“No” Means “Yes,” Maybe

Yes/No Questions can be a showstopper in the communicative classroom especially with lower-level students.  When confronted with a question like “Do you have a cat?” many will answer a simple “No” and leave the conversation hanging. The reason is simple: they haven’t sorted out what the expectations are yet. As often as not, they come from cultures that still ascribe to the empty vessel notion of teaching. This discredited idea may have  been repetitively reinforced over a dozen or more years by 60 or more teachers so in their minds, normal learning ought to be a very one-sided, top-down affair. Spend some time making it clear that a simple yes or no is not enough. Work through a few examples so that students come to understand that they are expected to give more, taking their response to two, three and many more levels.  So while yes or no is not enough with a question like “Do you have a cat?” The following would be acceptable responses.

  • No, I don’t but I have a dog.  She’s a beagle.  Her name is Snoopy….
  • No, I don’t but I did when I was a child.  She was gray….
  • No, I don’t but I have many fish. My favourite is called “Goldie”….

Of course students need to understand that they can carry their answers much further. Students also need to understand that communication works in two directions in the class as on the street. So in a pairwork situation both partners are equally responsible for the roles of interrogator and responder. Set aside time to practice ending an answer with a question. So in the case of the above examples, summing up with something like “How about you, do you have any pets?” would be ideal. The roles are reversed, the clock is reset and conversation goes on: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

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