Chubbier is Better!

by Elna Coetzer

This is obviously not an appropriate title for an article in a fashion magazine, but for us working in the field of English language teaching, this might just be a gateway to lessons designed for the 21st century. What I will aim to do in this article is to give you some ideas and tips which will help you move your older young learners from just asking those ‘’everyday’’ questions, to questions that require more thinking, more creativity and more emotional engagement (something like Bruner’s ‘perfinker’) (Bruner 1986:118). So fundamentally, we are thinking about developing our learners’ thinking ability (which in this article will also mean critical thinking ability) by developing their questioning techniques, which for me is at the forefront of what thinking is all about.

Teaching Thinking, You Say?

Most think that we are either born to be thinkers or not. But this is not true! Being able to think critically is a skill that can be taught and how well we can do it, all depends on the expectations of parents and teachers. Also looking at all the publications available to help teachers develop more effective thinking skills in their learners, it is clear that one of the accepted principles regarding thinking is that we can teach this skill. One particularly useful publication from Helbling Languages is Teaching Young Learners to Think by Herbert Puchta and Marion Williams, which contains plenty of ideas about how to get young learners to think more effectively.

So how to help our learners become better at asking more effective questions, which I will call chubby questions (often also called fat questions). These are questions like ‘What would you do if…?’ or ‘Why do you think that…?’. Chubby questions require learners to think more deeply, perceive more widely and feel more strongly. Compare these questions with skinny questions (general yes/no questions, questions to check information, etc.) and it should become clear that helping our learners to become active citizens in the 21st century will require a number of changes in our behaviour, And how to do this? The short answer to changing our behaviour in order to help young learners think more effectively is…

  • Expect it!
  • Model it!
  • Reward it!

So Overt Teaching?

If we go back to Bloom’s revised taxonomy, I am sure that you remember that in the cognitive domain we have 6 dimensions of thinking:

  • remembering + understanding + applying = lower-order thinking skills (LOTS)
  • analysing + evaluating + creating = higher-order thinking skills (HOTS)

Going back to our skinny vs. chubby question description, we could say that chubby questions link with the last 4 dimensions, whereas skinny questions are used in the first 2 dimensions.

Even though ‘applying’ is essentially a LOTS, I would say that it certainly leads to deeper thinking. Look at this example: the teacher is reading a story with her 9-year old learners. She finishes the story and asks how the story would be different, if it happened in the learners’ own country. The learners need to then use the events from the story and apply it to their own world. This clearly indicates that ‘applying’ is an important building block in the thinking process.

From this example, it is also clear that we as English teachers already do help our learners to become more efficient thinkers – simply the fact of teaching and learning a foreign language already develops more effective thinking processes. However, do we overtly teach our learners how to ask chubbier questions? The short answer here is ‘no, not really’.

Yes – Overt Teaching of Chubby Questions!

Of course, I am not proposing that we teach our young learners about Bloom’s taxonomy, but overtly helping them to notice and make chubby questions will give them tools that they can transfer to other areas of their lives. I have a few ideas as to how you could help your learners with this.

1. Talk to them about questions: for example, you have read a text and the learners have answered the comprehension questions. Before you move on, ask the learners to go back to the questions and see if they can notice the two different types: skinny and chubby questions. Once they have finished this, you could ask them if they could make the skinny questions chubbier.

2. Introduce chubby question formats slowly over a period of time, beginning with the simpler stem questions like:

  • How is …. similar or different in your life/family/city/country?
  • What is the most important point in the story? Why?
  • Is … useful or not? Why?
  • What do you think about…?

Just by adding the word ‘why?’ to questions you are already moving the question from a simple skinny question to a more complex chubby question.

3. Do activities where you give the learners a set of questions, some skinny and some chubby and ask them to group the questions. You could use a topic that you have discussed, a text you have read previously but certainly a topic learners have some knowledge about. Afterwards, again talk about the different expectations people have when they ask skinny and chubby questions. You could make your questions appropriate to the level of the learners using only 1 or 2 formats or a variety.

4. Jumbled questions: you could focus only on skinny questions and once learners have unjumbled the questions, you could ask them to make the questions chubbier. You could also use skinny and chubby questions together, which the learners can compare once they have unjumbled them.

5. Chubby question bonanza: after you have read a story or a text, get the learners to write chubby questions for the other teams. Of course, you could give the question formats which you want them to use (at a lower level) or you could leave it open to the learners (at a higher level).

6. Have skinny and chubby question signs with skinny and chubby question marks on the wall. When learners ask a question, point to these to elicit a chubbier question. Also, when you ask questions, get learners to tell you if they are skinny or chubby – they have to justify their answers as far as possible (depending on their level).

7. Help learners to focus on the answers. Very often skinny questions have one word or short answers, whereas chubby questions require longer answers. So when your learners have answered their comprehension questions, ask them to look at the questions and the answers as a basis for classification.

8. When learners are a little older, I would propose that you include Bloom’s taxonomy into your everyday teaching. Make a wall display with the dimensions and build up the display as you work through the semester. When you hear/ask an effective question, ask the learners in which of the dimensions the question belongs. For example: How do you feel about…? belongs in the ‘evaluation’ dimension.

For more help with incorporating more of Bloom’s in your lesson, have a look at these websites:

9. Display a few pictures around your class and ask learners to write chubby questions on slips of paper. Then mix up the slips of paper. The learners need to go around and match the chubby questions with the correct picture and come up with answers to the new questions. Make sure that the number of learners at each picture is equal – learners can then discuss their questions and answers together.

And Our Role as Teacher?

  • Be a role model: show your learners that you are also questioning things.
  • Start small: incorporate these ideas a little at a time, not all at once.
  • Discuss questions overtly: make this part of your everyday teaching so that it becomes second nature to the learners.
  • Make sure that you monitor whenever learners are working with chubby questions; they will need lots of support.
  • Familiarise yourself with the variety of question formats that can be used in each dimension of Bloom’s taxonomy.
  • Make sure to give recognition to all contributions – then steer the learners to chubbier questions if possible.
  • Incorporate lots of skinny vs chubby question activities into your lessons, whenever possible.

And most importantly: expect chubby questions from your learners, use chubby questions wherever possible and notice chubby questions when your learners use them!

Some more reading:

Bruner, J (1986): Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Harvard University Press

Woodward, T (2011): Thinking in the EFL Classroom. Helbling Languages

Author’s Bio: South African Elna Coetzer, who is based in Istanbul, is a freelance teacher trainer and consultant with OUP, the international Training Institute and various other organisations. She worked as a teacher, a DoS and as an educational consultant and trainer at CUP. She is a CELTA, YL and ICELT trainer, online moderator, teacher training materials writer and editor and has worked in various contexts. Her interests range from teaching YLs and developing motivation to using stories and including more creative activities into lessons.