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Where foreign language learners do not have a great number of tools for initiating and maintaining language, encouraging them to ask questions in pairs or in groups can provide stepping stones for continued interaction. It also fosters cooperation, promotes critical thinking, allows them to become creative and innovative, and enhances their sense of competence and self worth (Brown,2001).

One common and prevalent aspect of interactive speaking relates to questioning routines. Asking questions, and taking part in questioning sequences in talk, is essential for getting information, contributing ideas, and being actively involved in the environment.

This paper focuses, depending on previous studies in this field, on the effect of referential and display questions on EFL classrooms interaction, mentions different types of questions, and other details concerning questioning.

General objective

This  research  paper  tried, by investigating   previous   studies   in   this   field, to highlight  how questions, especially referential and display questions, are  important in increasing learning in general and interaction in particular in EFL classrooms.


Studies  relating  to  English  teaching  have   showed  the  need  for  teachers' questioning, and emphasized how they are important to start communication and how they can help EFL learners to develop their competence in language. “In second language classrooms, where learners often do not have a great number of tools, your questions provide necessary stepping stones to communication” (Brown 1994: 165).  Similar  remarks  have  been  made  in  favor  of  providing feedback, certainly to EFL learners.    For example, “Such responsibility means that practically  everything  you  say  and  do  will  be  noticed (Brown  1994:  28,  and  Nunan 1991: 195). In this regard, McDonough and Shaw (1995: 271 273) provide more detailed advice as follows:

Evidence also tends to suggest that the questions a teacher asks in the classrooms can be extremely important in helping learners to develop their competence in the language.  It is useful to observe if teachers put questions to learners systematically or randomly, how long  they  wait  for  a  response,  and  the  type  of  question  asked,  from  that  requiring  a simple one-word reply to higher order referential questions where learners can provide information  which  the  teacher  does  not  know.   Similarly,  in  the  case  of  feedback  and correcting  learners,  we  can  observe  how  and  when  the  teacher  does  this.


2. Types of questions

1.2. "Socratic" or "Elicitation" questions
A methodological approach often found in language classrooms is to structure a lesson by, so to speak, jumping from a question to the next one, using the learners' answers as a turning point for the next question. To follow his/her plan, the teacher cannot proceed with the lesson until the expected answer is given by a learner. This approach can be referred to as the "Socratic method" (Chaudron 1988, 129) or "Elicitation method" (Nunan 1991, 195).
2.2. Convergent questions vs. divergent questions; procédural questions

Richards and Lockheart (1996, 185) advise to classify questions into either "convergent" or "divergent" ones. The first of these two types will most likely be found in lessons following a methodology of Socratic "Elicitation" questions because they "encourage similar student responses or responses which focus on a central theme."
The alternative type, divergent questions, are not designed to determine the ongoing of the planned lesson but to give the learners the possibility to establish real personal involvement during the lesson and thus to direct the learners' ability as an individual and to strengthen genuine motivation. Richards and Lockheart (1996, 165) call this "affective activities."
This type of questions can be expected to lead to more communicative use of language but makes lesson planning difficult because the learners' utterances can not be predicted and designed for a certain lesson topic or goal and hence can lead the teacher to unnecessary turns until the expected answer is coming.
A third question type is introduced by Richards and Lockheart (1996,185) under the term of   "procedural questions". Willis (1987) describes this type of language as "outer structure". These questions are used in sequences of classroom organization and management.
3.2. Questions which provide opportunities for practice

Another use of questions by teachers can be observed during sequences of controlled practice, usually  about a certain topic or goal of the lesson. These questions can be asked by the teacher and by learners. As Nunan (1991, 155) mentions, contemporary teaching materials try to give a "meaningful dimension" to such sequences.
4.2. Display questions vs. Referential questions

This classification categorizes a question by considering whether the teacher already knows the answer to it: Is the learner expected to display information or knowledge previously acquired or is real information to be communicated?
3. Types of Reading Questions

