International Ask a Question Day: An Educator’s Observation

March 14th marks the somewhat underrated “holiday” devoted to asking questions. Suitably falling on Albert Einstein’s birthday, International Ask a Question Day is meant to encourage the practice of seeking knowledge. In the world of education, questions are paramount in the learning process. In my own experience—and I think most teachers would agree—our job in the classroom involves asking, answering, and clarifying questions.

True story: Purely out of my own curiosity, I decided to tally the number of questions I was asked during a random school day. Any question counted—from, “Can I go to the water fountain?” to, “Should I underline the title of an article?” By the final period of the day, I knew I had a significant number of hash marks, but the exact amount of questions that had been asked far exceeded what I had anticipated. The number of questions was somewhere in the 300’s—and it was an early-dismissal day.

The point of this anecdote is to express the extent to which questions drive our work in the classroom. Students expect to get answers. Many may quantify those answers as learning. However, the real learning occurs when questions are formulated. To drum up a question, a student must first separate what he knows from what he does not know. This practice of sifting through knowledge and categorizing skills by competency takes a great deal of reflection. The saying “You don’t know what you don’t know” is thought to ring true for many students, yet in my observations, students are somewhat experts at recognizing what they do not know.

So, how can we use this almost innate penchant for curiosity and inquiry to best benefit our students?

Encourage your quiet students to “speak up” by allowing multiple ways of asking questions in class. This could mean keeping a question box or post-it notes available for students to jot down questions that they may be too shy to ask. You could also take a similar digital approach using Padlet or Google Classroom. Students are able to post questions to an online forum or webpage; they can also respond to others’ posts as well.

When reviewing for an assessment, have students create practice questions that they would anticipate seeing on the test. Have students submit or swap questions so that students can practice answering each other’s questions. If questions are well-written and relevant, use some student-derived questions on the actual assessment. This is also a way for teachers to gauge the students’ preparation for an upcoming assessment.

Play the well-known party game “just questions” in which students are only able to communicate using interrogative statements. This improv theater exercise encourages students to practice consciously phrasing and rephrasing questions. Students must think on their toes and apply knowledge of appropriate word choice and sentence structures in order to continue the conversation.

Provide students with broad or general questions like, “What is the setting of the story?” Then have students kick that question up a notch by adding another component or more complex level of inquiry. For instance, they might change the original question about setting to, “How does the setting affect the conflict that the character faces?” This practice allows students to add a layer of deeper analysis to a general question. Furthermore, this activity allows for plenty of differentiation depending on student ability.

Better Hearing and Speech Month: Speaking and Listening Skills for All Ages

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May is Better Hearing and Speech Month, which involves raising awareness about communication disorders. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, communication disorders involve “an impairment in the ability to receive, send, process, and comprehend concepts of verbal, nonverbal and graphic symbol systems.” There are many different types and variations of communication disorders—and the range in severity is even more vast.

While it is likely that educators will encounter a number of students with communication disorders, it is also possible that these impairments can be misdiagnosed or go undetected altogether. Whatever the case may be, impairment or not, every student can benefit from activities and lessons that engage the class in speaking and listening. These important skills extend far beyond classroom objectives.

Skills used to present a clear and concise speech, or to comprehend written and verbal instructions, are certainly important in grade school. But speaking and listening skills are imperative to college and career-readiness. Imagine how frequently our adult lives require us to speak clearly, succinctly, or elaborately. Similarly, we inevitably spend much of our lives listening—ingesting important information, filtering out the unnecessary fluff, and responding appropriately. With such significance placed upon our abilities to communicate properly, it is necessary to begin speaking and listening skills early in the classroom.

Below are some age-appropriate activities to build students’ speaking and listening proficiency.

Preschool-friendly listening activities:

  • Use a basic tongue twister to play “telephone” as a whole class. Begin with a shorter phrase so that students can remember the whole thing. Whisper the phrase to the first person slowly and clearly, then continue the telephone around the circle until everyone has whispered it to a partner. At the end of the line, ask the final student to say the phrase. If the phrase is different from the original starting statement, discuss how it is just as important to listen during group activities. Explain how even a short statement can become confusing or jumbled if we aren’t listening closely to the speaker.
  • The traditional brain breaks can also work as fabulous listening practice. Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and Musical Chairs are perfect for little ones that like to move around in the classroom. The movement also acts as a bit of a distraction to ensure that they really are listening while they’re up and about.
  • When reading to the class, ask students to act out the emotions that the characters are experiencing. If you are telling a spooky trick-or-treat story or an exciting adventure tale, pause at certain moments in the story to allow students to mimic the character’s behaviors or actions.

Early Elementary-aged speaking and listening activities:

  • Have students work on a Show-and-Tell project. Each student will informally present his or her object to the class or in small groups. Depending on age and ability, have students prepare a few notecards about the significance of the object. As other students are presenting, have the audience write down what each person brought for show-and-tell. Perhaps require students to ask 1-2 questions during the span of presentations. You could also create a graphic organizer asking students to categorize the items that their classmates brought in. This way, students are both asked to share aloud and listen attentively to each other.
  •  After story time or when finishing a class text, ask students to describe their favorite part in the story. Be sure to prompt them with follow-up questions such as: Why do you think that character did that? Are you happy with the way the story ended? Why or why not? How would you have reacted during the conflict in the story?
  • Create a clap-snap rhythm and ask students to replicate the sound pattern. Complicate the pattern as you go—making sure that students are both watching and listening to how the pattern is made. Remind students that listening attentively also means giving eye-contact to the speaker or “clapper.”

Late Elementary-aged speaking and listening activities:

  • Plan to watch a series of commercials as the class warm-up. Once all of the commercials have played, ask students to write down the products that were mentioned in each commercial. Were your students able to identify what the commercial was attempting to sell? Prompt a discussion about what makes a commercial successful or persuasive.  
  • Have students work in small groups to make up a creative story on the fly. One student will begin the story, then he or she passes it along to a classmate who will continue the narrative. Students must listen carefully to be sure that the story makes logical sense as it progresses around the circle.
  • Organize a game of charades in which students must act out a literary character from class texts. Students must walk, talk, and behave like their characters so that observers are able to speculate about who is playing which character. Discuss the importance of direct and indirect characterization and how authors wish to portray their characters.

Listen up! It’s time to let the fun begin for all ages and abilities.