The Truth behind Students’ Questions

Not all questions are easy to answer, are they? You know why? To answer a question you have to understand what the person is asking, but the words you hear may not accurately communicate the speaker’s needs.

Pretty much seven days a week I answer questions from students. I’ve learned to categorize questions as soon as I receive them: mentally I funnel them down different paths to the “boxes” of information I’ve stored in my head. You might have similar storage units in your brain, too. Want to compare contents? I’ll open three of mine.

1. QUESTION: Why can’t I understand most native speakers?

Students are really asking for strategies and resources. How can they improve their listening skills? What are some best practices for watching a movie in English? What can they do in conversation when other speakers are going too fast? We need to teach and demonstrate listening strategies. (See a short list of tips.)

How else can we build bridges to real-life situations for ELLs, especially when it comes to fast speech? (See related post.) We can vary our speaking rate when we teach. There are times to slow down and allow students to follow our instructions or explanations. There are also times to speed up and let them hear our natural speaking rate.  I believe it’s helpful to teach patterns used in spoken English to build awareness. I do this in my Fast Speech series on YT.

2. QUESTION: Are talk to and talk with the same? What about speak and discuss? Can you give examples?

There are many other questions I get about prepositions. Sometimes it’s just an expression of frustration: How can I learn prepositions? There are too many! Again, students are asking for strategies.

First, we can teach best ways to learn new vocabulary, for example, giving attention to usage. It’s never enough to learn only the definition. Students need to learn the grammar and collocations that go with the given word.

Second, we can explain general meanings of prepositions to help students get a feel for appropriate choices, such as associating TO with direction (talk to, walk to, give to) and understanding that WITH implies a connection or togetherness (talk with, argue with, agree with). I address both meanings of prepositions and collocations in a YT grammar series.

3. QUESTION: I have trouble in conversation because need to translate my thoughts before I speak. How can I get faster when I speak?

Students aren’t really asking about speed. They need to learn how to bypass translations. There are a few ways to advise students on this matter.

  • Develop your confidence. I recommend my Oral Reading Fluency playlist of videos for different reasons. Many learners simply need to gain comfort speaking in English. Reading aloud and mastering a short text can help.
  • Learn collocations. Reading will also help teach collocations. Reading presents an opportunity to learn vocabulary, and larger chunks of vocabulary will make it easier to form sentences in conversation. (See related study tip.)
  • Don’t fear mistakes. Language is about communication, so in conversation just use the words you can easily recall and remember you can always clarify a statement. If you mispronounce a word, your listener will either understand it in context or ask you to repeat it.
  • Reflect and replay conversations. Go over a conversation you just had and think how you could have improved it. (See related post.)


Photo credit: “Questions” (November 2008) by Valerie Everett. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post Jennifer.

    I think dealing with students questions are where we actually earn our money. I must admit back in the day when I started out I had to blag quite a bit, which in the end I realised was the wrong way. Now I’m pretty confident with most questions students throw at me, but I always have a dictionary on the board and a thesaurus. Were these questions from students in class or by mail?

    Thanks for sharing.


    1. Hi Barry. I have some private students, and I teach a few live classes on occasion, but the bulk of the questions come to me online (YT, FB, blog, email). Thank you for stopping by!

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