E is for Eliciting

26 06 2011

"Guess what I'm thinking"

Why do I have an allergic reaction to eliciting? Why do teacher-led question-and-answer sequences that go like this bring me out in a rash?

T:  Look at this picture. How many people can you see?

St 1: Two

T: Good. They are a man and a ….?

St 2: Woman.

T:  Good. What might their relationship be?

St 2:  Friends?

T:  No.

St 3: Husband and wife?

T: No.

St 4: Brother and sister?

T: No.

St 5: Co-authors of a field guide to Bulgarian mushrooms?

T: Yes.  And what might they be saying to each other?… etc , etc, ad nauseam.

I seldom see students really engaged by this kind of routine. On the contrary, they are often either wary or truculent, trying to second-guess where this relentless line of questioning is taking them.  Worse, it’s often at the beginning of an activity, such as the preamble to a listening or reading task, that you find these eliciting sequences, and there’s nothing more calculated to put the learners in a bad mood than being asked to guess in public.  I always advise my trainee teachers to avoid, at all costs, starting an observed lesson with an eliciting sequence: it’s the kiss of death. Instead, ask the learners a few real questions (How was you day?). Or tell them something interesting about yourself, and then see how they respond. Maybe they will tell you something interesting back.

Curiously, in the literature on classroom talk, eliciting-type questions, like the ones above, are often wrongly categorised as display questions.  In contrast to real questions (i.e. questions, like What did you do at the weekend?, which are motivated by a genuine desire to plug a gap in the asker’s knowledge), display questions are questions that the teacher knows the answer to, but which invite students to display their knowledge, as in What’s the capital of Peru? Eliciting-type questions, on the other hand, typically require the learners, not to display what they know, but to guess what they don’t.  Eliciting sequences, at their worst, resemble a surreal game-show where contestants speculate as to what the conjuror is hiding up his sleeve. Or a game of charades with ill-defined rules.

"One word, two syllables..."

Of course, the intention behind eliciting is a worthy one: it serves not only to maximise speaking opportunities, but to involve the learners actively in the construction of knowledge, building from the known to the unknown. In the case of genuine display questions (What is the past of go?), eliciting helps diagnose the present state of the learners’ knowledge.  And, in a sense, it models the cut-and-thrust of real interaction, where conversational turns are contingent upon one another. Not for nothing were these eliciting sequences called ‘conversations’ in early Direct Method textbooks. Eliciting is now (wrongly, in my opinion) re-branded as either dialogic teaching or scaffolding.

On pre-service training courses, it makes a certain sense that trainee teachers are encouraged to elicit in preference to what is often the default, delivery mode of presentation, where the teacher simply lectures. To be fair, eliciting is not quite as mind-numbing as prolonged sequences of chalk-and-talk (or what, in this age of interactive whiteboards, might better be called tap-and-rap). But, like many good things, eliciting is horribly over-used.

A friend, who, like most Spanish-speakers,  has spent many years in English language classrooms, had this to say about it:

“It’s that task at the beginning of the unit that I really hate, when  the teacher comes and shows you a photo and asks you Who are these people and what do you think are they going to do?  And the answer is that these people are models and they have been posing for this photo — that is the real answer — but the teacher — what they want us to invent is a certain story that only the teacher knows the answer to, so it ends up being more a game than an English class”.

Does eliciting carry over into real life, I sometimes wonder? Do such teachers go home to their loved ones and say “Hello, darling. Where might I have been? What sort of day might I have had? What might I be feeling like?…”



69 responses

26 06 2011
Chris Ożóg

Hi Scott,

Interesting post, particularly for those who work on initial teacher training courses, where eliciting can be drummed into trainees from day one (with good reducing ‘TTT’ reasons, as you say). My one reservation about what you write is that you can make the pre-listening, etc, fun and motivating. If, when I have to use a coursebook and there’s a picture, I ask the learners questions like “who’s this?”, “what age is he?”, “what’s his job?”, etc, before a listening task, I think you have your gist task right there (if that’s what you want to do). It can be fun as they can get into it and can come up with with some amusingly different concoctions of who the people are and so on. And it can be a springboard to unplugged teaching if it goes that way.

Of course, you have to be careful. Eliciting what the past of go and play and do in a group of advanced learners could make you like quite daft. Again, as with most classroom management things, I always think it comes down to the teacher and their response to what’s happening in the room. One of the things I hate most in the world is task check questions (or ICQs). They can be embarrassingly bad. Yet, in some classes, at some points, they are really useful and it simply depends on how it’s done. My advice is that we pay attention in class, see what’s going on and apply the best approach from there.

So, elicit where appropriate and (more importantly) be aware of what’s going on and respond. What more can we ask of teachers?

And now, I’m off to Colombia…

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chris (and enjoy Colombia!). Your point that “you can make the pre-listening, etc, fun and motivating” by having learners predict the situation and overall gist: yes, I sort of agree, and, yes, the capacity to predict an exchange from the contextual details (a species of pragmatic competence, perhaps) is potentially a useful skill (although one that learenrs will already have in the first language, of course). I guess my problem is with the use of this technique when there simply isn’t enough evidence to make informed predictions, so that it becomes counterproductive – at best, mysterious, and, at worst, frustrating.

