In the early sixties, a group of professors in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University thought that they would be better able to prepare social studies teachers if they had a better  idea of what veteran teachers in this area actually did. To find out they asked some teachers in the area to teach a speech that John F. Kennedy had given on free trade. They told the teachers that they wanted them to teach the way they usually did and they were interested only in what they did, not whether what they did was good or bad.  They wanted them to all teach the same passage because they thought they could more clearly see the methods each teacher used if all teachers used the same reading material. If one teacher was teaching a historical document like the Declaration of Independence and another Roosevelt’s speech declaring war on Japan they thought it would make it harder to compare methods since different documents might require or inspire different methods.

After analyzing transcribed recordings of the teachers, they found that each teacher dealt with a different part of Kennedy’s speech. They also found that some teachers discussed free trade from a range of perspectives they were familiar with and did not have the students read or discuss very much of the material they had been asked to teach.

Ironically, though the teachers varied the content a lot, which the team had provided to keep what was taught constant, they did not vary the methods they used! The bulk of the questions asked, for example, were fact recall questions.

They wrote up their results in The language of the classroom, published in 1966 by Teachers College Press. The lead author was Arno Bellack.

I based my system of analyzing classrooms on Bellack et al. in Breaking Rules (1987). And the Birmingham team that developed a coding system for describing language classrooms came up a system very similar to the Bellack team.

In 1968, one James Hoetker wrote an article about the types of questions English teachers asked. (Research in the teaching of English, 2, 99-106.) Perhaps not surprisingly he found that fact questions were the most frequent among English teachers just as they had been among social studies teachers.

After his study of transcripts from classes, he teamed up with one William F. Ahlbrand to review studies that had been done on classroom interaction from the early 1900’s. In 1069 the published what I consider a classic: The persistence of the recitation. (American Educational Research Journal, 6, 145-167. They found what Charles Dickens satirized in hard times when he has a teacher called Mr. Gradgrind exclaim, “All I want are facts; facts alone are wanted in life.”

In more recent years, fact questions, which teachers usually already know the answers to, have been labelled “display questions”. Studies of ESOL classes find that ESOL teachers are following the pattern of the last 100 years!

Douglas Barnes calls questions that require no thought “final draft talk” and contrasts such questions with “exploratory talk”. His book, From communication to curriculum, 1976, is worth a read. Of course so is the book by Bellack et al. and the articles by Hoetker and Hoetker  and Ahlbrand. Sinclair et al.–the Birmingham team are equally useful and full of similar insights. I find it exciting when different people from different countries curious about teachers teaching different subjects at different levels come up with similar data and insights.

I am attaching two ways of grouping questions, one from Percival Gurrey, Teaching English as a foreign language, Longman 1955–9 types and the other, Curiosity, that grew out of questions I noticed students asking.

The questions were formed by students from the first sentence in this text. I had asked a dozen teachers to ask their students to write at least 6 sentences about the first sentence.

You might wonder why I made such a request. I believe that we need to practice language and if students write questions about a text and are edited by their teacher and then ask each other the questions and write the responses they get a great deal of guided practice. The amount of language they produce is like 10 to 20 times more than when they just response to the teachers questions.

When they ask each other the questions they are asked to look at their partner, not at their written questions so they do not just say words but speak. I ask the teachers to have the student responding in the pair to first write the question. Later they compare both the questions each said and wrote and the responses each said and wrote. As I said they have sometimes as many as 100 questions and responses written in their notebooks at the end of a segment of the lesson that might last only 15 minutes. This in contrast to most lessons in which they have nothing in their notebooks and have said only a few words. Some students of course say nothing. And saying individual words is quite a waste of time anyway.

If you write six questions about the first sentence before you look at the range of questions I display in the two attachments you might better understand the 9 types of questions in the grid and the curiosity questions in the other attachment.

Of course there are many other types of questions. One of my purposes is to have you ask your students to write questions about materials you are using and then group the questions in ways you and your students find beneficial.

A short trip in 1800

The three men dismounted from their horses as soon as they arrived at the fisherman’s house. After they took the saddles off of their horses and tied their reins to a tree, the fisherman’s son gave water and food to the horses.

The fisherman asked, “Do you want water and food now before you go to the island?” The oldest man said, “No, we must get there before dark. We can eat and drink as we travel.”

The fisherman then ran to the beach with the three men. The four men quickly pushed a currach from the beach into the water. They jumped into the currach, and the fisherman and the youngest man started to row away from the beach to an island one kilometer away.

When they arrived at the island, a black guillemot flew over them very quickly. It made very loud sounds from its throat, and then it swooped down close to them.

All the best.