Big questions: A speaking practice exercise

Deryn Verity, Osaka Jogakuin College


Quick guide

  • Key words: speaking, interviews, discussion questions, values
  • Learner English level:Low-intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity level:Young adult to adult
  • Preparation time:None
  • Activity time: 40 minutes
  • Materials:One sheet of A4 scrap paper for every four students, torn into quarters


In order to give our students a low-pressure forum to practice speaking English with each other, we recently developed a one-credit, Pass/Fail class, called “English Essentials,” for all first-year students at our small women’s university. The activities used in this class are student-centered, highly interactive, and, preferably, open to imaginative and creative engagement. The following activity has typically resulted in rich discussions.


Step 1:Divide the class into groups of four and give four small pieces of scrap paper to each group.

Step 2: Explain that, on each scrap, the group should write an “interesting wh- question that is very difficult to answer, but not impossible to think and talk about.” An example might be “What is happiness?”

Step 3:After the questions are written, tell them to fold each question paper into a tiny ball. Ask each student to pick up one question, then remix the groups. Each group now has four new members and four new questions.

Step 4:Tell them to open the papers up and discuss each question. Every person should say something about every question.

Step 5:After about 10 or 15 minutes (adjust the timing to suit your own students), ask each group to choose their most interesting question, and to nominate a messenger. The messenger takes the selected question clockwise to the next group and interviews those students about that question. This step is repeated until each messenger has made a complete circuit of all the other groups.

Step 6:When the interviewing is finished (move it along fairly briskly), tell students to scrunch the papers up again, choose one and stand up and mingle freely with their classmates. Each student should get answers to her particular question from three or four different people (adjust the number to your own teaching circumstances).

Step 7:Bring the groups back together and ask the students to talk about the various answers they got from their individual conversations.

Examples of questions

Students can come up with really interesting questions that hold their classmates’ attention over the various phases of the activity. For example, these questions were produced during Step 2 in a recent class of mine:

  • How long do you want to live?
  • How should we deal with stress?
  • How would you define a “successful life”?
  • What do you think is needed for world peace?
  • What is marriage?
  • What is the most important thing to you?
  • What is your dream of the future?
  • When will the earth disappear?
  • Where will we go when we die?
  • Who is the funniest person in Japan?
  • Who is the woman you want to be?
  • Why are people not perfect?


There are many books of practical ideas out there, and most of us have hundreds of folders, files, and handouts overflowing our shelves and hard disks, so it can be all too easy to overlook the contributions that students can make to effective language practice activities. My colleagues and I try to involve the students in creating English Essentials lessons whenever possible. Some of us really like using board games, for example, so we print up blank game boards and ask students to make up their own games, topics, and rules. Besides freeing the teacher up to do observation and assessment, putting student ideas at the center of the lesson opens up the teaching-learning dialogue in particularly fruitful ways.