I also agree that ‘instruction check questions’ (I’m assuming that that’s what ICQs are) are similarly irritating, and can become ritualised to the point of being mindless: “So, Ahmed, what are we going to do now?” and everyone has to listen to Ahmed painfully recoding the teacher’s instructions rather than just getting on with it. Again, the intention is sound (check students’ understanding) but the practice can come across as condescending, even infantilizing. Why can’t we just treat learners like normal, sensient, human beings!?

26 06 2011
Declan Cooley

On the prediction of an exchange from the contextual details:
(a) students may not have the same pragmatic competence in their culture e.g.
– recently trainee had a listening featuring a job appraisal interview (not a common thing in current business/work world)
– showing a picture of two friends talking may mean different topics are broached depending on the culture (from what I know, sharing personal details about relationship problems is not the norm in certain cultures).

(b) ICQs are, when first tried out, often crashingly obvious, esp. if checking the instruction given 2 seconds previously. However, trainees should be allowed to try out these rather basic ICQs and it can be beneficial to temporarily encourage a period of overcompensation in this area as a way to develop the habit – while avoiding the one ICQ which asks for too much regurgitation “so Sylvia, what do you have to do ?”.

[In addition, novice trainees’ instructions can often be unclear so they are a bit of an insurance policy, which if answered incorrectly may prompt a repair of the instruction].

Later, trainees (as they become better at instructing and reading students’ responses) can become more judicious in their deployment of ICQs as well as making them more task-specific and pre-emptively solving typical student misunderstandings.

26 06 2011

Great article. So true! As a student, and in real life, I hate being made to guess things I have no way of knowing the answer too. It was a taught technique in my CELTA and it drove me crazy – along with continual concept questions to check understanding. Concept questions are really useful but not if they are patronizing.

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Cecilia – I was going to target concept questions as another bane of my life, but I ran out of space. All I can say is that “the way to hell is paved with good intentions”! Viz:

T: I’ve been to China. Do we know when?
Student thinks: ‘Well, I don’t, but you surely do!’ but reads teacher’s facial expression and intonation and answers ‘No’.
T: Good. Is it important?
Student thinks: ‘Well, going to China was surely not a whim’, but reads the signs again, and answers ‘No’.
T: Good.

And so on.

26 06 2011
Mark Kulek

Scott, thanks for this. It’s good to be reminded of these traps that we fall into time-to-time. Perhaps, more prevalent is the, what is it?, display question in a young learner’s classroom. For sure, the kids know that the teacher knows, so why is the teacher asking us?

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mark. I’m not against display questions per se – see my comment to Richard below – it’s more that I’m against questions that leave the student thinking ‘How the **** do I know?!’ Also, when display questions become the only kind of questions that a teacher asks.

26 06 2011

Hi Scott! Love the “tap and rap”! I have to say, this type of eliciting is -as you say – mind-numbing and sort of patronising in the worst way, particularly with adults. Once more – and I feel we will be saying this until evety breath has let our bodies – the best repository of relevant information in the classrooms is the student. Hopefully, most teachers are curious about and interested in their students. Where better to start elicting? Bin the book (where two actors have posed for a photo, as you friend so rightly says) and ask the student about anything, anything at all, and listne to the answer and get what you need from there. We used to start our evaluation lessons (bearing in mind we use no books whatsoever) with that slightly obvious SL question: “What did you do on your last holiday?” Although it is more authentic than the Bulgarian mushroom men and it elicits a lot of stuff to be getting on with in the first lesson, something like, “Tell me about the last time you had to speak English and how you felt about it”, gets right down and dirty from the off, gets the other students involved because they’ve all done it too and real conversation happens.

26 06 2011

Thank you Scott!
It really is an eye-opening post. During my CELTA I must admit I felt like an idiot every time I was asked to elicit something but was never explained how to elicit in a more positive and engaging way. I would love to hear more ways of using eliciting in classroom.

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Read on! There are some great suggestions (for improving eliciting) in the comments that follow.

26 06 2011

OK, Scott, but what if I ask (example):

What do you see in the picture?
A teacher.
What else?
A blackboard.
What do you think he’s teaching?

Why did you say that? Is it because it’s your favourite subject? Or the opposite?

What is your favourite subject?


And what do you hate most?

And then, I’d ask them to imagine what’s written on the board, the teacher’s character; I’d ask them to take a step back, take a look at the walls, the students, zoom in, what’s on their desks, what are on their books, we look at their own, etc etc.

I’m sure you get the scenario I’m driving into. Would this make you nauseous, too?

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Chiew! I can certainly see what you’re getting at, where the initial display questions act as a springboard for a sequence of real questions, requiring a deeper level of processing (and this is one of the criticisms of display questions, i.e. that they are both cognitively and affectively fairly ‘shallow’).

There is a slight problem, though (which I’ve observed in some classes) where the students don’t realise that the questions have morphed from display to real. This is more likely to happen in classrooms where the predominant question style is IRF (i.e. initiating with a display question; response; feedback – typically on form).

I once observed a class where the teacher began by asking students if they’d had an interesting weekend. One student answered ‘Yes, I won the lottery’. After the initial exclamations of surprise and delight had died down, the teacher asked: ‘How much did you win?’. The student responded, with a shrug: ‘Nothing. It was just a sentence’.

