump {writes the word on the board} ok "wals"
15. L4: (low) climb the web

The teacher's question 'what else' is open and referential, that's why a range of possible answers in different length can be produced by learners as seen in lines 13 and 15. Though students were exposed exactly to the same questions, their amount of output differs – jump in line 13 vs climb the web line 15. It may result from the differences in their proficiency levels. However, what counts here is that open and referential questions create more space for language production.

Discussion and conclusion

The current study explored the questions posed to young learners in ESL classroom. Three types of questions were identified with different range of frequencies: yes-no, display and closed and open and referential. Contrary to the findings of previous studies (e.g. Al-Farsi, 2006; David, 2007), open and referential questions outnumbered the other types of questions. However, in terms of producing more language by participants, open and referential questions were seen to be more effective compared to yes-no and display and closed questions.

The teacher's questions generally aimed to engage learners in interaction, to direct their attention to the topic of the lesson, to learn about their opinions, ideas and facts and to check their understanding and knowledge. Considering their proficiency of English, it can be claimed that their participation in classroom was good enough to keep interaction smoothly continuing. Even if their answers were short, the fact that they could answer the questions is a mark that they could comprehend the teacher talk and interpret the questions and provide responses. As mentioned earlier, what matters for us is not the types of questions asked but how we can pose questions to students to be more interactive in the classroom and how we can reverse the roles between teachers and learners by making learners more active as questioners and teachers more receptive as answerers.


Transcription Conventions
= latching
… short pause (unmeasured)
(0.3) measured pause
[ ] overlapping speech
*** unintelligible speech
{ } non-verbal behavior
" " spelling may be wrong
: sound stretching
SS students' collective answer


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Brown, J. D., & Rodgers, T. S. (2009). Doing second language research. New York: Oxford University Press.
Darn, S. & Çetin, F. (2008). Asking Questions, BBC/British Council Teaching English. retrieved on 10.11.2011.
David, O. F. (2007). Teacher's Questioning Behaviour and ESL Classroom Interaction Pattern. Humanity & Social Sciences Journal, 2 (22): 127-131
Long, M. H. & Sato, C. J. (1983). Classroom Foreigner Talk Discourse: Forms and Functions of Teacher's Questions. TESOL Quarterly, 15: 26-30.
Lynch, T.(1991). Questioning Roles in the classroom. ELT Journal 45 (3): 201 – 210.
Nunan, D. & Lamb, C. (1996). The self-directed teacher: managing the learning process. The Self-Directed Teacher: Managing the Learning Process. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press
Richards, K. 1993. Qualitative Inquiry in TESOL. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Shomoossi, N. (2004). The Effect of Teacher's Questioning behaviour on ESL Classroom Interaction: A Classroom Research Study. The Reading Matrix, 4, (2): 96-1004.
Ur, P. (2009). A Course in Language Teaching. Practice and Theory. Cambirdge: Cambridge University Press.


Ali Karakas is a Research Assistant  at Mehmet Akif Ersoy University, Burdur, Turkey. He holds BA in ELT at Uludag  University,Turkey and is currently an Integrated PHD student in Southampton University, UK . He can be contacted at the following email address: Ali

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