Questioning Techniques to Engage Students in Critical Thinking

The TESOL President’s Blog

One of the most challenging tasks for language teachers when working with English language learners is to engage students in critical thinking and encourage them to ask questions that go beyond factual information. In this blog, I’d like to share a few simple questioning techniques that I have been using to engage students in the learning process.

Asking the right questions and engaging learners in inquiry-based learning are important steps to help students develop critical thinking skills and metacognitive skills.

Question Hierarchy Techniques

For lower level learners, I often use a technique that I call Question Hierarchy Techniques. I model it to students before they begin to use it to ask each other questions.

It starts with a yes/no question. For example, if we use a picture to start a conversation about a classroom setting, a simple yes/ no question could be, “Is this room bright?” The next question is a choice question, such as “Is this classroom on the first floor or the second floor?”

Then I’ll use three levels of “WH” questions. Examples of Level 1 WH questions could include, “How many students are there in the room?” or “How many desks are there in the classroom?” Examples for Level 2 WH questions may include, “What are the three things that you like about this classroom?” Examples for Level 3 WH could include “Why do you like or dislike this classroom?” Students can expand the questions to ask about their workplace, neighborhoods, daily life, etc. They can practice yes/ no questions, choice questions, and WH questions at the same time.

F.I.R.E Questions

Another technique I often use for intermediate and advanced level students is named F.I.R.E. I learned this technique from an institutional assessment conference* quite a few years ago. I adapted the technique and have been sharing it ever since with my adult ESOL learners and TESOL teacher training students. F.I.R.E. stands for four areas of thinking: Factual, Insightful, Rational and Evaluative. The quotes below are from a handout at the assessment conference.

Factual Thinking
This type of thinking involves gathering factual information and applying it to a given problem in a way that is clear and relevant. If we use Bloom’s taxonomy, it fits well with the knowledge and comprehension domain (e.g., what are the relevant facts?). The question words we often use are: who, when, where, and how many.

Insightful Thinking
This is to “imagine and seek out a variety of possible goals, assumptions, interpretations, or perspectives which can give alternative meanings or solutions to given situations or problems.” They are often the “big picture” and “depth” questions (e.g., what is the larger context, or “big picture,” of the problem or a situation in the story?). The question words often used are what, which, why, how, and what if.

Rational Thinking
This is to “analyze the logical connections among the facts, goals, and implicit assumptions relevant to a problem or a situation” (e.g., what are the major components, necessary sequences or orders which structure this problem or situation, or what process did you use in working with this problem?). They are often “breadth” questions and require learners to make logical connections among facts and issues in a situation. The question words often used are what, how, and what steps. Insightful and Rational Thinking overlap with Bloom’s taxonomy Application, Analysis, and Synthesis domains.

Evaluative Thinking
This is “recognizing and articulating the feelings and value assumptions which underlie and affect decisions, interpretations, analyses and evaluations made by ourselves and others” (e.g., what feels most important to you in this situation and why?). Learners need to make a judgment, and reflect and relate to “real-life” experiences. The question words often used are what, how, and why.

With practice, students get better at using these questioning techniques whenever they read an article or a story, discuss a picture, or hold a debate on current issues.

Effective Questioning

James Cooper in his book, Classroom Teaching Skills (2006) outlined seven habits of highly effective questioners:

  • Asking fewer questions
  • Using wait time
  • Differentiating questions
  • Selecting students
  • Questioning for depth
  • Giving useful feedback
  • Questioning for breadth

I have found that Question Hierarchy Techniques and FIRE questions have helped me and my students become better questioners, and students become active language users and critical thinkers. I hope they will work for you and your learners, too.

Let me end this blog post with a quote from James Cooper: “Once in school, children’s natural tendency to learn by questioning mysteriously evaporates. On that first day of school, the adult becomes questioner, while the student becomes the answerer.” As a teacher, we need to value and nurture our children’s natural tendency to learn by questioning and help them become effective questioners, critical thinkers, and active language users.


*Minnesota Community College’s Transfer Curriculum Model, 1997

About Yilin Sun

Yilin Sun
Yilin Sun has served as president of TESOL International Association, as chair of the TESOL Affiliate Leadership Council, and president of Washington Association for the Education of Speakers of Other Languages (WAESOL). In 2011-2012, Dr. Sun was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Taiwan at the National Taiwan Normal University. Dr. Sun received her doctorate in applied linguistics/curriculum and instruction from the University of Toronto, Canada. She has more than 28 years of experience in the field of TESOL as a teacher educator, a researcher, a classroom teacher, and a program leader with various institutions of higher education in China, Canada, and the United States. She is the author and co-author of books, book chapters, and research papers in refereed professional journals. Her research interests include curriculum development, program assessment and evaluation, L2 reading, vocabulary learning, classroom-based action research, teacher education, adult education, teaching English to young learners, World Englishes, ESP and nonnative English speaking teachers (NNEST) in the ELT field.
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