Where learners perceive that teachers are only really interested in ‘sentences’ they are less likely to engage in ‘discourse’.

26 06 2011

Haha, that was good. It was just a sentence! What did the teacher do then?
Because I would have gone on:
Has anyone won a lottery before?
Do you gamble?
Would you like to win one?
How much?
What would you do with it?
Etc. etc…

26 06 2011

When it comes to young learners, I think I have to disagree, although I accept that it is possibly a technique used more than is necessary.

Looking at a picture and asking the kids how many pigs there are, what the farmer is doing or where the dog is can bring out language, be competitive and exciting for them and is a very simple but effective way of introducing a new page of the book (which we can’t throw out due to institutional requirements!). The responsibility for asking the questions can also be passed on to the kids and they often really enjoy asking the questions themselves.

Opening the book is often met with a groan, even with primary kids, but when the first activity is a rapid-fire Q&A of display questions, they quickly forget that they were groaning about opening the book. I’m sure this is pointing out the obvious, but it was just something that struck me while reading and considering my context. I think you are probably addressing an adult context, but there is a young learner reference in a comment above already.

Anyway, interesting stuff as always, I just thought I’d stick my two penneth in. Cheers.

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Richard, I totally agree – and I suppose what I’m arguing against is not eliciting in itself (although, like all class routines, it can become both over-prolonged and ritualised), but hypothetical eliciting. Where the answer is obvious (‘What’s this?’ ‘It’s a cow’.), there’s less chance of student frustration. Compare the dreaded might questions: ‘What might the cow be going to do?’ etc.

And your idea of having the students ask one another is great.

27 06 2011
Mark Kulek

Yes. The delicate balance between the obvious and how on earth am I supposed to know that?, in a young learner’s classroom. One tough part of teaching kids is their lack of critical feedback. It takes a lot of trial and error to get that balance right where they are engaged and having fun. Coming up with creative ways to get them talking takes a lot of preparation and time.

1 02 2012
a. krishnan

Hi Scott
To follow up on student asking student, the “20 questions with only Yes No answer” to guess something is an activity that I find my students enjoy because they have some idea what their peers think and there is alot of laughter because the questions reflect their inner thoughts etc. I take down what I need to correct during the process, which I may do at the end of the activity.. during the debriefing.

4 07 2011

I agree. I find this kind of Q&A – especially where I ask the first two questions and then let the kids make the questions (they love that) really gets them fired up. Sometimes I don’t even ask the first two questions – just show them the picture and let them start asking me and each others. Adults are a different animal, and to the credit of my teacher trainers (at the SIT TESOL Cert course in Chiang Mai a few years back), we were taught that eliciting is NOT the same thing as asking yes and no questions or asking the students to guess or pretend. This article was very thought provoking and I also got a lot from the comments. Thanks everyone!

26 06 2011

“Do such teachers go home to their loved ones and say “Hello, darling. Where might I have been? What sort of day might I have had? What might I be feeling like?…””

You know what, Scott? That’s not far off the mark. One reason I think I’m suited to being a teacher is that all my life I have been going around asking people questions that I already know the answer to, or at least I think I know the answer to. Ok it’s disingenuous, but at worst it just affirms what I already know, in the main gives me a slightly finer understanding of the situation and at best it provides a revelation.

In language teaching, of course, it may mean getting people to state the obvious or, god forbid, use their imagination. But surely that’s the whole point of it – challenging them and taking the focus away from you.

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Luan, getting ‘a slightly finer understanding of the situation’, by drawing the learner out, can be a really useful strategy, but I would argue that this is not really asking display questions (i.e. having students state the obvious) but a form of questioning – or probing, perhaps – that we associate with certain kinds of therapy: Did you have a good weekend? Yes. Yes, but did you really have a good weekend? etc.

26 06 2011

I largely agree with you. Certainly you can stretch Q&A sessions to the point of glibness. And I do like the therapy / probing / devil’s advocate aspect to interaction. For communicative language teachers though Scott, at beginner and pre-intermediate levels, I still think it is still sound practice to be somewhat adhering Caleb Gattegno’s dictum.

‘Never tell the learner anything, until they have had the chance to tell you.’

Maybe I’m a bit cold-blooded in this regard but as long as students answer in full sentences, then I appreciate the effect it has not just on vocabulary reinforcement but more so in terms of syntax. I.e. I don’t care if the student gives a facetious answer (I like daft answers), as long as they try to use the target grammar in answering the question.Teachers who address wrong answers but ignore the form are the ones I worry about.

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

“Teachers who address wrong answers but ignore the form are the ones I worry about”. OK, and I also worry about teachers who respond only to the form and ignore the content. Surely ‘good’ teachers do both, and do so in a way that is unambiguous?

27 06 2011

I think content is more important as a diverse vehicle for form than vice versa. That is, skills are pre-eminent to knowledge. I’m very liberal about what students say but conservative about how they say it.

Any answer is better than no answer and If a student thinks a question is stupid then great: a stupid question deserves a stupid answer! To a dogmeist, surely there are no really right or wrong answers, just more fodder for conversation and learning points?

26 06 2011

But surely there is a difference between asking learners to guess a ‘right’ answer, known already to the teacher and asking learners to imagine or speculate as a support for, say, a gist listening activity or for prompting top down processing or describe as part of a TTT sequence?

