Every day at the Right Question Institute (RQI) we hear stories that teach us over and over about the importance of asking questions.
From classrooms around the world, we learn that questions not only define the unknown, but also set the agenda for learning. We learn that they have the power to generate real curiosity, which is possibly the strongest and most genuine motivation for learning. Ultimately, we learn that questions confer responsibility, ownership, and agency to the asker—which is a role not inhabited often enough by students.
As the Education Program Associate, I talk directly with teachers and administrators about how they are helping students leverage the power of questions for their own learning with the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). In speaking with World Language teachers on this topic, I have heard both from those who have had wonderful success with the QFT, and from those still trying to work through how it could fit into their setting.
I wanted to learn more from the experts on both sides of the spectrum to find out: What are the unique challenges world language teachers face in implementing the QFT? And how can those challenges be addressed to make questioning a critical component of the language learning classroom?
While exploring the first question, one teacher pointed out to me that “language is not an academic subject to be studied,” like other subjects, rather, “it’s a communication tool.” Some disciplines, like social studies or science, have textbooks filled with bodies of knowledge waiting to be discovered and unpacked, experimented and researched, activities well-suited to student questioning. Questions already exist in natural places in the syllabus – paper topics, unit guides, Socratic seminars, driving question boards, and so on.
But what about a subject like world language, where information seldom exists to be examined, but more often to immediately be practiced and applied? The goal is not always the breadth or depth of specific knowledge a learner has but how flexibly and confidently they can use even the thinnest slice of that knowledge in a time-sensitive and unpredictable environment complicated by social dynamics.
Where the need for quality questions makes itself known in other subject areas, in world language it sometimes seems harder to envision. In thinking about using the QFT, teachers might ask: What would a lesson actually look like? What kinds of questions would the students ask and how would they use those questions? And more importantly, how would the QFT help accomplish instructional goals specific to language learning?
This to me is Challenge #1: Envisioning how student questioning can advance the instructional goals and practices of the language classroom.
A second challenge was named by a teacher who attended a recent QFT workshop: “For me what I found meaningful was that process of working together to come up with questions, refine, and reflect on those questions. The tension as a world language teacher is that a lot of the lower levels would have a real challenge even writing the language; some of those pieces are hard to not lose if you’re doing it in the target language.”
Many language classrooms have policies about communicating exclusively in the target language. In fact, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) “recommends that learning take place through the target language for 90% or more of classroom time.” One teacher described the higher-order questioning QFT calls for as “an overwhelming and monumental task” for non-native speakers in the target language.
This I see as Challenge #2: Making the sophisticated language knowledge needed for the QFT process accessible to students at varying levels of proficiency.
Despite these challenges, world language teachers in classrooms around the country are teaching students to ask their own questions and watching them come alive with curiosity, think deeply and critically about content, and take ownership over their language learning. I spoke with three such teachers: Judy Wilson is a former Spanish and Italian teacher, former administrator, and current education consultant based out of Staten Island, New York; Leticia Quiles is an AP Capstone and Pre-AP and AP Spanish Teacher at a high school in Nashua, New Hampshire; and Beth Skelton is a language learning consultant and former German teacher from Colorado. They shared below how they are making questioning a culture in their classroom.
First, in looking at Challenge #1, they explained for what purposes they use the QFT in the language classroom.
“My motto has long been, ‘All learning starts with a question,’” says Wilson. “In the language classroom we are all working towards learning a new language by mastering the art of communication through exchange of information. Both children and adults naturally learn about the world by observing, testing and asking why.”
Just as in any classroom, questions, when generated by students, elicit their genuine curiosity, thereby giving them a real motivation and purpose for learning. Students are even more engaged in the learning when their questions help to set the agenda.
In Quiles words, “It encourages the student to be an active participant in and contributor to their learning. By allowing students to lead the discussion, we are encouraging them to care about the lesson. As teachers, many times we teach what we find interesting or what is required of our curricula. The QFT allows students to blaze a new path, in essence, teach us what they want to know.”
