While in high school I would reverently attend repeated midnight showings of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the old single-screen movie theater downtown. (I think it was called Ye Olde Downtowne Single-screene Movie Theatre.) The Bridge of Death scene near the end of the film, with its fearsome “Three Questions” test to cross the bridge, seemed the height of cinema suspense/comedy at the time, at least to this shallow, cynical, easily bored teenager. I even used that scene as a test of my own in choosing my friends:
POTENTIAL FRIEND: Hey, wanna hang out?
SCOTT: Maybe. You see Holy Grail?
PF: Five times at least!
S: Oh yeah? What were the three questions at the Bridge of Death?
PF: What do you mean? Arthur’s questions or Lancelot’s questions?
S: Ok, let’s hang out.
I often tell students in my teacher training classes that asking students the right kinds of questions is a great way to keep them talking—and I mean questions more substantive than what’s found in Holy Grail (the harrowing Bridge of Death question sequence starts with “What is your name?”). We go through the standard “grammatical” forms—wh-, tag, etc—but quickly move into more interesting categorizations: communicative function, pedagogical purpose, rhetoric/sarcasm, and so on. For example, teachers can ask students questions to which they already know the answers (“Mary, what’s the title of this book that I’m holding in my hand and whose cover I can clearly see with my own eyes?”), or they can ask questions to which they don’t know the answers (“Johnny, why were you late for school, and what’s that badger trap doing under your seat?”)
The latter, sometimes called “referential questions,” are thought to be more genuinely communicative, but of course they have the potential of moving into socially and professionally risky territory (“Sally, was that your mom I saw sneaking out of a pachinko place at 3:00 in the morning last weekend?”). The former, “display questions,” are much more common in class but often have the feel of a quiz show: “When was the Magna Carta signed?” “June 15, 1215.” “Correct for .0004 credits! Just 119.9996 more to go and that shiny new diploma is yours, along with a trip to the Mountains of Student Debt and whatever is behind Door #2!”
Jeopardy is a popular American TV game show which, for no apparent reason, reverses the standard question-and-answer quiz format and instead provides “answers” to which players must construct appropriate questions. For example:
PLAYER: “JALT Publications” for $200, please, Alex.
ALEX: The answer is: “This popular, humorous column graces the back pages of nearly every issue of The Language Teacher.”
PLAYER: What is “JALT Notices”?
ALEX: Correct for $200.
A friend of mine recently set about developing a quiz game for language teachers, with L2 pedagogy concepts as topics. The gimmick of his game was that questions had to be answered using an assigned linguistic structure. For instance:
Q: How many encounters with a new vocabulary word are necessary for acquisition? (Yes/no question)
A: Would you believe, 10?
Q: Which psychological theory is the basis for repetitive language drilling? (Passive voice sentence)
A: Skinner’s behaviorism—particularly operant conditioning—is generally identified by linguists as the rationale behind this pedagogical technique.
Q: Very good! Here’s a cookie!
A simplified version of this game might help students practice grammatical structures that don’t often find their way into everyday conversation. Or if your students are particularly bright, you could pile on the grammar by making them answer questions about one structure while using another:
TEACHER: The assignment is “Past Perfect Progressive” and the question is “What is a copula?”
STUDENT: I had been thinking it was a “be” verb, but now this stupid game of yours has utterly confused me.
TEACHER: That’s correct.