Those learning English as a Second Language (ESL) must practice regular dialogue to retain more English vocabulary and gain fluency. To teach ESL students to hold a dialogue, it is essential to teach them to ask follow-up questions in English.
Learning to ask follow-up questions in ESL takes a few steps of practice: learning basic English vocabulary and grammatical structure, watching an instructor demonstrate basic conversation with follow-up questions, and practicing one-on-one conversations with a partner.
The more you practice, the easier it will become to develop follow-up questions and hold coherent English conversations. The following will cover the basic steps ESL teachers should take to introduce and implement follow-up questions in the classroom.
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Introducing Follow-Up Questions
Before students can begin learning to come up with follow-up questions and hold English conversations, you will need to make sure they have developed a basic sense of some English vocabulary and syntax.
Before beginning the spoken exercises, it can help give students written worksheets or exercises (such as this) to practice writing the questions before coming up with them and saying them on the spot. After introducing the lesson and vocabulary, let students work through the worksheets independently, or discuss them and work through them in pairs.
One of the essential parts of learning to hold a conversation in a language is being able to ask follow-up questions. Make sure your lesson and worksheets clarify the grammatical structure of English questions, in case your students are not familiar with it yet.
Additionally, make sure your ESL students are familiar with the vocabulary and phrasing of common questions in English before encouraging them to move on to more creative questions that are unique to the situation of your conversation with a particular partner.
Follow-Up Questions for Beginning ESL Students
With new ESL students, it is a good idea to get students into the habit of learning and asking “yes or no” questions. Give your students a list of pre-formulated questions, with their translations, to ask. They can memorize these specific questions and practice asking them and answering them with one another.
A good exercise for asking yes or no questions is with a timed exercise, such as this timed pair practice exercise. Help your students practice asking and answering specific yes or no questions and exchanging them back and forth.
Using yes or no questions will help your students begin growing comfortable with basic English conversations, which will help expand their vocabulary.
From there, gradually transition your students to more general questions. Here are some examples of different questions that will be helpful for teaching different elements of English while also helping students become more comfortable with basic English conversations:
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Questions that Demonstrate Grammatical Elements
The following questions will allow students to practice speaking with various tenses and clauses:
- What did you do last summer? (Helps students practice the past tense)
- What are your plans for next summer? (Helps students practice the future tense)
- If you go on vacation, what will you do? (Helps students practice conditionals)
- Why are you studying English? (Helps students practice dependent clauses)
Questions that Focus on New Vocabulary
Suppose you are studying a particular topic or unit of vocabulary with your students. In that case, you might personalize questions to those topics so that your students can practice their vocabulary in conversation.
For example, if you were covering a unit on food, you could pick questions like the following:
- What is your favorite food?
- What is your favorite drink?
- Do you like to cook?
- What did you order at the restaurant yesterday?
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Questions that Help Develop Everyday Conversations
It is important to help students practice everyday conversations they might have with others in the future. Get them familiar with the practical questions or common small talk questions they will encounter in conversations later:
- What travel advice would you give to someone visiting your home country?
- What is it like in your home country?
- What is a food from your home country that you really love to eat?
- How do you like the weather we’re having?
- Do you follow baseball? Did you see the game last night?
- What kinds of sports do you like?
- What are your favorite movies? TV shows? Have you seen [name of current movie] yet?
- What kind of music do you like?
- What kind of work do you do?
If you need more topics to explore, check out this list full of conversation topics, with multiple suggested questions underneath each topic.
Intermediate Follow-Up Questions for ESL Students
As your ESL students become more comfortable with pre-formulated yes or no questions and basic conversation starters, you can begin encouraging them to develop new questions of their own with the vocabulary they have learned.
Ask questions of your students and ask for volunteers to provide an answer and follow-up question. Practicing with the group like this will help students become more comfortable with formulating answers without the pressure of a one-on-one conversation.
When demonstrating English conversations to your students, make sure to:
- Speak slowly and clearly enough that they can follow the conversation.
- Use simple vocabulary and grammatical constructions that your students have learned while occasionally including new words or constructions here and there to help expand their vocabulary naturally.
- Provide conversations that have a clear and simple logical progression, so they can begin to follow conversations even when they don’t fully understand each vocabulary word or grammatical construction.
- Involve your students in these example conversations occasionally so that they can practice speaking with a fluent English speaker.
- Ask one question and ask for student responses and then list various student responses on the board. Then you can discuss these responses together and talk about which are the strongest and why.
Before transitioning into independent conversations between the students, it might be a good idea to have one or more pairs of students come up to the front of the class to demonstrate a conversation. This way, you can provide feedback on the conversation and give direction if it is needed.
You can give the pair of students a question to start the conversation off with, and then try not to interject while they carry out a conversation. Once it has gone on for a few minutes or they stall, you can provide feedback to them and for the benefit of the whole class.
When providing feedback on student conversations, try to:
- Note places where answers and follow-up questions were particularly good.
- Note vocabulary words that were new to many students in the room.
- Correct and clarify parts of the conversation (vocabulary words or grammatical constructions) that were incorrect and may confuse your students.
- If it feels appropriate, suggest some more responses that the students might have chosen.
Suppose the conversations between students in front of the class are stalling or they are having significant difficulty. In that case, you might “open the floor” for other students to raise their hands and suggest responses and follow-up questions to help keep the conversation flowing.
Helping ESL Students Have Their Own Conversations
After you have demonstrated an example conversation with the group, divide students into pairs, and let them practice creating their own conversations.
Encourage your students to listen carefully to their conversation partner, having them repeat themselves slowly until they understand them, and to formulate clear answers in English, keeping the conversation as coherent as they can using the words they both know.
Some suggestions for helping your students transition into independent conversations with partners:
- Provide a question or two to each pair to get their conversation started.
- Provide lists of a few possible questions to each pair to help keep the conversation moving and give them ideas.
After students have completed their first conversations, you might go through them pair by pair and ask each student to share one thing they learned about their partner in English.
As students become more comfortable in conversation and learn more and more vocabulary, you can give them more and more freedom in their conversations and can simply pair them up and circulate the room, monitoring conversations and offering suggestions or corrections where they are needed.
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Learning to ask follow-up questions is an integral part of ESL classes, as it is a crucial step in learning to hold conversations in English.
Teaching ESL students to come up with and articulate follow-up questions requires some patience and repeated practice. Still, it is a fairly straightforward process:
- Ensure students have a strong foundation of vocabulary and the basic grammatical structure of English questions.
- Demonstrate conversations in front of the class.
- Give students example questions to get them started.
- Allow students to have conversations with partners, giving them feedback and assistance where needed.
With regular and repeated practice, conversational English and follow-up questions will continue to improve over time.