For objectives as critical as authentically engaging students in learning, language teachers may find it worthwhile to conduct the QFT in students’ native language (or in both languages as students are able) at the beginning of a unit or year. Per the ACTFL’s position that 90% or more of class time be conducted in the target language, the Language Educator published a guide for teachers called Going for 90% Plus: How to Stay in the Target Language (Crouse 2012). The article concedes that “Even 100 percenters will employ English strategically during the early days of a course, particularly in explaining learning goals, assessment standards, and expectations for student behavior.” Language teachers might consider investing the time they have for native language use by allowing students the opportunity to instead ask questions about learning goals, and subsequently build long-lasting curiosity, purpose, and motivation towards the course learning.
Cultural competence and understanding
Wilson suggests that aspects of the world language curriculum are indeed well-suited to investigation through questions. One such aspect is the study of the target culture. “The ACTFL World Readiness Standards are culture driven,” she says. “Students need opportunity to ask questions about other cultures freely and in any language. Asking questions about other cultures in any language helps students develop empathy and walk in the shoes of someone different. In my experience as a teacher, administrator, mom, and grandma, kids of any age have a gazillion questions when surrounded by people and situations they may not completely identify with.”
The study of language structures
Similarly, Wilson points out, the QFT provides students the opportunity to investigate the nature of language in general, which is important for learning grammar in context. Beth Skelton notes, “It is hugely important to be metacognitive about language.”
“Using the QFT is an authentic strategy that encourages students to practice the language and study how questions are formulated, thereby helping them be more proficient in the target language,” Wilson says. “For example, the activity of changing questions from open to closed provides opportunity for students to study language syntax in both native and new language.
Consider this example in spoken English: Where are you from? In Spanish: ¿De dónde eres? Most Spanish questions follow this exact same formula. Note that the from goes at the end of the question in English, and at the start of the question in Spanish (de). In English, we finish questions with prepositions (about, for, from, on, with, etc.) most of the time. In Spanish, you don’t usually finish a question with a preposition. Here is another example. In spoken English: Who are you going with? is correctly translated to ¿Con quién vas a ir? in Spanish. A word-for-word translation from Who are you going with? to ¿Quién vas a ir con? would be unacceptable in Spanish. Correct placement of words when formulating a question in a new language takes practice, practice, practice. The QFT provides lots of it.”
Both Wilson and Quiles say that students’ questions are in fact critical for what many see as the central objective of language learning: communication.
Quiles writes, “The focus of a World Language classroom is communication… You learn by doing, which is exactly why encouraging students to have an active role in their learning, via QFT, can be a strong component of a World Language classroom.” The QFT process itself is a structured, student-driven protocol which mandates students think freely without judging or censoring questions, and encourages universal participation. In doing so, it honors a space completely dedicated to student thinking and talking and gives students a low-stakes yet rigorous opportunity to try out speaking in the target language.
Wilson adds that learning how to ask questions is just one of many elements students must necessarily learn and piece together when trying to communicate. In her classroom, just like conjugating into the past tense and practicing pronunciation, “Asking questions is a tool to be mastered. Many tools are available to you as you communicate. You have to be aware of them, and use them purposefully. The better you become at using these tools the better you’ll be at communicating.”
Finally, Quiles uses the QFT as a way to generate authentic topics for conversation in the target language, just as you would do with questions in real life. She writes, “The question is simply the starting point for a discussion in the target language using vocabulary and appropriate grammar. Communication is the goal, vocabulary and grammar are the means to the end. The QFT can help guide student curiosity, eliciting something they want to talk about.”
These are just some of the ways world language teachers are using student questions in their classroom. Click here to read on about Challenge #2: Making the sophisticated language knowledge needed for the QFT process accessible to students at varying levels of proficiency.
We are still learning about the use of the QFT in the language classroom from educators in the field and would love to hear from you! Please send us at email at email@example.com if you have an example you’d like to share.