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, there is certainly a difference, Simon, and I’ve tried to clarify it in my comments above. I guess a basic difference is between ‘real’ display questions (How many people can you see in the picture?) and ‘hypothesising’ display questions (What might they be saying?). It’s the over-use of the latter that has me fretting in the corner!

26 06 2011

I’ve always looked at eliciting in a different light. There are two main ways I see it. One is that it encourages students to use language they know and so gives confidence in speaking. I generally elicit when first introducing something so I have no idea if the students know it already or not. And, as you mentioned, it lets you see what they already know. The point isn’t to guess at what the teacher is getting at, but instead to see what students know and give them some confidence.

The second reason I elicit is actually more like context construction. I again use this for new, unknown vocabulary. I like to describe the object, give examples, or provide context and then students try to guess the word. I’ve always felt this allows students to create a definition and understanding of the word in advance. It’s like, once you actually see what word we’re looking for, it fits right into that space. If you don’t do this, I feel like the word may have nowhere to latch on to. Also, as students guess, they bring up lots of other words that might work. This usually gives you some really cool emergent language to work with.

I also don’t really agree with the story-building part being eliciting. Asking about characters and stories is pretty fun I think . We often like to guess and then see if we were right or not. Happens all the time in real life. That’s why shows like What’s My Line, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and Wheel of Fortune did/do so well. I guess I can see your point if you are using text book characters who are just a pretext. But if you use real stories, I think it’s fun.

I see where eliciting can become sort of a display question, but I think it still has some good pedagological functions.

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Nick. You say that eliciting “encourages students to use language they know and so gives confidence in speaking”. Fair point – but which students does it favour? Generally, the students who already have confidence in speaking. That’s one problem I didn’t mention earlier – the way that eliciting favours the brave, and risks entrenching, even exacerbating, differences in ability and style that already exist.

Regarding your second point: “I like to describe the object, give examples, or provide context and then students try to guess the word”. Again, this is a useful technique, up to a point, but can turn into a kind of quiz show, with the students who do know enjoying the chance of showing off, but the students who don’t know being unable to participate, or, worse, participating, and getting the answer wrong in public. Moreover, some teachers (and I was one of these!) never seem to know when to give up, almost believing that it is a point of honour or of professional pride not to tell the stduents the word themselves. Hence, the ‘charades’ quality that I mentioned.

27 06 2011

Points taken, but I don’t think it has to be said outloud. If the student says the answer in their head and it’s right, I think that’s enough. You can gain confidence without putting it on display for everyone to see. Students that like to speak up can.

On the second point, I’ve also seen more than a few teachers force students to guess when they clearly didn’t know the answer. I usually see it with new teachers though, ones who haven’t learned to read their classes yet. For students, it can turn into showing off, but in the right classroom I think it’s more about building knowledge together. I can recall maybe one adult classroom I’ve had where I’ve had a show off. Generally people will share information and then help each other understand it.

27 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Agreed, Nick. It’s fairly well documented that a lot of learning in classrooms occurrs simply through students observing other students answering questions. And the sensitive teacher will know how to draw out some students while silencing others. (Maybe my comment to you was an attempt to do exactly that – to give you the chance to validate your own point of view!)

26 06 2011

I think the activity Scott describes can be rescued if it is handed over to the students from the start. Discuss with you partner what you think is happening in the picture. The problem with the teacher led version is that it is painfully slow, involves very little student talk and, as Scott’s student pointed out, isn’t actually any fun.

Regarding eliciting language, which is something I was taught to do on my Cert TEFLA course, isn’t it better to spend time helping students to learn stuff they don’t know, rather than getting them to tell you what they already know?

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Great point, Duncan – you could almost make this a rule of thumb for any classroom routine: hand it over to the learners!

26 06 2011
Declan Cooley

A subclause of that rule that we offer to trainees is:
“ensure ss are talking in pairs or groups by minute three (0:03) of the lesson” 🙂

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, I whole-heartedly agree – and this is a good strategy in an observed lesson, i.e. take the focus off yourself as soon as possible.

26 06 2011
Paraskevi Andreopoulou

Elicitation may contribute to cognitive development in a plenary mode for intellects and for those of an imagination that is running wild, if dealt with care and satisfaction on the part of the students.
However, in real life, it is not to avail of the majority of students who cannot get into teachers’ minds and dare reply, like they do in my class: “Hey, teacher, I don’t know what you want to say” or “I’m not interested in the least bit of what is happening in this photograph” or even “Who cares????? Let me tell you about what happened in my house yesterday evening”…Well, if we wish to intrigue our students’ mere curiosity, we’d better personalise our TPs to their lives – like the “Teaching Unplugged” proposes legitimately.
Thank you for your time.

26 06 2011
Jeremy Taylor

Playing dumb: A variation on the Bulgarian Mushroom picture…

T: I’m going to see my girlfriend next week and her son is a big fan of this band. I’d like to know something about them so I can chat to him. Does anyone know who they are?
St1: Tokio Hotel!
T: Are they Japanese?
St2: No, they’re German!
T: And who’s this girl at the front?
St3: That’s not a girl, that’s Bill Kaulitz! He’s the singer of the band.
T: Really? And who’s this… boy?
St4: That’s Tom Kaulitz, Bill’s brother. They are.. they are born on the same day..
T: They’re twins? Wow. And what does Tom play?

