Questioning Levels: Goodbye “Yes” And “No!”

I’ve presented on questioning types in a more technical and involved way during workshops intended for teachers to practice their skillz (re: Vertical & Horizontal questioning), but the most ready-to-use concept is varying questioning levels…

  1. “yes” and “no”
  2. “either/or”
  3. “fill-in-blank”
  4. “why/open-ended”

Now, asking questions, in general, provides more exposure to words, thus, increasing input. Teachers ask questions and use answers (AQUA, credit Eric Herman). In many classrooms, that’s most of what a teacher does! Just as the teacher can adjust speech rate and complexity of language depending on the student, questioning levels are also another form of differentiation. If you’re in a Bloom’s Taxonomy (or similar) heavy school, think of the levels as moving from lower order thinking to higher order thinking.

Of course, there will be students who cannot respond to a higher level question. That’s fine. All learners benefit from receiving input, so you can ask the faster processing students higher level questions as slower processing students observe, especially if you restate that interaction in simpler language to the whole class.

So, get some practice asking these different levels, and in different orders. That is, don’t always think rock bottom is the starting point. Rather than always starting low to high, consider asking a “why?” question, first. If you notice signs of incomprehension, just drop to an “either/or.”

Goodbye “yes” and “no!”
Angie Dodd was my travel buddy for NTPRS 2017. Waiting for the flight home, she said “we don’t speak much Spanish; why not co-create a story?” So, we did, and it was fun. Still, I found it harder to contribute details when Angie asked “yes” and “no” questions. Instead, it was the “either/or” questions that got me to easily choose one detail, or got me to suggest a completely different third detail—but a detail that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own! Also, at a certain point, Angie wasn’t even using “yes” and “no” questions, and instead just negotiated meaning with me about the details. The “yes” and “no” questions actually got in the way for us, which got me noticing them a bit more during my own teaching. Since then, I’ve observed how students often feel like a “yes” or “no” question is a trick…

Teacher: “Class, there’s a guy sitting on a bench.”
Teacher: “John, is there a guy sitting on a bench?”
John: “Uhhh…yeah…?”

In this common example, the teacher’s question is actually more confusing for no reason. The student, John, is thinking “you just told us that!” which is a sign they’re picking up on the non-communicative nature of that kind of question. Granted, the teacher certainly means well, trying to provide more repetition in the input, but the “yes” and “no” questions are more susceptible to lacking a purpose. A lack of purpose tends to mean a lack of attending to meaning, and a lack of meaning tends to lead to incomprehension. This, expressily, isn’t CI. So, “yes” and “no” questions often have no point, and are referred to as “display questions.” Too many display questions starts to become pedantic over time, especially if a teacher has a routine and always starts low to high.

For all these reasons, I’ll be putting an end to “yes” and “no” questions as their own, lowest level. Instead, I’ll be asking them as an “either/or” supplied at the end of a question, as in “is this blog post short enough for you; yes or no?” The responses will still be what we’d expect, but it doesn’t feel like a trick. With “yes/no” really being a specific “either/or,” we’re now only talking about three questioning levels to practice as a teacher:

  1. “either/or”
  2. “fill-in-blank”
  3. “why?/open-ended”

All Either/or!
If you’re finding that students aren’t answering higher level questions, turn them all into “either/or!” Just like how a “yes/no” question is a more specific “either/or,” you can even ask a higher level question as an “either/or” itself. For example, instead of “what was there?” and letting students fill in “a guy on a bench” on their own, you can include the options up front, such as “was there a guy on a bench, or a cat on a table? What was there?” This is just more scaffolding. The same thing works with “why?” questions, too, such as “was the guy on a bench because he was tired, or because he was waiting for someone? Why was the guy on a bench?”

Note how giving two options isn’t necessarily a walk in the park, though. Students still have to process and respond with one of the two longer phrases. This still might be beyond the capability of many students, but is a great option to start sneaking in there.

2 thoughts on “Questioning Levels: Goodbye “Yes” And “No!”

  1. Great reflection, Lance.
    I have students for whom either or is too much at a given time and the solution is to back off and ask a “no” question and then a “yes” question before moving forward to “either/or.”
    “Yes/no” questions can be lengthy and involved and challenge the comprehension/memory of students so that it becomes a game to follow along and determine if it is “yes” or “no.”
    “Yes/no” questions can be used go forward or backward in the story and ground the class before delving a little more into that part of the narration.
    “Yes/no” questions can serve as a break since so little is required of the student in terms of production in the interaction.
    The example you gave in which the “yes/no” question immediately follows the declarative sentence could easily be overdone, predictable, and boring, especially if the students are comprehending and have good memories. I have had students where that is the appropriate level of comprehension/response. For true beginners, a multi-syllable response may be too much.
    So there are two components we have to consider:
    1. How much can the students understand?
    2. How much can the students respond?
    Thanks for challenge me to consider the appropriateness of “yes/no” questions.

    • ““Yes/no” questions can be lengthy and involved and challenge the comprehension/memory of students so that it becomes a game to follow along and determine if it is “yes” or “no.””


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.