Do Your Students Master the Obvious Art of Asking Questions?


Is it really that hard to ask a question?

Incidentally, isn’t it just too bad that questions are fundamental to all languages? We could not carry on a conversation for very long without them?

Logically, asking questions is one of the core skills our students must learn and it must be acquired from the very beginning. 


And DO it correctly!

Why aren’t students acquiring  this fundamental skill correctly?

I consistently see students failing to ask questions correctly. In fact, the skill seems to be bypassing students worldwide. Even more alarming is the fact that some of the best ESL/EFL students are failing at this skill. 

Who is to blame? Is it the student or the teacher? As a teacher, I blame myself when students don’t acquire a given skill properly. I also wonder why the problem is so widespread and what can be done to prevent it. As teachers the responsibility falls on us and we might have somehow neglected to pick up errors and make sure they were corrected at the inception.   

To clarify this phenomenon I have put the skill into the following nutshell:

In a nutshell

Inversion! Inversion! Inversion!

English has a strict word order which is, Subject, Verb, Object (SVO). Our verbs are not capable of asking questions on their own as they do in other languages. With such a strict word order what is the secret to asking questions correctly?

We can alter this fundamental word order for questions only. Inversion is the way and learning it correctly touches upon the deep structure of asking questions. In this way the English language solves a problem that its verbs cannot solve on their own. When students know they must ask a question, inversion should immediately pop into their heads. So teachers must impress students with the fact that to ask questions they must automatically invert by: 

Placing the lead (helping) verb before the whole subject.

It’s as simple as that but students may prefer to take the easy route which is  making a statement and putting a question mark after it. The question mark is their question asking guru! It allows them to ask questions without going deeper into the English mechanics of question asking. It is easier to add a ? to their statements. Problem solved, or so they think.


Don’t let your students get away with this band aid to question asking! The whole lingua franca is at stake! In English, question asking is ingrained in the act of inversion which should not be compromised, especially with beginners.

If inversion is not taught, it will rear its head up again and again, as you will see below. So, make sure you teach your students the inversion process for asking questions.  

Statement:  The Food is on the table. The lead verb, is, must simply be inverted–placed in front of the whole subject like this: Is the food on the table? Yet many students will simply add a question mark: The food is on the table?

Inversion is presented cognitively as a formula which is very left-brained. It often remains in the mind of the student like some kind of unnecessary  ‘formality’. We need the process to be ingrained in the students’ sense of motion. Just telling them to ‘place the lead verb before the subject is not enough. Find a way for students to actually practice this maneuver lest they disregard the instruction and simply add a ? to their statement.

Humans take the path of least resistance;
Skills don’t follow the easy path;
That is why skills are skills.  

Asking questions is a skill, not a concept. Moving the lead verb in front of the subject creates a marker at the beginning of the sentence, announcing a forthcoming question. In a normal statement you start with the subject. For a question, you start with the verb (leader). Inversion is the maneuver to follow in English. The marker sets the stage at the beginning, instead of with a question mark at the end.

What a clever trick in a language where verbs are unable to ask questions!

I created color coded magnetic lead verbs or ‘tools’ which can be plucked out of sentences and relocated into first position. The advantages are that they:

  1. Put inversion into the hands (body) through the act of manually moving the lead verb rather than simply telling the student that this must be done.
  2. Facilitate the  process as a class activity with full participation. The whole class can witness and practice inversion multiple times on the board  with multiple statements provided by them.
  3. Mark a change in the purpose (mode) of the sentence, switching from statement (SVO) mode to question mode. 

Inversion works for all sentences but there is one snag. When the verb is simple present or past, the verb itself cannot invert. You can say: He takes piano lessons but you cannot ask: Takes he piano lessons?

This question needs a helper; and DO is the helper (do/does/did).

DO does the job for all verbs except BE. Do takes full control for questions by inverting in front of the subject to first position. The original verb stays where it was in the statement, but it must revert to its base verb form.

Therein lies the skill which must be acquired through practice.

He takes piano lessons.
Does he take piano lessons?

He took piano lessons.
Did he take piano lessons?

Do is a vital acquisition point for all learners of other languages not only for questions but for negatives, confirmations, and tag questions! This skill must be fully acquired:

He doesn’t take piano lessons.
He does take piano lessons!
He takes piano lessons doesn’t he?
He doesn’t take piano lessons does he?.

Remember, skills don’t follow the easy path, that’s why they’re skills.  




2 thoughts on “Do Your Students Master the Obvious Art of Asking Questions?

  1. Fatma

    I liked the way you delivered the questions to the students. I can see that all the students can participate effectively. Inversion was my problem too during my Uni studies. Thanks for the good tips. Will use it soon. Can’t miss it out.

    • Thank you Fatma, inversion is particularly important for English and it is up to the teacher to make sure it is acquired properly because it has a deep hold on the language that speakers of other languages need to master.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *