Asking effective questions in your ESL classes

In this blog, we cover best practices for TESOL teachers to choose the right questions to ask in your ESL classes. Different questions have different qualities. These qualities influence student participation and involvement. Questions can be either: 

  • Open or closed. Open questions have many possible answers. Closed answers have a limited number. 
  • Display or referential. Referential questions are questions which the person asking the questions doesn’t know the answer to in advance. Display questions are the opposite; the questioner already knows the answer when they ask.  

We’ll now look at each type of question and what these are useful for. 

Closed questions 

Closed questions can usually be answered “yes” or “no” (or from a limited number of choices). These are useful for: 

  • Checking understanding 
  • Interacting with students who aren’t ready to speak yet 
  • Allowing lots of students to answer at the same time (by nodding or shaking their heads) 

Closed questions can allow everyone in a large class to participate. Ask students to respond non-verbally by: 

  • Putting up their hands to agree 
  • Giving a thumbs up or thumbs down 
  • Nod or shake their heads 
  • Hold up a mini flashcard (with “yes” or “no” printed on it) 

Closed questions are effective at checking understanding. If you were teaching the word mammal, you could ask “Is a dog a mammal? Is a whale a mammal?” 

Closed questions can also be referential, allowing students to express real information about themselves. You could ask a class 

  • Real information about themselves. E.g. “Do you have a pet?” 
  • Opinions “Who likes cats more?” “Who likes dogs more?” 
  • To answer “how many questions” by holding up a number of fingers. E.g., “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” 
  • About classroom management. “I’m hot” “Are you hot? Yes or no? Okay, let’s open a window!” 

Using closed questions like this encourages student participation.  

Open questions 

Open questions have many possible answers and are useful for encouraging students to use their imaginations (or at least not limiting imagination). Asking “What can dogs do?” encourages students to think more deeply than asking, “Can dogs run? Can dogs jump? Can dogs fly?” The more deeply students think, the more they’ll remember later. 

Open questions also allow classes of mixed ability levels to answer the same question. If you point to a picture and ask an open question like “What can you see?” some students might say, “I can see a swan” while other students answer with, “white bird”.  

Display questions 

Questions which have a ‘correct answer’ or an answer the teacher is looking for are called display questions. Display questions are useful for checking understanding. For example, when teaching the word “library”, you might ask “Can you buy books in a library?”. This would check the difference between “a library” and “a bookshop.  

Use display questions to check when you think students might have misunderstood something. Afterward, follow up with referential questions. For example, after asking about the difference between a library and a bookshop you could ask students “Have you been to a library?” 

Display questions don’t let students’ express ideas or opinions. If you ask too many display questions your students might never learn how to express themselves.  

Referential questions 

Referential questions are questions which the person asking the question doesn’t know the answer to. Asking students referential questions is a great way to help students to express themselves in English. The more students can express themselves in English, the less likely they are to express themselves by misbehaving or disrupting your class.  

You can ask lower-level referential questions by asking questions like: 

  1. Do you like ___? 
  2. Do you have a ___? 
  3. What’s your favorite ___?  

Referential questions can be open (like #3) or closed (like #1 and #2). At higher levels you can ask students more challenging deferential questions, like, “Why do you think that?” or “What would happen if ____?” 

Referential questions can also be used to check student understanding. For example, if checking the meaning of “pet”, ask “What pets do you have?” If a student says they have a giraffe, they probably don’t understand the concept. If checking the meaning of “mammal” you could ask “What mammals do you think are scary?” If students say tigers and lions, they probably understand the concept. 

Applying question types 

We can combine these qualities (open and closed questions and display and referential questions) into four types of questions.  

  • Closed display questions, for checking students’ understanding at lower levels and in large classes. Students can answer non-verbally. 
  • Closed referential questions, for personalizing language at lower levels and in large classes. Students can answer non-verbally. 
  • Open display questions, for checking understanding and letting learners of different levels participate. These also encourage students to think more deeply as multiple answers are possible.  
  • Open referential questions, for encouraging students to express themselves.  

The table below shows how to use these with three topics (pets, colors, and abilities). 

Closed referential questions 

  • Do you have a pet? 
  • Do you like red? 
  • Can you swim? 

Open referential questions 

  • What’s your pet’s name? 
  • What’s your favorite color? 
  • What are you good at? 

Closed display questions 

  • Can dogs swim? 
  • What color is it? 
  • Can you fly? 

Open display questions 

  • What pets can you think of? 
  • What colours can you see? 
  • What can you do in our classroom? 