Below are six kinds of reading questions:
1.3. Comprehension
Comprehension means understanding or mentally grasping the meaning of something. The answer to a comprehension question usually is something you can point to in the paragraph or passage.
Example: It is clear from this passage that ……..
2.3. Detail Questions
Detail questions give smaller chunks of information than comprehension questions. The answers deal with specific, small items in the paragraph or passage such as a number, a date, or a name.
Example: Your answer to this question will be in: number of miles, number of hours, or speed. (The answers will be very specific as the question suggests – a number, a specific time.)
How old was Alice when she won the Pulitzer Prize?
3.3. Following Directions Questions
Following directions is a particular kind of comprehension. You are asked to understand how to answer a question, not to answer the question itself.
Example: This question asks you to find ……
4.3. Main Idea Questions
The main idea covers most of what a paragraph or passage is about; it may answer who, what, where, when, why, or how. It includes a topic and something specific about that topic.
Example: This paragraph is mostly about …

5.3. Inference
In contrast to facts or information stated directly in the paragraph or passage, inferences are decisions, conclusions or judgments the reader makes from information in the paragraph or passage. The information is like a hint, and the inferred ideas are not stated directly. The reader must reason or think about her/his answer.
Example: We can guess that ……
6.3. Sequence
Sequence shows the chronological order of events - what happened first, second, and sometimes more. Note that the sequence is not the same as the order of events presented in the paragraph or passage.
Example: Who was born first? (Shirley Shultz Myers and Carie Palmer)
4. The art of Asking Questions

The art of asking questions is one of the basic skills of good teaching. Socrates believed that knowledge and understanding were an essential part of each learner. Thus, in exercising the skill of good teaching a teacher must reach into the learner's hidden levels of knowing and understanding in order to help the learner reach new levels of thinking.
Through the art of thoughtful questioning teachers can elicit not only factual information, but aid learners in: connecting concepts, making inferences, increasing awareness, encouraging creative and imaginative thought, aiding critical thinking processes, and generally helping learners discover deeper levels of knowing, thinking, and understanding.
1.4. Factual – Searching for reasonably simple, clear answers based on obvious facts or knowledge. These are usually at the lowest level of cognitive or emotional processes and answers are frequently either right or wrong.
Example: Name the Shakespeare play about the Prince of Denmark?
2.4. Convergent - Answers to these types of questions are usually within a very finite range of acceptable accuracy. These may be at several different levels of cognition, comprehension, application, analysis, or ones where the answerer makes inferences based on personal awareness, or on material read, presented or known.
Example: On reflecting over the entirety of the play Hamlet, what were the main reasons why Ophelia went mad? (This is not specifically stated in one direct statement in the text of Hamlet. Here the reader must make simple inferences as to why she committed suicide.)
3.4. Divergent - These questions allow students to explore different ways and create many different variations and alternative answers. Correctness may be based on logical plans, may be contextual, or arrived at through basic knowledge, inference, creation, intuition, or imagination. These types of questions often require students to analyze, synthesize, or evaluate a knowledge base and then predict different results.
Answering divergent questions may be aided by higher levels of affective functions. Often correctness is determined personally based on the possibility or probability. Frequently the purpose of these types of divergent questions is to motivate imaginative and creative thought, or investigate cause and effect relationships, or provoke deeper thought or extensive investigations. And, one needs to be prepared for the fact that there may not be right or definitely correct answers to these questions.
Divergent questions may also serve as larger contexts for directing inquiries, and by itself may become what are known as "essential" questions that frame the content of an entire course.  
Example: In the love relationship of Hamlet and Ophelia, what might have happened to their relationship and their lives if Hamlet had not been so obsessed with the revenge of his father's death?
4.4. Evaluative - These types of questions usually require difficult levels of cognitive and/or emotional judgment. In attempting to answer evaluative questions, students may be combining multiple logical and/or affective thinking process, or comparative frameworks. Often an answer is analyzed at multiple levels and from different perspectives before the answerer arrives at newly synthesized information or conclusions.
Example: Why and how might the concept of Piagetian schema be related to the concepts presented in Jungian personality theory, and why might this be important to consider in teaching and learning?
5.4. Combinations - These are questions that combine any combination of the above. 
There are other authors who talk about the art of asking questions. One is H. Lynn Erickson and she talks about 3 types of questions as being factual, conceptual, and provocative.
If you look at the listing above, it should become apparent that these are the same types of categories. Erickson's factual are still the ones that are easily answered with ultimate and relatively simple answers.
Her conceptual questions might be ones that are convergent, divergent, or evaluative in construction -- ones that require more sophisticated levels of cognitive processing and thinking. 
Her provocative ones are ones that attract and ones cannot be answered with easy answers. They are questions can be used to motivate and frame content or are essential questions. In the initial categorization above they would be either complex divergent questions or more sophisticated combination questions like divergent/evaluative ones. (Erickson, H. L. 2007).

