leveled questions to improve student participation

Leveled Questions to Improve Student Participation


I am so pleased to introduce you to my first guest author on this blog, Jennifer, La Profesora Inspiradora! She has such a wealth of experience, and I LOVED reading this post she generously shared with us about how to use leveled questions to improve student participation. You can find her bio at the end. I hope you enjoy this amazing read! ~Jamie

Scaffolding vs. Differentiation Using Leveled Questions

Getting students to feel more comfortable speaking Spanish in class is hard. Really hard. They need structure, models, and lots and lots of practice. More practice than what’s typically provided in textbooks, honestly. That’s why I like to come prepared with tons of conversation starters on days I want to practice speaking.

Of course, we need to put a little work in to make sure that we’re asking the right questions, ones that are matched to our students’ proficiency level and designed to slowly increase their conversational skills.

Before we get to how to come up with the appropriate kinds of questions to use in class, however, let’s take a moment to consider why they are such a powerful tool in the Spanish classroom.

Why Use Conversation Starters?

  • Conversation prompts eliminate one obstacle students might face in speaking tasks: deciding what to talk about
  • Having a set of prepared questions helps keep all students on task — after they’ve exhausted one prompt or topic, they know to simply move on to the next
  • Conversation starters provide a model for how to form questions in Spanish, which lays the foundation for them to begin asking their own questions down the road
  • By including funny, creative, or surprising questions, we can keep our students engaged and motivated to learn
  • Conversation starters can provide extra support for introverts, who might not feel confident in their own conversational skills, even in their native language
  • Coming with a set of prepared questions helps make sure you’re covering a topic in both breadth and depth, instead of sticking to the same 4 or 5 questions and answers that come easily to the brain. It’s easy to turn to “What do you like to do in your free time?” in a unit on hobbies and pastimes, but why not converse about the weirdest Olympic events, the music you’d use to torture your worst enemy if you had them trapped in an elevator, or debating the relative value of playing sports versus working a part-time job after school?
  • Conversation starters let you get to know your students better, and also help them get to know each other better, building community in the classroom

Convinced? Great! So what now? Brainstorm an extensive list of questions and show up to class ready to see the magic work?

Sort of.

As I mentioned earlier, to get the most out of a conversation activity, we have to be intentional about the kinds of questions we’re asking. And here’s the catch — this isn’t a one size fits all situation. It’s likely that some students in your class will need one type of question, and others will benefit more from another.

This might sound like a logistical nightmare, but there’s a simple solution: Use leveled questions.

What are Leveled Questions?

When I create leveled questions, I’m thinking specifically about the kind of language a student will need to produce in order to respond. I break questions down into four levels:

1. Yes/No – These are the most basic questions, as all of them can be answered with a simple “Sí” or “No” (or the equivalents in other languages).

EXAMPLE: “Do you like to play video games?” 

2. Either/Or — These questions present students with two options to choose between. They’re still fairly basic, as they can be answered with a single word or a short phrase, one they will have heard within the question itself, but they’ll need more vocabulary than a simple yes or no.

EXAMPLE: “Would you rather visit the mountains or the beach?”

3. Short answer —These are open-ended questions that can be answered with a few words, a short phrase or a simple sentence. Students won’t have heard the vocabulary needed to answer within the question itself, but they still don’t require complex grammatical structures to produce an answer.

EXAMPLE: “What time do you usually wake up on school days?”

4. Extended response — These questions are the most open-ended of all, requiring students to use express their thoughts in complete sentences, or at least to string together multiple short phrases.

EXAMPLE: “What would your ideal house look like?” (Pro tip: Any question can become an extended response question if you tack a follow-up “Why?” on to the end!)

(Of course, any question can be answered in complete sentences, and no students should feel limited by the minimum amount of language required to respond to a prompt! In a future blog post, I’ll be talking about how to teach students different ways to modify their answers to simple questions in order to demonstrate/improve their language proficiency. Make sure to check it out back over on my blog!)

Scaffolding vs. Differentiating

Once we’ve prepared leveled conversation starters, we can use them to work with our students in two different ways (well, probably a lot more than that, but two primary ones that I’ll discuss here!): Scaffolding and Differentiating. Both are probably familiar terms, but let’s take a look at the basics of how each works in a language classroom:

Differentiating means we’re adapting an activity to adjust for the individual learning needs and language levels of each student in our class. Even though our classes presumably consist of students with roughly the same background experience in the target language, we all know that in practice, some of our students have much stronger speaking skills than others. Differentiation allows us to work with each student at their level, so those who struggle aren’t overwhelmed, while those who are more advanced aren’t bored and can continue to progress in their skills.

Scaffolding means we’re structuring activities in such a way that each of our students are continually moving forward in their language learning journey through a series of manageable steps. We lay the foundations with simple tasks, then gradually increase the complexity of what we ask our students to do.

So, how do leveled questions fit into these two strategies of language teaching?

If my primary goal is differentiating, I’ll group students according to their current level of oral proficiency and/or their comfort with speaking tasks and give each group questions on the appropriate level.

Students who are true novices or are struggling for one reason or another can build their confidence by answer yes/no and either/or questions, while students who are intermediate learners or more confident speakers can start to challenge themselves by tackling short answer and extended response questions.

Every student is getting important conversational practice at a level that works for them!

To use leveled questions for scaffolding, I’ll typically print out my conversation prompts on task cards in groups of 4 – one at each level — with all four questions related to the same sub-topic of our overall theme. For example, if we’re studying the environment, I might group 4 questions about natural disasters, 4 questions about recycling and other “green” choices, 4 questions about endangered species, and so on and so forth.

Students will answer all four questions on one sub-topic, starting with the level 1 question and progressing to the level 4 question, before moving on to the next topic.

Here’s an example of what that might look like:

         1: “Do you recycle?”

         2: “Does recycling or carpooling have a greater impact on the environment?”

         3: “What is the most important material to recycle? (Glass, plastic, paper, etc.)”

         4: “How could you increase the amount of recycling that happens at your school?”

The first two questions get them thinking about the topic and model some of the pertinent vocabulary without overwhelming students, so by the time they progress to the short answer and extended response questions, they’re warmed up and ready to tackle them!

It takes a little time up front to create these questions (or you can pop over to my TPT store for some ready-made sets or try this sampler set for free!), but writing conversation starters that target multiple levels of language proficiency gives you so much flexibility in your classroom! 

Differentiate activities for multiple language levels, or help all of your students gradually develop their confidence and tackle more complex language!

What are your best strategies to help develop students’ speaking skills? Let me know in the comments! And if you try using leveled questions for scaffolding or differentiation in your classroom, I’d love to hear how it works for you!

About the Author:

I’m Jennifer, also known as La Profesora Inspiradora. I have a PhD in Spanish from Yale, and I’ve taught students of all ages from kindergarten up through college seniors. I’m currently an associate professor of Spanish at a small liberal arts college, where I also serve as the department chair for the language department. My mission is to support secondary Spanish teachers who want to transition from traditional grammar- and vocabulary-based language instruction to a more communicative approach.

My mantra is “Communication, not perfection!”

When I’m not in the classroom, I’m hanging out with my husband and son, reading non-fiction on random, obscure topics (I’ve read books about everything from cadavers to pigeons to rust!), or solving any kind of puzzle I can get my hands on! I love roller coasters, weighted blankets, and Don Quijote, and I have an utterly irrational phobia of touching fish. 

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leveled questions to improve student participation