Using the Question Formulation Technique with EAL students

Through my work I often see EAL students ‘in action’, meaning I see them trying to keep up in mainstream lessons. Unfortunately, I also often see them fail to do just that. It’s not because they don’t try hard or because the teacher isn’t trying their best to accommodate them. Even the busiest teacher would take the time to answer a student’s questions about the lesson content, but the reality is that most EAL students sit in class quietly. Some might ask questions after the lesson, but what about the ones who don’t? And why don’t they ask if they don’t know what’s going on anyway? There can be many reasons, of course, but very often it simply comes down to this: they don’t know how to ask the right question.

Teachers have the best intentions, however, they also have a classroom full of students, often at different ability levels, so differentiation is hard and there isn’t always time for everyone. Students, especially new ones with very little English, don’t tend to speak in class, much less do they dare asking questions. Do you see how the combination of these two things forms a vicious circle?

A few years ago I came across an article about The Question Formulation Technique by Rothstein and Santana. The QFT is a teaching technique that was originally developed for the mainstream classroom to help lower attainment students catch up. I found the concept of transferring the act of asking the questions from the teacher to the students intriguing and I wanted to see if I could make it work with EAL students. I started experimenting with it in my Second Language lessons and I have been successfully using it for many years.

The QFT involves multiple steps (read about breaking down your instructions here) and I modify or scaffold each stage to make it more attainable for EAL students. Here is a step-by-step description of how I use it for reading comprehension:

  • Question Focus (QFocus): The QFocus can be anything from a picture to a controversial statement as long as it is not a question. A well-planned QFocus is simple, engaging and encourages divergent thinking, which means that students gather as many questions as they can without judging or evaluating them. There are four rules:

1. ask as many questions as you can;

2. do not discuss, judge or answer them;

3. write down every question as it is stated; and

4. change statements into questions.

I slightly alter this stage and ask my students to think about the types of questions they might want to ask about the text. This way I can ensure that they have some good examples to rely on. I then reassure them that all questions are valuable contributions and provide them with further reinforcement while I’m monitoring as and when needed.

  • Producing questions and improving them: Leblanc, Nepal, and Mowry (2017) called this step the “question-storming session”, because it is similar to a brainstorming session, except here the students are forming questions. The list of questions is recorded and numbered before students move on to the next stage: improving their questions. The questions are categorised into open- and close-ended ones involving a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each type and changing questions from one type to the other.
  • Prioritising questions: Next, the students need to prioritise their questions based on a prompt from the teacher that helps bring the questions in line with the lesson objectives. This stage is pre-planned by the teacher, however, it allows students to think convergently, making deliberate, conscious choices.
Sample work from my students

I scaffold these two stages by providing students with a handout that gives them specific instructions as to how many questions to ask and how many questions to agree on with their team mates. This helps me keep the students focused and provides a written record of the work they are doing in their groups. I also often skip categorising the questions into open- and close-ended ones as my students would struggle with these concepts. However, I do think that this is a valuable stage for higher level learners. I provide individual scaffolding while monitoring closely. When I see a close-ended question on the list of most important questions, I ask leading questions to help the students realise that open-ended questions are better than close-ended ones without using the metalanguage.

  • Discussing next steps and reflecting: Finally students discuss how their questions will be used in the context of the course or lesson. There is also an optional reflection stage that helps students think metacognitively about what they have learnt through this process.

Instead of discussing how to use the questions about the text with the students, I often make the decision for them. The questions are circulated and the students get the chance to look at all the questions and to answer them in their groups. This way students can engage with the text on a deeper level, reading it over and over again trying to find the answer to the questions they formulated.

During the open class feedback stage we focus on the questions that the students want to, as well as on the ones they do not find the answer to. Some of these questions can only be answered by using the internet, which we do together using the IWB. This stage is extremely engaging for the students as they have a vested interest in finding out the answers to their own questions.

I am a firm believer in group work as I find that it helps students learn better through discussing the material or working out problems together. The QFT enhances that experience as it allows students to be autonomous in their inquiry. I find this framework highly beneficial and since it’s a technique that we know works in the mainstream classrooms as well, it can be used by any teacher in any lesson. It is also highly adaptable and relatively low-prep.

Further reading :

Leblanc, H. J., Nepal, K. and Mowry, G. S. (2017) Stimulating curiosity and the ability to formulate technical questions in an electric circuits course using the question formulation technique (QFT). 2017 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE), pp. 1-6.

Right Question Institute (2019) What is the QFT? [online]. Available at: https://rightquestion.org/what-is-the-qft/ [Accessed 5 June 2019].

Rothstein, D. and Santana, L. (2011) Teaching Students to Ask their Own Questions: One Small Change Can Yield Big Results. Harvard Education Letter: Harvard Education Press [online]. Available at: https://www.hepg.org/hel-home/issues/27_5/helarticle/teaching-students-to-ask-their-own-questions_507#home [Accessed 19 June 2019].

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