5. Using Questions

If we are looking for cheap, easy to make, low-resource teaching materials, then surely questions must come near the top of the list.
Good teaching has always been based on a dialogue between teacher and learner. And a main element in that dialogue is questions. Good teachers know how to ask the right questions at the right time in order to gradually extend their learners' abilities. They know how to challenge their learners to think, while showing through their manner of questioning that they value the answers their students give.
The following are questions used in oral interactions between teachers and learners, and questions we use with written texts.

1.5. Oral Questions

Nunan, (1991) among others, has drawn attention to two basic kinds of questions commonly used by teachers. He calls these 'display questions' and 'referential questions'.
1.1.5. Display questions
Display questions are the kinds of question teachers ask when they want to check whether or not their students have learnt what has been taught. The teacher previously knows the answers. All s/he wants to do is make sure that students know too. e.g. 'How many fingers do you have on each hand?' Students sometimes find this kind of question a waste of their time. Nevertheless, it may have a value, as a way of reusing the new language, particularly in the early stages of learning it.
2.1.5. Referential questions
Referential questions are questions where the teacher does not know the answer, and is really interested in hearing the students' answers. e.g. 'Where do you buy your jeans?' Such questions tend to concern students more, because they require a degree of personal interest.
3.1.5. Convergent questions
Convergent questions have one correct answer. The aim in answering is to provide that correct answer. Answers are always either right or wrong. e.g. 'How much does X earn every year?'
4.1.5. Divergent questions
Divergent questions may have a large number of acceptable answers. Personalized, opinion-focused questions are a good example of this kind of question. e.g. 'How do you think this story will end?' 'How would you solve this problem?' 'Can you think of a similar situation from your own life?'
From above we can observe that, whereas all display questions are convergent, referential questions may be either convergent or divergent.
In general, students respond better to teachers who treat them like real people, and who show a real interest in them. This implies that we should think about increasing the use of referential (real) questions, and of divergent questions in class.

2.5. Questions Based on Texts
There are at least seven types of question we can ask about a written text:

1.2.5. Factual questions: the answer to such questions can be found, like a mirror image, in the text itself. e.g. 'How many times did she visit Peter?'
2.2.5. Cause/effect questions: here the answer can be found by collecting information from different parts of the text. e.g. 'Why did Jane break up with her boyfriend?'
3.2.5. Inference questions: here the answer cannot be found directly in the text:, it has to be found from partial clues, by 'reading between the lines'. e.g. 'Why did Miss Marple ask about roses?'
4.2.5. Opinion questions: the answer to this kind of question requires the reader to try to give a personal opinion about what has been read. e.g. 'What do you think about the way Krishnan behaved at the wedding?'
5.2.5. Interpretation questions: the reader has to interpret, not simply comprehend, the information in the text. e.g. 'The author mentions Hannah's heart condition in the first line of the story. Why?'
6.2.5. Personalized questions: here the reader has to act the part of a character and give a personal response. e.g. 'What would you have done if you had been Mark?'
7.2.5. Speculative questions: the reader has to think about things which are not able to be understood, because they are outside the text. Yet the text may well provide some indications. e.g. 'What do you think happens to Manuela in her new life with Marco?'
Looking back at these seven question types, it is fairly clear that numbers 1 to 3 are those most commonly encountered in course book materials. They are also convergent in nature. There is an answer, right or wrong. Types 4 to 7 are all divergent in nature.
One additional observation is that question types 4 to 7 are the kind of things that skillful readers (whether native speaker or not!) tend to do when they read a text for real rather than educational purposes. To some extent, type 3 (inference question) also follows this pattern. It could be that such questions are more valuable educationally - or at least as valuable! (Alan Maley)