Playing dumb works particularly well when you are asking the students for genuine information. I need to get my haircut. Can anyone recommend a good barber round here? My mother is coming to visit me and we’ll have a week in country x. Where do you think I should take her?

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jeremy – nice example. And it’s not even a case of having to ‘fake it’ – there’s always something that the learners can add to the subject you’ve raised, be it knowledge, experience or attitude. How else could we sustain conversations in real life? (Note to self: perhaps the best indicator of teaching potential is the ability to sustain conversations?)

26 06 2011

On the CELTA course I did, the tutor, setting up an activity during a demonstration lesson, did his best to explain (including recourse to drawings) what a coastline was. Mid-way through the activity a student threw up his hands in despair: “This activity doesn’t make sense because ALL countries in the world have coastlines”. This is when it hit him that the students had understood coastline as borderline. Would this instance have warranted concept checking of ‘coastline’ during his explanation in anticipation of the potential misunderstanding?

26 06 2011
Declan Cooley

This is a perceived issue a lot of trainees bring up – that if it was possible to elicit a structure (and/or the form labels e.g. S+aux+ V-ing) then the students already knew it so it wasn’t worth teaching.

On closer examination, it is my observation that students often have “distributed knowledge”; e.g. for “He should have brought a map”

Before eliciting the structure:
Student 1: thinks it’s “He should had bring a map”
Student 2: thinks it’s “He should had brought a map”
Student 3: thinks it’s “He would have brought a map”
Student 4: thinks it’s “He should brought a map”
Student 5: thinks it’s “He should bring(ed?) a map”
(pooling the more accurate bits shows they are all holding at least parts of the elephant http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant)

When it comes to meaning:
Student 1: thinks it’s advice about the future
Student 2: : thinks it’s advice about the past (sic !)
Student 3: thinks it’s criticism of a past action
Student 4: thinks it’s a variant of past conditional
Student 5: thinks it’s possibly future perfect of some kind (?)

Again, though concept questions can be blunt instruments at times, they do allow students to eliminate the faulty from the closer-to-the-truth.

The other thing to remind trainees, of course, is that the fact that students know about the language, their “command” of it may be quite a different matter – thus, presentation may be brisk to let students’ rubber hit the road (to better effect).

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, I like the idea of distributed knowledge, but I’m not sure if teacher-led Q&A is always the best way of ‘re-distributing’ it, simply because it tends to favour the most forthcoming (often the alpha males). Returning to the point Duncan made earlier, wouldn’t it be more effective to have the students share their insights in some kind of group-work, puzzle-solving, task?

26 06 2011
Declan Cooley

I guess pretty much anything that can be clarified through Teacher-Fronted Elicitation (TFE)* could be done through a Guided Discovery type activity. The teacher may choose the former for a number of reasons (often based on ss’ previous learning and assumed knowledge):

(a) if the teacher feels that actually most students have actually a very good grasp of the point – therefore making a ‘federal case’ out of it by designing a GD may be over-kill – and thus TFE may be the most efficient way to refresh minds.
(b) if students are not used to a more s-centred approach and may not be able to deal with a GD activity there and then (i.e. the teacher may be adopting this slightly more teacher-focussed manner due to student-expectations, as a stepping stone to introducing GD later in the course).
(c) sometimes to send the message to ss that “Yes, as a group you really know more than you think”
(d) feels that a GD may not offer enough contingent scaffolding on the ss way to fuller knowledge of the item (or be too complex to design)
(e) as a public event it may concentrate minds and be memorable as a critical event (esp if teacher skilfully cobbles together the scraps that ss offer).

Its major flaw is if a single/pair strong student trots out everything before ss with less knowledge have a chance to gather their thoughts – however, proper classroom management and skilled questioning may go some way to preventing this.

Still, on a CELTA, if a GD activity can be designed and exploited for MFP clarification – that is the go-to strategy we recommend above others. (In case people, are interested in current CELTA practice).

*TEFL seems to love TWA (three-word acronyms).

27 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Well summarised case for (judicious) use of TFE. Can’t argue with that!

(But what is MFP – surely not Meaning, Form, Pronunciation, since pronunciation is [part of the] form?)

27 06 2011
J.J. Sunset

Are eliciting techniques crucial for language learning, or are they more of a lesson plan launcher?

27 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

I think that well calibrated sequences of teacher-led question-and-answer are essential to successful classroom learning. My problem is when these Q&A sequences become routinised and somewhat mindless.

27 06 2011
Declan Cooley

I agree PRON closer to FORM (as a feature of language) but for pedagogical purposes – I find it useful to distinguish morphology/syntax/orthography (= “FORM”) from intonation contours/phonemes/connected speech/stress (=”PRON”); otherwise trainees would get confused.

27 06 2011
Alan Tait

A specific sentence struck a chord with me, Scott:

“And the answer is that these people are models and they have been posing for this photo.”

I am saving up to put a contract out on whoever it is that chooses the photos for the UCLES oral exam materials. Is the presumption that “learner” = “moron”? Maybe if they used real photos of real people (like #eltpics), they’d get real thinking and real communication. Similarly in class, we might not have to go through this farce of asking the obvious. Anyway, time for my pills. Thanks for hosting my micro-rant.

