February 5, 2021

The Vocabulary of Questioning

The Teachers’ Corner:

Picture the setting.  It’s a school for students with all sorts of problems – behaviour, learning, communication, physical challenges – a great place to teach but not for the faint of heart.

A teacher of Auto Mechanics walks into my office where I was the principal – killing himself laughing at the response of one of his Grade 12 Auto Mechanics students.  On the mid-term test, the students were asked to illustrate what happens in a transmission when a gear is changed.  The teacher could hardly contain himself.  “Look at this!”  he said. “He drew a picture!  How spacey can you get?”

He was surprised when I didn’t join in the laughter.  All I said was, “Looks to me like a pretty sophisticated drawing.  I hope you gave him a high mark!”

He stopped short. “What are you talking about.  I was looking for a written explanation?”

“What,” I said, “does the word ‘illustrate’ mean to you?”

The conclusion is obvious.  We throw around words for tests and assignments, but we never really take the time to analyze what we mean by them – let alone take the time to go over the meanings of these terms with our students before we use them in tests and assignments.

Just take the time to list the words we use in questions or in explanations for assignments:  compare, contrast, summarize, respond, outline, list, explain, comment on, describe, prove, analyze, synthesize, critique, support, argue for or against, expand on, discuss, debate – the list goes on and on.

It’s time to realize that we need to explain and to define what we mean by these terms before we ask students to “follow the instructions” in a question on a test or in an assignment.  These definitions are as important as the vocabulary that is associated with any discipline.

The “vocabulary of questioning” is often the key word in a question.  Notice that the above words are all verbs, that part of speech that talks about what a student is expected to “do” by way of an answer.

So, here’s a couple of suggestions:

  1. Jot down all the words you can think of that are used as the “do-ers” in the question.  Define them and have the kids record them somewhere in their online or hard copy notes so they can check them out when doing homework, writing tests, or completing assignments.
  2. Better still, work with your colleagues in other subject areas and other grades to see if you can get some cross-grade, cross-subject standardization in the vocabulary of questioning.  It will certainly clarify “the rules of the game” for kids and make their assignments easier to tackle and be more focused on the response you were, perhaps, seeking.

Teaching the “vocabulary of questioning” is only one small part of what we must begin to do in our schools and classrooms – and that is to take the whole question of the evaluation of student achievement farther than where the official pronouncements take us.   We need to start looking at everyday evaluation challenges that get missed by the experts but get taken up by people who know best about this dimension – the classroom teachers.  Time for a class-based evaluation policy, anyone?

Dr. Dan

If interested in delving into this further, why not check out our “School-Wide Student Evaluation Policy” or join us for the webinar series on “The Art of Teaching” with our Instructional Effectiveness Model” .