Channeling Vygotsky: A lesson for clarifying question forms


The Russian education researcher, Lev Vygotsky, remains famous among language teachers because his work continues to resonate. His enduring Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) occupies the territory in a lesson in which the scaffolding provided by teachers and peers enhances student learning beyond what individuals could do on their own. This elegant notion is based on the premise that teachers can see where students are at and then guide them to the next level of ability.

The following lesson for an intermediate grammar class illustrates how one might situate learning at the ZPD so that students who are already familiar with Wh- question forms can refine their ability.  A core aim within that general goal is to help learners distinguish between Wh- questions that focus on the subject and those that focus on the object and thus use auxiliaries.

Part 1: Eliciting and working with form

The teacher begins by saying a past tense sentence, for example, “I had a great weekend.” Then, “Ask me about it.” Students can prepare questions then ask, or the teacher can simply nominate individuals. Because they are intermediate, this first activity can help the teacher get a sense of students’ current ability with question forms.

As students ask questions, the teacher can listen for accurate forms and provide error correction where the forms are not correct. In an oral situation, this can be done by repeating the question up to the error and allowing the student to self-correct, or simply saying, “missing word,” or “word order.” If the student still has trouble, a peer or the teacher can provide the correction. The student is then invited to ask in the correct form, and the teacher can answer (an important step), and write it on the board in one of two columns as in the example below.

Who were you with?

What happened?

Where was it?

How far away was it?

What did you do?

Where did you go?

Who did you see?

How did you like it?

When did you get home?

When sufficient questions are on the board for the pattern of each type to emerge, the teacher can ask the students to talk in pairs about what they see as the difference between these two types of questions. At this point, through collaboration, students should be able to notice the role of the auxiliary did when the focus of the WH word is on the object, as in Who did you see?

Further guided questioning can lead to students identifying features of the verb in each form. For example, “In which column do you see a base form? In which column does the question remain in past tense?

To review and clarify the present and modal or future forms, teachers can ask students to change the tense of the questions to present or future. This can be done in pairs and then various forms can be elicited to the board again and the pattern examined.

Who are/will you be you with?

What happens/ will happen?

Where is it? Where will it be?

How far away is it?/ will it be?

What do/will/can you do?

Where do/will/can you go?

Who do/will/can you see?

How do/will/can you like it?

When do/will/can you get home?

Part 2: Practice

Once students are clear about form, a simple interview role play can help them practice different types of questions. The following sequence provides a basic template:

A) Put students in pairs and have them choose a job from a list on the board and write a brief job description. The list can include basic jobs such as nurse, police officer, office assistant, waiter, chef, engineer, etc.

B) Tell pairs to write a set of five questions they would ask people interviewing for the job and write them down. As they write, monitor and make sure they are using the correct forms.

C) When they finish, elicit a set of questions that applicants often ask, and write them on the board to help prepare the applicants for the role play.

D) Designate individuals in pairs as A and B. Have As take the job description and questions, stand and form a line. Tell them they will be employers. Then tell Bs that they will be applicants. Instruct Bs to come to the front and stand face to face across from an A (employer) who is not their partner so they can apply for a new job. Once they are standing across from a potential employer, have them practice the job interview. Invite the applicants to also ask questions such as, “What will my hours be?”

E) When they finish, have the applicants move a step to the right, with the last person moving to the top of the line, so that each applicant applies for a new job. This time tell the students on both sides not to use notes. Listen and correct as necessary.

F) Instruct A/B partners to get back together and hand the job and questions to Bs. Then they can line up again, and the Bs can be employers while the As interview for the job. Again, have As move down the line and try again, but without notes.

G) Optional: Invite volunteers to do a role play for the class, while the class listens for the correct question forms.

H) Go over any issues that came up in terms of form or tense.

This lesson by moving from a focus on form to repeated iterations of practice is an example of how the scaffolding provided by a lesson can help students who have some ability asking questions take a second step in monitoring for accuracy, and then a third step in practicing for a real world situation.

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