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?…”