6. Display Questions in EFL Research

The evaluation of non-referential questions  as  purposeless  seems  to  be representative of traditional thought in much modern applied linguistic study devoted to teachers'  questions. The implication of  Long  and  Sato's article  and definition (1983) is that referential questions are to be preferred on pedagogical grounds, linked  to  the  communicative  paradigm,  since  they  are  directed  towards   the  "real  world"  of   the  students outside  the classroom.

The  concept  embodied  in  the  term  “display  question"  is  not  itself  examined  in Long and Sato's article as it is built into their hypotheses. Having   found   a   far   greater   proportion   of   display   questions   than   referential questions in the classroom data of six teachers, Long and Sato (1983:280) imply that there is something wrong with the teachers' methodology.

This result suggests that, contrary to the recommendations of many writers on SL teaching methodology, communicative use of the target language makes up only a minor part of typical classroom activities.

Banbrook  and  Skehan  (1989:142)  in  their  review  of  research  into  teachers' questions also conclude that there is a difference between what theorists would consider to be good practice and what is actually going on in classrooms.
Again it is  display  questions  that  Banbrook  and  Skehan  identify  as  the  kind  of  questions theorists  say  diverge  from  good  practice,  although  they  themselves  do  not  adopt this   view,   identifying   questions   that   could   be   labelled   as   both   display   and referential and concluding that there are problems with “the operationalizability of the  categories  that  are  employed”  (p.151).

Van  Lier  (1988:224) challenges  the  distinction from an ethnographic viewpoint suggesting  that  the  most  significant  feature  of  instructional  questions  is  their eliciting function. He states that an analysis must go beyond simple distinctions such as display and referential questions, yes/no and open-ended questions, and so on, to investigate what different tasks questions set, and the different commitments they place on the answerer”. Nevertheless, the difference between “display” and “referential” questions has become widely accepted and is still commonly referred to in research on teachers' questions without being examined or questioned.

Korst (1997: 280-282),  for  example,  after  referring  to  the  “display”  -  “referential”  distinction, implies  that  the  display  of  a  correct  answer  is  the  main  objective  of  a  teacher's question - If the students answer correctly, the teacher has achieved her objective and  then  can  proceed (281).

7. The effect of referential and display questions on the EFL classroom interaction

Recently, there has been much research on teacher talk (e.g. Long and Sato, 1983). Issues such as the amount and type of teacher talk, speech modifications made by teachers, instructions and explanations, error correction and questions have been approximately the center of attention.

Long and Sato (1983) and Brock (1986) have investigated the role of questions in second language learning in the classroom environment. They have worked on the role of teacher's question types (especially display and referential questions) and their facilitating the learning. Van Lier (1988) believes that classroom questions of whatever sort are designed to get the learners to produce language. Brock argues that referential questions increase the amount of learner output; therefore, an increased use of referential questions by teachers may create discourse which can produce a flow of information from students to the teacher, and may create a more near-normal speech. However, it is believed that display questions require short or even one-word answers and hence are less likely to get learners to produce large amounts of speech.

Lynch quotes a number of researchers who investigated the balance between referential questions and display questions in the foreign language classroom. Long and Sato (1983) compared the questions occurring in informal conversation between native and non native speakers, and teacher-learner interaction in the second language classroom. Lynch (1991) summarizes their findings as follows:

Referential (information-seeking) questions which predominate in native and non native speakers' conversation outside classrooms (76% of all questions asked) made up a 14% of questions asked by teachers. This result suggests as pointed above that, contrary to the recommendations of many writers on second language teaching methodologies, communicative use of the target language makes up only a minor part of typical classroom activities.

