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Why are English Question Words Hard to Learn?

Hello colleagues, I'd like to find some different strategies for teaching the English questions words: who, what, where, when why, how, which. In my experience, these words are difficult for beginners to acquire. I am not sure why these words tend to be problematic. If you have thoughts on this, please let us know.

What ideas do you have for supporting learners to internalize these essential words, so they can use them fluently?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition


Aileen Halloran's picture

I had created an activity to use with my students that seemed to work for several levels. After we had "learned" the question words I gave pairs of students a packet of strip sentences and cards with "who, what, where, when, why" on them. The students would then sort the sentences according to what question it answered. For example, "Maria went to the movies on Saturday night" could be a "who" question or a "where" question, while " "Abdul was late for class" would be a "who" question. At the lower levels the questions might all be present tense and I would ask for only one question word. For higher level students I would expect them to identify all the questions that the sentence could answer. A writing activity might include asking them to write the question as well as identifying the question word. I found this activity could be modified many ways and repeated since these words are confusing because they sound so similar to many students. The packets of sentences can be different so you could do this several times until the students seemed to be able to use them in conversation. Having to think about what the answer was seemed to help with creating the question.

finnmiller's picture

I love this idea, Aileen. Thank you! I agree that designing activities that require students to come up with the question that can be answered by a statement is effective. The game of Jeopardy is useful for the same reason. I have started doing more activities that require the students to generate the question when they know the answer.  I like the idea of giving pairs of students a set of sentence strips to work with. I'll definitely be adding this to my repertoire.

I'm looking forward to getting more great ideas!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

SLL's picture

Thanks, Aileen! This is a fantastic idea! My more advanced students would really enjoy thinking of multiple questions for the same answer, and even my beginning learners would be able to generate at least one question. I'll be trying this out soon. Thanks for sharing!

Susanna Lee