Conversation Tip #9: Ask questions

Questions keep the conversation flowing

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”

-Voltaire (1694-1778) French Enlightenment Writer
Asking questions always generates more conversation; after all, an answer always follows. As mentioned before, asking questions provides a quick way to find common interests with people. Questions like “What is your favorite restaurant?” or “Do you like action movies?” could lead to hours of discussion.

English teachers will often find helpful to explicitly teach students to ask questions. Encouraging students to “think like a journalist” and consider the five W questions is a useful start: Who? What? Where? When? Why? Two other useful question words: How? And? These simple words can generate interesting, engaging conversations – and allow English language learners to “fake” a higher level of English comprehension than they may possess.

Additionally, most people enjoy answering questions about themselves, so long as the questions seem appropriate. For instance, in certain countries like the United States, asking a casual acquaintance about their job is suitable. On the other hand, asking about weight and height are considered inappropriate. Knowing the boundaries of what questions to ask is an essential conversation skill–and it can take some practice for language learners.

For instance, to play it safe, you might consider these five taboo subjects with casual acquaintances:
1. Personal health or medical details
2. Financial specifics, including salary
3. Racial or ethnic identity
4. Age or weight
5. Religious or political affiliation

In general, we want to encourage our students to ask questions. Sometimes we have to encourage students to ask clarifying questions in our classrooms too. If a student forgets a certain detail or wants advice, they should feel comfortable asking for the answer!

Likewise, students should be mindful not to ask too many questions when first meeting a classmate or stranger. The conversation should not be an interview, much less an interrogation. Friendly, open questions guide the conversation, but they are just one out of many types of statements that can be made.

What questions do you advise your ESL students ask? What conversation tips do you share with your English students?

Ask More. Know More. Share More.
Create Compelling Conversations.

Jessica Lu, a first-year student at the University of Chicago, interned for Chimayo Press and the Compelling Conversations blog through the summer of 2014. Over the months, she has perused ESL textbooks, analyzed newspaper articles and tested out mobile apps, seeking out ways to inspire discussion. Each week the Compelling Conversations blog will publish one of her top 10 tips to create compelling conversations outside of the English classroom.

Photo By Ananian (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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