Responding to students 

Even when teachers ask students referential questions, they often respond in a way which would be unnatural outside the classroom. For example, 

Teacher: Do you have pet? 

Sophia: Yes, I have a dog. 

Teacher: Good 

Why is it ‘good’? Is the teacher pleased the student has a dog? Do they think this is a suitable pet for Sophia? Or is the teacher really saying “I don’t care about your pet, but I’m happy you used English correctly”? “Good” also discourages students from saying more, ending the conversation. Keeping conversation going is an important skill for fluency. 

Responding naturally to students can: 

  • Demonstrate you’re interested in your students as people, not just as English language learners. This helps build strong teacher-student relationships. 
  • Model how people respond outside the classroom in ‘the real world’. Learners will notice how you respond and may eventually be able to do this themselves. 
  • Encourage students to speak more. Students need to learn how to keep conversations going if they are to make friends in English.  

We’ll now look at some options for responding to students without saying “good” or “well done”. 


In fluent conversation, speakers often comment on what the last speaker said before moving on. For the example above, the teacher might say, “Lovely! I have a dog too”. This helps to create a connection with the student (as the teacher and student now have something in common). This works well when asking referential questions.  

More information 

Teachers can ask students for more information when responding to a student’s answer to a referential question. For the example above, the teacher could ask, “A dog. Lovely. What’s its name?” Or “How old is your dog?”  This generates cognitive engagement and encourages the student to say more, but with an easy-to-answer question. It also recycles language the class might have learned previously. By asking, “What’s its name?”, the students learn that we can use “name” to refer to animals as well as people.  

Elicit class involvement 

The teacher could use a response from one student to open up a question to the whole class. For the example above, the teacher could respond, “Great. Does anyone else have a dog?” This keeps the topic of the question the same, while involving the rest of the class. This technique works with referential questions. 

Elicit peer comment 

For display questions (aimed at checking accuracy and understanding), teachers could ask the rest of the class if a response is correct or not. Not commenting on what the student said for a few seconds encourages the rest of the class evaluate. This encourages all the students in the class to think not just about their answer, but also about their classmate’s. 

Imagine that you’ve asked a student to use “made of” in a sentence. One student says “My chair is made of plastic”. The teacher could encourage the rest of the class to think about the answer by:

  • Getting the rest of the class to give a thumbs up or thumbs down. 

  • In small classes asking “Is that right?” or “Do you agree?” and asking others to comment. 

  • In large classes, students holding up colored cards saying “yes”, “no” or “maybe”. 

Dig deeper 

For some questions and topics, it might be appropriate to ask, “What makes you say that?” “Tell me more” or “Can you explain?” This can encourage the students to think more deeply about an answer. This works with display questions, like when checking answers to an exercise. For example,  

Teacher: What’s the answer to question three? [Pause]. Johnny? 

Johnny: She went home. 

Teacher: Can you explain? 

This also works with some referential questions. For example,  

Teacher: Which is a better pet? A cat or a dog? [Pause]. Johnny? 

Johnny: A cat. 

Teacher: What makes you say that? 

As well as encouraging students to think more, students will need to go beyond what they learned from their coursebook to express their ideas. 

Finding out more 

If you’re not sure what questions you usually ask your students, have a colleague observe you teach. Ask them to record all the questions you ask. Afterwards, note how many of each type of question you ask. If you find you asked more display questions, plan how you could change some of these into referential questions. You could also ask your colleagues to:  

  • Time how long you wait between asking a question and nominating a student to answer. 
  • Note which students you nominate in class. An observer can add a tally mark next to each students’ name every time you nominate them. This can tell you which students you need to encourage to speak more. You might find you ask boys or girls more, stronger students more, or students sat in certain areas of the classroom more. 
  • Write down how you respond to students. They could count the number of times you say “Good” to students and find examples of other follow up questions or comments you give. 

Finding out how you use questions in class is the first step towards asking more effective questions. 

About the Author

Ross Thorburn

Ross Thorburn is a teacher trainer, materials writer and consultant based in Shanghai. Ross started his career in language teaching in 2006. He holds a Trinity DipTESOL, a Trinity FTCL TESOL, an IDLTM from the University of Queensland and a Master’s Degree in Language Education from NILE. Ross is also a keen researcher and has published research articles on teacher training, teacher motivation, task-based learning and young learners. In 2020, Ross published his first book, Inside Online Language Teaching. He also is the host of the TEFL Training Institute podcast.

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