Great Idea: Questioning Strategies

The Bell Foundation logo

What are questioning strategies?

Asking the right questions at the right time, to the right people, in the right way, can often transform any ordinary lesson into something truly inspiring. To achieve this takes practice, planning and the employment of certain questioning strategies that involve:

  • Identifying why questions are being asked in the first place (learning goals).
  • Planning what questions to ask and in what order to build up learning.
  • Deciding how and to whom the questions are posed.
  • Supporting learners as they respond to questions.
  • Following up with pupil answers in ways that move learning forward.

Questioning is a powerful tool teachers use to guide learning, stretch pupils’ thinking, check for understanding and to build confidence in pupils. For learners using English as an Additional Language (EAL), questioning provides opportunity to develop language skills and participate in academic thinking.

Examples of activities

Below are four common questioning activities followed by useful strategies and considerations when working with learners using EAL.

Cold call

Cold calling is when you choose who answers a question, making sure no one dominates or gets overlooked, including learners who may be new to English. By knowing anyone can be called upon, it keeps the whole class involved and provides you with better formative information as you are not only hearing from those learners who always raise their hands. Teachers may intentionally choose who to call upon or randomly select pupils by drawing names.

EAL strategies/considerations – Selecting who responds allows you to pose questions that are appropriate for the language development level of your multilingual learners. For learners who are new to English, ask questions that do not require lengthy responses. Providing learners with a choice of answers inside the question can be helpful. For example, ‘Kushal, do we ‘add 3’ or ‘subtract 3’ next? You may also need to adjust your wait time and/or reduce the cognitive load of a question by offering a partial answer for the learner to complete. For example, “Kushal, what is the next step; we need to multiply by…?” As learners become more proficient in English, they can be asked and respond to questions that require higher levels of language demand.

Say it better

Responding out loud to questions that require deeper thinking can be difficult. It is important to remember that first responses rarely come out fully developed. In such cases, give pupils formative feedback on their first response and let them ‘say it again better’ with more depth and clarity.

EAL strategies/considerations – When you provide formative feedback on a learner's first response, include a focus on language as well as content. This can be done through recasting or rephrasing the language used by your learner and by modelling target language to improve vocabulary and sentence structure.  Help learners use the target language as they ‘say it again better’, while always acknowledging their first attempt. For example, (T) "What were some common features of early Hawaiian settlers?”, (L) “They goed some way over Atlantic.” (T) "Thank you, they travelled across the Atlantic or the Pacific? They travelled across…", (L) "They travelled across the Pacific." (T) "Exactly!"

Think pair share

This common activity gives pairs of learners the opportunity to think about, rehearse and share ideas around posed question/s from the teacher.

EAL strategies/considerations – Learners who are new to English will not only need time to think about the content of their response but also the language for how to articulate it in English.  Allow time for learners to practice saying their response before sharing. Young learners could rehearse on make-believe microphones while older learners could quickly take notes (in their home language or in English) and silently rehearse before sharing with a partner.

Teachers can also provide learners with sentence frames to support forming a response prior to sending learners into pairs. For example, ‘One cause of climate change is….’ Also, be strategic with pairing learners. You may want to pair learners who share the same home language or, alternatively, pair learners using EAL with pupils who can provide good models of English.

Check for understanding

We cannot assume that all learners have absorbed the same knowledge acquired by any individual. Moreover, asking, ‘do you understand?’, tells us very little as learners may be wrong in answering ‘yes’ and seldom want to answer ‘no’. Instead of asking ‘if’ they have understood we should be asking our learners ‘what’ they have understood.

This can be accomplished by asking questions that guide learners to, (a) summarise parts of a text or story, (b) repeat instructions, (c) think aloud as they plan or solve a problem, (d) agree or disagree and, (e) explain or defend their work or position (Rosenshine, 2011).

EAL strategies/considerations - Learners who are new to English may understand the concepts you are teaching but might not be able to articulate their understanding of these in English. In these cases, provide alternative ways to demonstrate understanding. Have learners use visuals to demonstrate meaning by placing them in the right order or with the correct match or label. You might have them draw their understanding or visually represent how they solved a problem. If you, or others in the classroom, share a learner’s home language, you can check understanding through translanguaging approaches.

How questioning strategies work

Teachers need to be strategic about the types of questions they ask.  It has been wrongly argued that higher order questions, which require learners to evaluate and analyse ('Why is Lady Macbeth presented as powerful?') were more important than lower order questions (‘Who is the ruler of China?’, ‘What is the capital city of France?’), which simply sought to develop basic understanding. Both are necessary as learners need to master basic understanding before they can engage in more complex analysis and evaluation.

Although responding to higher-level questions in English may require greater English language proficiency, do not deny learners using EAL from being asked these types of questions. Instead, you will need to provide the supports necessary for them to articulate their response. These can include the use of home language, visuals, extra wait time, substitution tables and/or sentence frames, demonstrations, drawings, etc. Developing questions and the types of supports provided needs to be part of lesson planning.

Top Tip:  Develop your listening skills. By carefully listening to your pupils’ answers, you will become a more responsive teacher and thus better able to challenge your pupils’ understanding, provide appropriate feedback for language and content and guide learning with further probing questions. Listening to your pupils will help you gauge their understanding and determine if additional instruction is needed.


Why are questioning strategies a Great Idea for learners using EAL?

There is good evidence for the role questioning plays in securing strong outcomes. Posing questions to learners forces them to think harder and deeper about the material. Rosenshine (2012) found that the best teachers asked the most questions. In reviewing the research, he found that learners who had been asked pre-questions were later able to recall almost 50% more information than their peers who had not. Likewise, being asked probing questions increased the amount learners were able to remember in their long-term memory.

Questioning is also a key tool for implementing formative assessment practices that will lead to stronger learner outcomes (William, 2011). Through questions teachers can engineer effective classroom discussions, clarify and share learning intentions and offer feedback that moves learners forward. According to the Education Endowment Foundation (2021), effective questioning can lead to an additional seven months of progress being made across one year alone.


Education Endowment Foundation (2021). Feedback. [online] [Accessed on 24 August 2022]. Available at:

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator. 36(1), pp.12-19.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, In: Solution Tree.

Upcoming courses and webinars

Embedding EAL Assessment (Online Course)

4 June 2024
Online course

EAL Learners and Science (Webinar)

5 June 2024

How to Adapt Teaching for Learners Who Use EAL (Online Course)

17 September 2024
£45 – £67.50
Online course