NCIS: Teaching Question Formation

NCIS: Not CI Stuff

More and more, we are seeing helpful links posted to various groups that are supposed to be focused on teaching with Comprehensible  Input. Of course, everyone likes sharing. Sharing is a good thing that.s spread good ideas and reduces the time teachers have to spend prepping for classes.

The only problem is, like they say, “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Or, better put, sometimes on CI groups, people who are new to this mindset don’t realize when old ways of thinking are being brought in, maybe with a cool new look, but still not a comprehensible-input focused way of helping kids acquire language.

So, the occasional NCIS  (“Not CI Stuff”) series will look at some of these posts and the reasons why they fit into the “maybe cool, maybe even useful sometimes, but not CI” box.

Today’s case

Today, NCIS investigates a link that proposes an activity to help kids “learn to form questions”. Since the site itself is written in Spanish, you’ll have to trust my translation on the pull quotes.

The first paragraph of the original post lays out some hefty clues about which way the whole thing is going to go:

…given that we don’t have an auxiliary verb, but we do have the opening question mark, interrogative pronouns that have to have accents, or that we often leave the subject out.

Wow. Grammar much? Is it the terrible complexity of Spanish questions that is really causing this problem, or maybe something else, such as the fact that most non-TPRS/CI classrooms use very, very few questions, and mostly from a printed list or some sort of prompt (“Find out the birthdays of three classmates”).

And as is often the case with activities that are (as we’ll see below) purely output of material the students haven’t acquired yet in the first place, it comes with a disclaimer. Whenever I hear something like

no matter what our students’ level, it’s never a bad idea to spend a little time reviewing questions, dedicating a class period or even just a short time…

Symptom #1. Good CI/TPRS doesn’t require this kind of review. This is true for two reasons: first, we progress at a pace that means students can “get it”, but then we constantly USE IT (because what we teach is so high-frequency that there’s no issue with having to make some special effort to do that) and we don’t ask students to output things that we do not believe they have acquired.

The post then provides a lovely graphic of colored speech bubbles on a colored background, each with a question. It’s presented as being an “infographic”, though it’s hard to see what information it is communicating to anyone. It’s just a list of random questions in Spanish, basically. We are then told:

After working with this infographic, give students a piece of paper with blanks which can be found, of course, in the [reacted] workbook.

Not sure how students “work with” a sheet of random questions. And guess what? The handout is the same thing, only blank speech bubbles (oh, the design of the speech bubbles is a little different too). Students are told to fill in their blank sheet with questions in all those bubbles, written in Spanish.

And the result is a sheet with 10 or 12 Spanish questions — totally random — totally unrelated to anything. Not only that:

As you all see, there are errors in the questions, so after filling in all the balloons they should exchange papers and mark the errors they find (they usually ask me before daring to correct).

And, of course, these questions are, shock upon shock, not without errors. Because, you know, you’re asking people who (in the author’s class, at least) don’t know how to form questions well, to form questions well. I’m sure, though it is not explicitly stated in the post, that there will be some sort of “sharing” of their hopefully-now-corrected random questions.

What could possibly go wrong?

Why does this look tempting to a non-TPRS, non-CI teacher?

  • There is “student choice“: they are writing THEIR questions, not following some imposed content.
  • Students have a “model” which they “interact with”, then go on to produce their own work.
  • Students are “responsible” for their own learning in that they must correct each others’ errors.
  • It provides necessary “review“, since the teacher has identified that students in her class cannot form questions (or else she wouldn’t propose this activity).
  • Students do the activity on their own, without bothering the teacher much over most of the time spent. “Independent learning” and a chance to mark attendance.

Why would a TPRS/CI teacher pass on this activity?

  • It’s output of language that is not yet acquired. Output is okay, but forcing output isn’t.
  • There is no context. The questions are individual sentences not related to anything.
  • Error correction has been shown to be ineffective in causing changes to student writing. Even if the person doing the correction actually knows what to correct. And what are the other 29 students doing while the 30th is asking the teacher whether the proposed correction is correct or not?
  • Above all, because TPRS taught students have heard so many questions, the formation of questions is totally normal for them. Just another thing that’s in their ear already.


Do This, Not That!

Now, there are TPRS classrooms where the kids are weak on question formation. But that’s easy to prop up using CI-friendly methods. The pop-up is traditionally recommended to point out grammar elements, though I use it to point out anything: pronunciation, grammar, word choice, culture in micro-bits. But most TPRS teachers only pop up statements, not questions. Questions are frequently translated, especially when there is that “oh my gosh they aren’t answering” thing going on. We’re good at feeling that void and saying “gotta use the ‘what did I just ask?’ now”. But most teachers rarely pop up anything about the question itself, like “What does that -ma on the end tell you?” or “What does the est-ce que tell us?” or even “How did you know that was a question?” (because it could have been word order, added particles, or intonation — or a combination of these).

And don’t ignore the “higher level” question pop-ups: “What if I asked…?” and “How would I ask…?” Impressive to observers, satisfying for the students you target to answer them (since we try to ensure that students can succeed at pop-ups, not just ask randomly — this is microdifferentiation in TPRS and often goes unrecognized) and good, accurate CI for everyone.

Go forth and pop up some questions!

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