Craigslist and the Art of Asking Questions

In a blog post last summer, I described a mnemonic device one of my students invented to help her classmates master the ability to pose grammatically accurate questions in the simple past. Here’s another fun way to practice questioning skills with your students using craigslist*, an online resource they can use to find a new apartment, look for a new job, or buy a used car.

Craigslist is a classified advertisements website with sections devoted to jobs, housing, items for sale, personals, community events, and more. Local versions of craigslist are available not only for many American and Canadian cities but for dozens of countries around the globe.

With a handful of exceptions, most of my low-intermediate students had never heard of craigslist and had never used it. To whet their appetite for exploring this website, I started by demonstrating how to use the “free” section, where used furniture, electronics, and other “cast-offs” are available for free on a first-come-first-served basis.  Students were intrigued by the idea that they could swing by someone’s house and pick up a used couch, a dresser, a TV, or a rug for free. I gave them a few minutes to pull out their smartphones and browse through the “free” section on craigslist to see if there was anything available that they actually wanted or needed.

Once their curiosity was aroused, I switched gears for a few minutes to demonstrate the use of the Question Hand (PDF), a mnemonic device designed by proponents of X-word grammar to help students remember the order of words in a question in English, regardless of tense.  I asked my students to raise their right hand in the air and showed them how:

* The thumb stands for the “question” word in information questions (who, what, where, when, why, how, how many, how often, how long, etc.).

* The pointer stands for the X-word (“helping,” “modal,” or “auxiliary” verbs: have, has, had, do, does, did, am, is, are, was, were, can, could, will, would, shall, should, must, might, may) that is used to start a yes/no question or that follows the question word in an information question. For yes/no questions, I teach students to fold down or hide their thumb, so that the pointer finger is used to begin the question.

* The middle finger represents the subject.

* The ring finger stands for the main verb.

* The pinky stands in for everything else.

I also made copies of the Question Hand to give each of my students and projected a large version of the Question Hand on the white board at the front of the class.

To gain confidence using the Question Hand and formulating questions, I then put students in pairs and gave them free reign to explore the “For Sale” section of craigslist on their smartphones or tablets. I asked them to find something that they might want to buy and to work with their partner to formulate five questions that they would want to ask the seller before deciding whether or not to make an offer.

Everyone was interested in the same section—“Cars and Trucks”—and worked enthusiastically on developing the questions they would need to ask the seller. When they had finished formulating their questions, I then had them pair up with a student from another group and dictate their questions to their classmate at the white board for us all to examine, admire, and critique.

Some groups were able to quickly grasp how to use the Question Hand to accurately pose Yes/No questions:

  1. Is the title clear?
  2. Is the cost negotiable?

Others struggled with their questions, no doubt because “have” can serve both as an x-word and as a main verb:

  1. How many miles have your car?
  2. How many owners have your car?
  3. May see the car this week?

We then used the Question Hand to collectively “improve” (i.e., fix) the inaccurate questions. The discussion for Question #3 above went something like this:

Q: “How many miles” is represented by which finger?

A: The thumb or the question word(s).

Q: So what needs to come next?

A: The pointer or x-word, “does,” for all verbs in the Simple Present (except for “to be” and “to happen”)

Q: Then what?

A: The middle finger or subject, “your car.

Q: Then what?

A: The ring finger or main verb, “have.

Q: So how could you rewrite the question?

A: “How many miles does your car have [on it]?”

For Question #5,  “May see the car this week?, I asked the students to review each finger on the Question Hand with a partner and see if they could figure out what was missing.  Sure enough, most noticed that the author of the question had omitted the middle finger or subject, “I.”

A great way to extend this activity is to put students in pairs and to give them a chance to role-play their negotiation, with one set of students playing the role of sellers who have advertised an item on CraigsList and the rest the role of prospective buyers.

Mastering the art of accurately formulating questions takes time and repeated practice, and certainly isn’t learned in a single session. But I have found that using authentic materials like craigslist helps keep students interested and motivated as they practice this important skill.

What authentic materials do you use to teach the art of posing questions?

 *Teachers of young children should be mindful that aspects of craigslist not used in the activity described here (such as “personal” ads) could be unsuitable for young learners.




About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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