27 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Rant acknowledged, Alan!

I once wrote a courseback activity (when I used to do that kind of thing!) based on a nice piece in a women’s magazine which invited the reader to match a selection of photos of real people, according to whether they were couples or not. You then turned the page to see if your predictions matched reality, and you learned a little more about the couples themselves. Perfect coursebook material! Except that the publishers, in their infinite wisdom, substituted photos from a picture library, so that the ‘couples’ were in fact not couples at all. Brilliant!

28 06 2011
Alan Tait

How curious! Why would they do that? Do the “consumers” actually prefer stock photos?

Did you find out?

28 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

To be fair to the publishers, Alan, there are often permissions issues associated with using previously published photos, e.g. having to contact the original photographer, and even maybe get permission from the actual people who were photographed. But also there are design issues – in this case the original photos were in (very attractive) black-and-white, but the publishers wanted colour. Also, I seem to recall there were was at least one same-sex couple in the original line-up, which, of course, is anathema in ELT publishing.

27 06 2011
T Bestwick

Great post, Scott. Although eliciting is not perhaps a skill used often in the real world, it’s certainly one which I think has a very useful place in the classroom. Fair enough, the eliciting which we do in class is generally done when we know the answer to the question, but that doesn’t mean that our students don’t use their imaginations and come up with some brilliant answers before getting to the “right” one.
I personally enjoy getting my students “thinking outside the box” – if I draw a circle and ask what it is (knowing full well it’s a pizza), it’s interesting to see how their minds work and what they “see” – the world, an egg (generally because of my drawing skills), a face, the moon…a little imagination goes a long way and we should be encouraging that in our students.

28 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Good point – about using eliciting techniques to challenge the learners’ imagination. I would go along with this. The point is, I guess, that not all these eliciting sequences are ‘divergent’ in the sense that they allow a multiplicity of answers, but are, rather, ‘convergent’, in that they are directed at uncovering the teacher’s own script, one which has to be guessed rather than imagined, if you see what I mean.

27 06 2011

Great topic, Scott – took me back to my CELTA days when trainees (including me) belabored over lesson design and delivery. And then along came teaching unplugged… I like the motto of ‘Keep it real, hand it over to the learners (Good one!), help where you can.’ Easier said than done, of course.

There are always mini-dialogues at work in a classroom (in students’ heads, between students, etc.), and, ideally, these will be as interesting and motivating as possible to learners. I often find my job is to keep these dialogues going – preferably in English though I think sometimes the L1 helps, too. Elicitation can stifle authentic dialogue and, as you say, create a bizarre game show effect that makes people uncomfortable and leaves them guessing.

Advice to teachers who like eliciting: Ask you students to elicit from you and watch what happens. They might not know what ‘elicit’ means, so explain or give examples. It will likely be an eye opener. 🙂


28 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Rob, I like the idea of ‘uncovering’ the learners’ interior dialogues, rather than having the learners uncover (through guesswork) the teacher’s. And this relates (perhaps) to the point above, about divergent vs convergent eliciting. The idea of role-reversing eliciting is brilliant, and I hope someone out there tries it and reports on it!

27 06 2011
Nick Bilbrough

When I used to work on CELTA courses I often ran an input session on eliciting and checking learning. I remember doing two language presentation stages, one involving lots of elicitation and one involving none, and then asking the trainees to discuss the pros and cons of each. Of course it was all contrived to make elicitation look like the good guy and to lead into a discussion about the problems of too much unnecessary and inaccessible teacher talk. There’d always be someone who would mention the time factor though, and I would usually respond that time spent eliciting is time well spent because it engages the learners, ensures that they’re with you in the learning process, and helps you to gauge how well they’re coping with what is being presented.

Nowadays I cringe about this. I’ve seen great language presentation stages which involved practically no elicitation, where everyone was engaged, no one was patronised, and which took half the time!

I also love Rob’s idea above of reversing the process so that the learners are eliciting from the teacher. It seems to me that this is the way that the language should be flowing. It also seems to be much more in line with what happens in real life where someone wants to say something and a more advanced speaker helps you to do this, by feeding in appropriate language as it is needed. This is real engagement.

Having said this, I did see a beautiful elicitation stage in a young learners Arabic class on Saturday where the teacher showed the pictures from a story, elicited the names of lots of key words in Arabic and then told a story incorporating all the words. I think the learners would have really struggled to follow the story without this stage. It really made me see the potential of elicitation as a way of pre-teaching before listening. But I guess pre-teaching is another story…. and another letter Scott?

28 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nick for that. Yes, eliciting is one of those techniques, a bit like drilling (with which it used to be associated) that a teacher can get TOO good at.

On the other hand, the use of word elicitation (as in your Arabic example) would seem to be a perfectly sound technique, both for teaching vocabulary and for checking and pre-teaching it in advance of reading or listening. Again, we come back to the distinction between ‘real’ eliciting questions (‘What’s this?’) and hypothetical ones (‘What might this be?’).