Further qualitative distinctions were made by Long and Sato (1983) who suggest that learner responses would differ not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of quality, depending on the type of questions. Referential questions, which seek information unknown to the speaker, were thought more likely to elicit longer, more authentic responses than display questions, for which responses are predetermined by lesson content. This hypothesized effect of a process changeable was tested both in a simulated classroom interaction (Brock,1986) and in a natural classroom experiment (Long, 1983). The results suggested that referential questions elicited slightly longer and more student utterances.

Nematullah Shomoossi in a study focused on what is going on in the classroom, specifically on teachers' questioning behavior - what kind of questions they ask, for what purposes, and so on, cited that: "It is reasonable to accept that learners tend to speak and participate more when the expected answer is longer. While display questions are usually asked for comprehension checks, confirmation checks or clarification requests (Long and Sato 1983; Brock, 1986), referential questions are usually used to fill the information gaps. Therefore, motivation and interest causes the interaction to be more lifelike (Long, l983).

However, there can be found a number of referential questions which required a shorter answer and after them there was a period of silence or topic-change. For example, the  following  question  did  not  help  initiate a well-formed interaction:
E.g. Where do you live?
Therefore, it should be confirmed that not all, but most referential questions create more interaction in the classroom than display questions do.

The following are the main of what he has observed regarding referential and display questions in EFL classroom:

1. Teachers ask a number of questions - mostly referential - before they start to work directly on the Reading. These questions usually help the students warm up for the task, and get familiar with the topic of the reading.

2. Contrary to what is commonly thought about display questions, said to elicit short or even one-word answers (e.g. Brock, 1986), sometimes a display question may cause learners to give, say, a five-minute answer, though we may not consider it interaction because of its one-way nature.

3. Almost all the questions asked by teachers while working on the exercises were display. Perhaps due to the accuracy-focused nature of grammar exercises, they don’t seem to have led to interaction or speaking practice; on the contrary, short-answer questions testing comprehension seem obligatory. Therefore, the amount of interaction or speaking was observed to be reduced to the least during the session.

4. Not all teachers made equal use of display or referential questions. This seems to be a natural occurrence since not all teachers think alike, or teach in the same way.

5. Most of the display questions asked by teachers concerned textual information, e.g. comprehension checks, summary of paragraphs, meaning of words, idioms, etc, position of stress and the right way of pronouncing certain word; while, most of the referential questions concerned personal information - such as age, marital status, family, future arrangements and opinions, e.g. on education, smoking, crimes, etc.

6. It seems that the use of display questions is not separable from Reading Comprehension classes, and the results showed that the frequency of display questions, in general, is considerably higher than weak frequency of referential questions. This fact may be explained from two interrelated perspectives. First, this type of questions can contain small pieces of information to be quickly verified by asking. Secondly, where comprehension comes before production, it demands teachers make sure that all students have comprehended the Reading, and this can not be done unless teachers make use of comprehension checks -usually display questions- to which a short and syntactically less complex answer is given. This pattern of questioning behavior in Reading Comprehension classes has the reduction of interaction as its outcome. Since it doesn't lead usually to more than one turn, negotiation of more than one chunk of meaning is impossible. Therefore, after the teacher shifts to another student or changes the topic, there remains nothing more than a one-turn communication of small pieces of information. And this is contrary to what Malamah-Thomas (1987) or AIlwright and Bailey (1990) consider as interaction.


At the end of this clarifying research paper, I can conclude that teachers in EFL classrooms should increase their use of referential and divergent questions in classes if they want their students to be more active and respond better to them, because referential questions produce more classroom interaction. Other conclusions are the following:

·        Communicative use of the target language makes up only a minor part of typical classroom activities (Long & Sato).
·        Most, not all, referential questions create more interaction in the classroom than display questions do (Shomoossi, 2004).
·        Display questions sometimes cause learners to give a bout five-minute answer but such answer cannot be considered interaction because it is one-way.
·        Display questions outnumbered referential ones, and referential ones produced more classroom interaction.


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