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Using Progressive Questioning Technique to Get ESL Students Speaking

Have you ever taught a speaking class where you distributed textual conversation starters but it seemed your students didn’t really know what to say?

If you’ve experienced this before I have a simple three-level approach called progressive questioning to get ESL students speaking.

In today’s blog, we’ll look at ways to create systematic questions so you can be more interactive and methodical with your students.

In this article, I break down Progressive questioning into three levels and it’s as easy as 1-2-3.

 I kept the terminology simple but it’s easy to remember. And, the labels are not as important as graduation from low-challenge questions to advanced level questions.

These help learners build more confidence—which is the point of this technique—as opposed to going straight to advanced level questions that tend to silence learners.

Level 1

Level 1 questions are the simplest level questions. The answers to Level 1 questions can be found within the text.

For example, in a short imaginary text about Dania, a little girl living in Ecuador who fishes every morning before going to school to help provide food for her family …, you might ask:

Who is this story about? (Her name can be found within the text.)

Where is she from? (Where she’s from is also stated within the text.)

What does she do each day? (The answer is clearly stated in the story.)

The idea of Level 1 questions is for learners to be able to locate the answer within the text without a lot of thought.

There is no interpretation, inference, or discussion about a Level 1 question. It should be a simple one-to-one process.

If the text is about a young girl from Ecuador, and you ask where the young girl came from, there is little comprehension checking.

It’s more or less matching questions with answers. This is also where vocabulary can be introduced if need be to address limitations in understanding.

For example, it’s the simple matching of “from” (in the question, taken from the text) with “Ecuador” (the answer, also taken from the text—often in proximity to one of the question words).

The purpose is to get learners warmed up to converse by answering questions using words from the text with answers from the text.

We’re not looking for gist or deep comprehension here (the gist is another teaching method I use).

The purpose is only to get learners focused on the text by answering easy questions with answers that can be readily gotten from the text. It’s almost like a verbal version of cloze questioning.

All you’re doing at this point is getting the ball rolling. So, after reading, you’re going to use this to warm them up, teach vocabulary, and help them gain confidence.

Read: Teaching Grammar: Elicitation Through Concept Questions


Asking Level 1 questions directs them to look into the text to find the answers. In this way, they’re obligated to go back over the text.

This helps ensure they know the text better as they prepare to talk more.

Teach Vocabulary

Any words that aren’t familiar to them can be used as answers to your questions.

In so doing, when they answer but don’t know, you can develop the meanings of the words.

This will prepare them to use the vocabulary in their answers to the next level questions.

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Gain Confidence

When students are a little apprehensive about their English skills, being able to answer their teacher’s questions encourages them.

It also helps them match question words and full questions with answers they’re familiar with from the reading.

In that sense, they’ll be more confident when you nonchalantly progressing to the next level.

Did I just use the word nonchalantly? I sure did! I’m just saying that you shouldn’t advertise what you’re doing.

The trick is to use these questions as a means to an end. So, announcing to students what you’re doing will probably make them nervous.

Level 2

After several Level 1 questions, it’s time to transition to some higher-level questions. Students must infer answers to these questions that are not clearly stated in the text.

For example, while still focusing on the text, you could ask:

Do you think Dania enjoys fishing? (This directs learners to express how she might feel.)

Is there anything wrong with fishing before school? (This leads learners to consider Dania’s situation and decide how they can give their opinions.)

What else do you think Dania could be doing in the mornings instead of fishing? (This assumes the answer was not stated in the reading. Students would then need to formulate their own ideas and share them in class.)

Use these type questions to check deeper levels of understanding and teach grammar patterns.

Read: Giving Effective Feedback In ESL Speaking Classes

Check Understanding

Unless learners get the message of the story, they won’t really know how to answer these questions. By asking Level 2 questions, you’re trying to discover if class members are ready to move forward. If they don’t, you may need to continue with the previous level—Level 1 questions—a little longer.

Teach Grammar Patterns

When asking strategic Level 2 questions, you’ll be able to direct learners to specific grammar points. For example, if you ask about Dania enjoying fishing or not, you can help learners use speculation statements such as, “I think she …,” She may not …,” “I’m not sure but …,” and “In my opinion …”

Or, if you ask, what else Dania could be doing before school, you can get them familiar with the modal verb “could” (e.g. She could sleep more. She could prepare her school materials, etc.). Using Level 2 questions, you can also reinforce the grammar points already built into the reading materials (as is the case in many conversation starter textbooks).

When you get the impression students are ready, it’s time to roll into Level 3 questions.

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Level 3

These are the most challenging questions in the progressive questioning technique—applying what they’ve read to themselves.

Answers given here are related to each class members’ real life. We call it relevancy, and we’ll talk more about it in a moment. But examples of Level 3 questions from our short story about Dania (above) might be:

What do you know about Ecuador? (Challenge students to consider what they know about a certain country.)

Does it sound like a place you might want to visit? Why/Why not? (This asks learners to create opinions based on the little they picked up from the story. You could even create an assignment based on this question.)

Have you ever been in a situation like Dania where you had to sacrifice your time to help your family? What happened? (Class members will need to put real memories into English. This is less difficult than referring to imaginary or third party experiences.)

Use Level 3 questions to achieve relevancy, develop fluency, and build speaking confidence.

Achieve Relevancy

Relevancy is one of the best ways I’m aware of to make materials and activities more meaningful to ESL learners.

When something applies or relates to me, it automatically piques my interest. And if something piques my interest, I’ll be more engaged.

If I’m more engaged, I’ll be more open to receiving the information. If I’m more open to receive the information, it will be embedded deeper into my cognitive domain.

Facilitate learning more readily by engaging learners in relevant materials.

Develop Fluency

When learners have the chance to go from the known (Level 1 questions) to the relatively unexplored but applicable (Level 3 questions), they learn to associate similar thoughts in expressing themselves.

As they do, fluency can increase.

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Build Speaking Confidence

As learners develop fluency and speak of matters relevant to themselves, they can build more confidence using English.

Have you ever noticed someone talking about something they feel strongly about or about a meaningful experience?

They don’t seem to care too much about their language skills. They just want to share!

With the exception of low-level language users, they tend to try to get their words out, even when a little crooked. But that’s okay.

Eventually, you can assist them through feedback and get them on the right track.

So, as they learn how to express themselves more accurately about matters that mean something to them, they’ll likely gain more confidence.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes, teachers go straight to advanced questions (that can squelch conversation) instead of warming up class members first.

What we want to do is take class members from the known to the unknown; from easy questions to challenging questions; from one step to the next step.

That’s the idea behind this progressive questioning technique.

Now you have another tool in your toolbox to help get speaking classes in gear. In a sense, all of this is comprehension.

But, our purpose is to break it down into a process that you can use to get students speaking.

If your aim is to help learners converse about what they just read, progressive questioning facilitates language use in a systematic manner.

Use these three simple steps, 1-2-3, to get the ball rolling. In addition, progressive questioning gets learners talking while building confidence, targeting grammar, and improving fluency.

Give it a try and tell us what happened. We’d love to hear from you.

Recommended Reading:

Lower Levels: Teaching Speaking Skills With Roundtable Role-Play Discussions

Teaching Speaking Skills: Debates In The ESL Classroom

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