28 06 2011

Hi Scott

I don’t agree with some of this. Like all things, elicitation can be over-used or used in uninspiring ways. But it need not always be so. I think elicitation can be both fun and helpful, and I speak both as learner and teacher. The person you quote as saying the lesson becomes more like a game than an English class does not highlight the problem presented. Games are or can be a part of many a successful English class. Much of the fun or lack of with such a game will depend on the creativity of all involved. I’m thinking of the British political satire show Have I got News For You where contestants are shown images of current events and invited to come up with witty and imaginative responses as to what the images are depicting. Perhaps this is moving away from elicitation somewhat, but this at least is something I practise in my classes, inviting learners to offer elaborate, creative scenarios to deliberately ambiguous images, and this can be quite fun.


29 06 2011
Gareth Knight

Hi Scott,

I’m with you. I would like all teachers who insist on such elicitation to wear a watch that is obvious, walk up to the biggest guy in Times Square and say: “What time is it?” and when the big guy obliges by giving the time say “That’s right. Well done!” in a condescending tone.

Classroom discourse is diabolical when the teacher is in presentation mode. As a learner I can be lectured but not tortured with elicitation. Why do you think teachers need to be at the centre of such routines?

29 06 2011

I’m quite interested in teachers’ classroom discourse. I’ve been thinking about the ways in which teachers are sometimes inadvertently doing students a disservice by overly controlling and monitoring their discourse and therefore end up denying them real opportunities for meaningful, “real-world” conversation. If the teacher’s interaction with students becomes too heavily controlled and ritualized, then that is hardly going to prepare them to deal with the cut-and-thrust of real-time exchanges outside of the peculiar place that is the classroom. I agree that elicitation, if it becomes too formalized (where the main focus is on getting students to simply display their learning) might be disadvantageous to students in the long-run.

Eliciting can be great, however, if:

a) there a genuine purpose to it (e.g. to find out how students really feel about something)

b) it is encouraged to happen from teacher to students, student to student, and student to teacher!

In this case, my experience is that interaction becomes more ‘organic’, more ‘real-world’, and the potentiality for emergent language that the students really want to know about is that much the greater.

29 06 2011
Jeremy Taylor

I agree, Wes. That fits in very well with my earlier post. I sometimes start my lesson with “Before we start, can anyone tell me…” It catches them off guard and they give real-world answers not the: Have you ever been to Brazil? No, I have never been to Brazil kind of response.

29 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Wes. Regarding your first point (the artificiality of eliciting-type classroom exchanges), permit me to quote from my own book on conversation (CUP, 2006):

Kasper and Rose (2001) note that “one recurrent outcome of …observational studies is the limited opportunities that teacher-fronted instruction offers for the acquisition of target-language pragmatics” (p. 11). Kasper (2001) reviews studies that compare teacher-fronted classroom interaction with discourse practices outside the classroom. She finds that these comparisons “demonstrated that teacher-fronted interaction is substantially more restricted in providing pragmatic input and occasion for productive language use” (p. 36) and she adds that “the simplification of discourse organization and management is an immediate consequence of the IRF structure” (ibid.).

Moreover, as van Lier (2001) observes: “Student’s opportunities to exercise initiative … or to develop a sense of control and self-regulation (a sense of ownership of the discourse, a sense of being empowered) are extremely restricted in the IRF format” (p. 96). He adds that “prolonged use of the IRF format may have a negative effect on intrinsic motivation and cause a decrease in levels of attention and involvement” (p. 97).

There are others who would argue that IRF eliciting exchanges are part of the ‘authentic discourse structure’ of classrooms, and therefore should be tolertated – even celebrated! But to me this is tantamount to arguing that university lecturers should just lecture, or that (male) bosses should patronise their (female) secretaries – because that’s the way they’ve always done it!

29 06 2011

Thanks for taking the time to reply, Scott. Some interesting food for thought there.

Kasper and Roses’ findings that “teacher-fronted interaction is substantially more restricted in providing pragmatic input and occasion for productive language use” seem to throw up significant implications regarding the role of the teacher. Given that over-use of the IRF structure appears to restrict pragmatic input and chances for productive language use, what can we do as teachers to mitigate this? If we should not elicit in too heavy-handed a way, for the above reasons, what sort of strategies can we bring to bear instead, so that students can get ‘a sense of ownership of the discourse’? How do you yourself go about this, Scott?

29 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Wes, to answer your question let me cut-and-paste some recommendations that Claire Kramsch made as long ago as 1985 (and which we also quote in Conversation):


In group-oriented interaction the teacher should systematically encourage the students to take control of the turn-taking mechanism, by following the five rules of natural turn-taking:

1. tolerate silences; refrain from filling the gaps between turns. This will put pressure on students to initiate turns.
2. direct your gaze to any potential addressee of a student’s utterance; do not assume you are the next speaker and the students’ exclusive addressee.
3. teach the students floor-taking gambits; do not always grant the floor.
4. encourage students to sustain their speech beyond one or two sentences and to take longer turns; do not use a student’s short utterance as a springboard for your own lengthy turn.
5. extend your exchanges with individual students to include clarification of the speaker’s intentions and a negotiation of meanings; do not cut off too soon an exchange to pass on to another student.

