Features on ELTNEWS.com View All Features
Visit ELTBOOKS - all Western ELT Books with 20% discount (Japan only)

Teaching Ideas

June 20, 2003

Exploring 'Yes/No'-questions: A Task for Teaching Alternative Responses

Johannes C. Razenberg

TESOL teacher

Teaching and learning fundamental English denotes that learners understand some fundamental language patterns. Giving a 'yes/no'-answer to a 'yes/no'-question is such a pattern. This task is not for those learners, rather it is for those learners who never got beyond that pattern; those learners who have become fossilized in always giving a 'yes/no'-answer (the answer expected by the questioner) rather than offering an original response (replying in words which are appropriate for the given social and cultural context). If learners are to improve their speaking skills, they need to be able to understand and use alternative responses when replying to 'yes/no'-questions.

Should you need to address this issue with your learners, you are sure to find the following task useful. (Please note that learners must be able to independently use and respond to interrogatives before using this task.) It can be completed within 20 to 40 minutes and done with both small and large classes.

At the end of this task learners will understand that native speakers often give alternative responses to 'yes/no'-questions and will be able to do the same as appropriate for a given context.

1. Draw up a teacher produced language sample. One sample must contain 'yes/no'-questions and -answers. The other sample must contain 'yes/no'-questions with alternative responses. Use focus questions so that students understand the difference in participant B's language in both samples. Have a second sample in reserve.


A: Could you explain how planes fly?
B: Yes.
A: Would you tell me how planes fly?
B: Yes.
A: Is air flow important?
B: Yes.

A: Could you explain how planes fly?
B: Well, as a starting point, let me demonstrate how air flows over a wing, causing lift.

Which dialogue did you find more realistic? Did the pilot in the first dialogue install you with confidence?


A: Shall I get you a drink?
B: No.

A: Shall I get you a drink?
B: I'd love one, but I'm afraid I can accept as I'm tonight's designated driver. Next time perhaps?

What are some of the difference between these dialogues?

2. Supply an authentic or near-to-authentic (e.g. movie) sample of a native exchange. Ask students to identify pattern answers and alternative responses. This may be done through the use of AV materials, as a reading exercise, or as an observation task in real life settings. Explore the social and situational context through teacher-led questioning. (For example: What is the relationship of these people? Where are they? What are they talking about? Is the language interpersonal or formal?)


Marie: So, do you think there's, like, a family waiting for you?
Bourne: I don't know. I've thought about it.
Marie: Is that it?
Bourne: One-o-four.
Marie: That's it, huh?
Bourne: Yeah, that's, uh, that's the address. No, no, keep going. Keep going.
Marie: Okay. Where?

(Transcribed from Mainichi Weekly Jan. 11, 2003, 'The Bourne Identity', p. 5.)

3. Ask students to only look for alternative responses now in other texts. Learners are to work as partners or in small groups. They collect the information by highlighting/noting alternative responses in texts. In the report-back phase, learners pool their language samples and share their discoveries (e.g. talk about different language usage across different registers). It is likely that learners will have some questions about different language usage in different contexts, so be prepared to answer them.

4. Move onto the activity/game. The activity/game [teacher's choice] is meant to be used as a fun, motivating and challenging way of learning language, so keep it light. The object is for students to use alternative responses to 'yes/no'-questions. Make a sound when a student makes an error (i.e. a buzzer) and keep a tally on the whiteboard of how many errors a student makes over the two minute period. This activity/game can go through one or more cycles depending on the level of student involvement. (I often find that students like the opportunity to re-challenge themselves.) At the end, if using this activity as a game, give some kind of reward to the person who made the least errors.

The Interrogation Activity/Game

(Acknowledgement: The idea for this game comes from interrogative activities cited in Paul, D. 1994, Communicate: Book 1, Heinemann, Oxford)

5. Close the task by getting students to report back what they learnt about the differences between using 'yes/no'-answers to 'yes/no'-questions and using alternative responses.

Linking with Future Tasks
A writing activity can be set in which students need to change the 'yes/no'-answers in an exchange to alternative responses. This is a good way of building student's knowledge of appropriate language usage for a given social and situational context.

This interrogation activity/game has always had some cross-cultural barriers which a teacher needs to be aware of. Based on ongoing discussions with Japanese teaching colleagues since 1993, in a Japanese cultural context a 'yes/no'-answer to a 'yes/no'-question is considered to be a polite and correct response by learners to a teacher's question. Thus the interrogation activity/game tends not to go so well when a teacher gets involved. In addition, many of the topics which are explored in the classroom are often not explored in the cultural and situational use of language in Japanese society; therefore, learners opt for safe 'yes/no'-answers to questions. The way to overcome this is to let learners use any topic when they are asking 'yes/no'-questions.

« A Surprise Box: A Resource that Engages the Young L2 Learner | Main | Reading Strategies for the TOEIC® Test »



World Today