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Young Learners

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

July 03, 2009

How important are full sentences when answering questions?

For several years I have been teaching children to answer questions with full sentences, e.g. How do you go to school? I go to school by bus. I believe this is important mainly because low level learners (children and adults) spend a lot of time asking and responding to questions rather than initiating conversation without using a question. The main chance they have to produce meaningful non-question sentences is when they are responding to questions. As their English improves they can give longer answers to questions, e.g. How do you go to school? I go to school by bus. It takes 20 minutes. If students are capable of this, then I have found that I am less strict about them using a full sentence for the initial answer, e.g. How do you go to school? By bus. It takes 20 minutes. This is the closest to a native speaker's answer, which is probably the reason I found myself accepting it without really thinking about it.

There are two main problems I believe with an insistence on full answers. The first is that it is teaching them to do something that most native speakers rarely do. The second is that there are many occasions when students understand the question and know the answer but can't remember how to say the first part of the answer. Very often this will prevent them from answering because they feel they must give the whole sentence. In fact if they just gave the short answer, it would more closely resemble a native speaker's answer.

How can we get around this problem? One way is to only insist on full sentences when it is not an answer to a question. If we use a prompt such as a picture rather than a question to get the full sentence practice, then when students answer a question we can encourage them, or at least allow them, to use a short answer. Another way is to have some activities where speed and fluency are emphasised, and in these activities allow short answers. This will let students see that short answers are acceptable.

I have been playing a game (with two classes of three children who have been studying English for five years) that emphasises quick, short answers. I have a 3-minute egg timer. I ask questions to one student for three minutes while another student records the number of answers and the third is in charge of the time. We rotate roles so that each student has chance to answer. They remember their scores from previous lessons and try to improve them. As well as practising short answers, it is also a good game for combining revision of old targets with practice of new targets. I occasionally use picture prompts for some questions but mostly there are no visual prompts.

I have found this game has worked well even with weaker students, and it seems to be very good for students' listening skills, especially guessing the meaning of the whole question from the keywords they hear. The students know they can answer questions with short answers, but so far I am still insisting on full sentences when answering questions relating to a new target at other times in the lesson. Whether this is the right thing to do or not, I am not sure.

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How about accepting short answers in verbal situations but requiring full sentences in writing? This would also be closer to what a native speaker encounters. Would that be a reasonable solution?

Hi Ryan,
This is a good idea. I think though it would be difficult for children to write something that they hadn't previously practised saying. In my lessons the children only write after they have had practise speaking the same target. I don't like having them simply copying so they wouldn't know what to write. Certainly though for targets that they already know, this would be a good solution.

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