Topic Management

If students are to take an active part in interactions, they must be shown how to control the way topics are established, built and sustained, and how to participate in the teaching and learning of lessons. The following three rules of natural discourse can be useful here:

1. use the foreign language not only to deal with the subject matter, but also to regulate the interaction in the classroom. You will thus offer a model of how to use interactional gambits in natural discourse.
2. keep the number of display questions to a minimum. The more genuine the requests for information, the more natural the discourse.
3. build the topic at hand together with the students; assume that whatever they say contributes to the topic. Do not cut off arbitrarily a student’s utterance because you perceive it to be irrelevant. It might be very relevant to the student’s perception of the topic.

Repair Tasks

Natural forms of interaction in the classroom would … require that the teacher frequently observe the following rules of natural repair:

1. pay attention to the message of students’ utterances rather than to the form in which they are cast (…). Keep your comments for later.
2. treat the correction of linguistic errors as a pragmatic or interactional adjustment, not as a normative form of redress.
3. leave students a choice in the linguistic form of their utterances, e.g., if they are not sure of their subjunctive, allow them to avoid this form and to find alternatives.
4. make extensive use of natural feedback (“hmm,/interesting/I thought so too”) rather than evaluating and judging every student utterance following its delivery (“fine/good”). Do not overpraise.
5. give students explicit credit by quoting them (“just as X said”); do not take credit for what students contributed, by giving the impression that you had thought about it before.

Kramsch, C. (1985). Classroom interaction and discourse options. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7, 169-183.

29 06 2011

Excellent reply. Thanks, Scott.

2 07 2011
Rupert Nicholson

There’s a story behind the painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, which can be “read” in the idioms of art:
My elementary students were “engaged” in the “eliciting” of the story, like this:
David Hockney painted Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy in 1971. Do you like it?
Are they married? What’s the cat’s name? Where are they? What’s that strange object behind him? …etc.
Well, in the picture they are married, but that was in 1971. Are these people married now, in 2011? What do you think?
Do they feel relaxed? (Maybe not.)
Do you like her long purple dress? Do you think she looks like a queen? (Yes.)
Does Mr Clark look like a king? (No.) What do you think about his pet? A dog is a very good friend, but is a cat a good friend? (No.) …etc.
So, are they married or divorced now? (They got divorced.)
If a picture contains clues, people often enjoy being detectives.

1 02 2012


What I think is very mind boggling for a committed ELT person is how come some seasoned professionals write in the coursebooks some things are good and conducive to language learning and then later on they challenge it or even refute it as not important at all. 😦
Scott, you wrote in your CELTA prep book by CUP that eliciting is fine and ok.
🙂 and only now am I reading that you get an allergic reaction to it!
Don’t get me wrong. I am an avid reader and follower of your work!!!

Shall I ‘unlearn’ then what I’ ve learnt about eliciting ? Or do without or dispense with eliciting in class because Scott has said so 🙂 ?

Confused me 🙂

Natasha 🙂

1 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Read my post carefully:

“On pre-service training courses, it makes a certain sense that trainee teachers are encouraged to elicit in preference to what is often the default, delivery mode of presentation, where the teacher simply lectures. To be fair, eliciting is not quite as mind-numbing as prolonged sequences of chalk-and-talk (or what, in this age of interactive whiteboards, might better be called tap-and-rap). But, like many good things, eliciting is horribly over-used.”

14 02 2015
Frances Lake

What about creative eliciting? One in which the teacher and student collaborate in building an idea together. It can be done with open questions, or closed questions in which the teacher doesn’t know the answer, and accepts students’ ideas.
For example, teaching the difference between object and subject questions (who loves John?/ who does John love?) by drawing (or asking students to draw) four or five heads, male and female, and asking students to decide where the arrows go to show who loves who (this can get hilarious), followed by hypothetical questions to demonstrate the grammar… followed by pair work activity. Totally created by the students with the teacher, and the teacher lets the students decide the outcome. A bit of teacher centred teaching, to be sure, but as we know now, if they don’t get grammatical input, they don’t learn it.

2 05 2016

sure that creative eliciting is another technique or strategy where both teachers and students collaborate to build ideas in a certain way.If a teacher pretends he is not knowledgeable about that topic,it will succeed somehow.”Pretend you don’t know,you will get what you want to know”

1 06 2017
James In Footscray

Thought-provoking post. Yes, trying to make students guess the name and job of a stick figure on the board is ridiculous. However, I think the post understates how terrible lecturing is, and how important it is for teachers to get out of that habit.

Having said that … I was teaching on a CELTA, and of course the trainees did lots of vocabulary eliciting. At the end of the four weeks one of the free English students came up and asked, ‘Why don’t the teachers know the names of the words?’.

21 04 2019
Elif Barbaros

I would suggest fellow teachers to share with their Ss what elicitation is and what it is used for; that is, it is used not because the teacher does not know the names of the words or just because pretends not to know them, but it is really used because the teacher wants to be in partnership with the individual learners in order to bring about the appearance of several words to focus on them as a group to make them more clear for everyone or to add more aspects to the existing knowledge of the words in Ss’ minds. When Ss really understand and know why the teacher wants an individual S or Ss to utter several words instead of she herself directly mentioning it orally or in written form on the board or on a slide; when Ss know that they themselves are the initiators of the learning process of a set of lexical items, they will feel much better and fulfilled and would cooperate more readily and willingly with the teacher while she is doing elicitation tasks and they will learn the words better as well.
In short, Ts should make clear why they do whatever they do.

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