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Teaching challenge

Mr Aswin feels confident he can lead I-We-You (Lemov, 2015) sequences and help pupils access and practise complex content. However, he notices that pupils are getting used to being ‘spoon fed’ and are quite dependent on him to do the ‘hard thinking’ before they get to independent practice. How can his instruction transfer more of the thinking onto pupils earlier in the learning sequence?

Key idea

Effective questioning can guide pupil thinking through checking understanding, extending pupil thinking and fostering high-quality talk in a supportive classroom environment.

Evidence summary

Checking for understanding

Questioning is an essential tool for teachers to master as it can be used for many purposes (Coe et al., 2014). For example, it is among the most effective ways for Mr Ashwin to elicit what his pupils are thinking (Black & Wiliam, 2009). Sometimes Mr Ashwin checks pupil understanding by asking questions which demand short, simple answers. For example, he may want to see if pupils have enough fluent prior knowledge by asking ‘what is 8 x 7?’ Targeting questions at several pupils could also help Mr Ashwin make an inference about current class understanding and any common misconceptions.

Such questioning is diagnostic: it is primarily about finding out what pupils know rather than building pupil knowledge (Black & Wiliam, 2009). However, things can go wrong if the questions don’t check the right things or if only a few pupils are questioned and information from these answers determines the subsequent direction of the lesson. Teachers can also inadvertently ignore the information generated from questions if they have not planned carefully when to pose them and how to respond to them. When planning questions to check pupil understanding, Mr Ashwin should consider:

  • What is the key knowledge that I need to check in this lesson? What do pupils need to be secure in before I can move on? What will they say and do if they are secure with this?
  • What is the best way to get the widest sample of answers? For example, mini whiteboards, exit tasks or post-it notes cans help quickly gather information about most of the class.
  • What are the wrong answers and misconceptions that might arise in the lesson? How will I prepare to address them?

Extending pupil thinking

Questioning can help Mr Ashwin develop pupil thinking as well as check it. Studies have shown that more effective teachers ask more questions and often require pupils to give extended explanations of their thought process (Rosenshine, 2012).

Sequences of open questions can help to manage pupils’ limited working memory. For example, when introducing a maths problem Mr Ashwin could ask:

‘What would we do first?’

‘Why would we do this first?’

‘Once we have done that, what might we do next? Why’

Such questions require pupils to explain their answers which encourages pupils to think about the underlying principles of learning, deepening and consolidating their knowledge (Pashler et al., 2007). These questions are more effective when pupils have grasped key ideas first (Coe et al., 2014).

Open ended questions can also help to extend pupil thinking. Pupils might be asked to make predictions about a book’s story from its title or to reason about a story, for example ‘why did Winnie-the-Pooh get stuck in the rabbit hole?’ (EEF, 2018).

Ensuring quality answers

To ensure quality answers, questioning should allow enough ‘thinking time’. Research suggests that after asking a question many teachers wait less than one second and, if no answer is given, ask another question or answer the question themselves (Black et al., 2004). Pupils with lower working memory capacities are likely to struggle the most with limited time and preparation (Gathercole et al., 2006), making it more likely class contributions are from higher achievers. A longer wait and time to prepare an answer can lead to more detailed answers and higher-quality thinking from every pupil.

Mr Ashwin could also use questioning to encourage pupils to share answers with their peers, supporting them to articulate key ideas and extend their vocabulary. Effective teachers spend more time on questioning pupils and guiding practice in this way than their less effective peers (Rosenshine, 2012). Teachers who facilitate such talk increase pupil outcomes (Jay et al., 2017). For talk to be effective, Mr Ashwin needs to bear in mind:

  • Pupils need enough knowledge for high-quality talk: Questioning can offer pupils opportunities to practise new ideas, which can be particularly useful after teacher input and before independent practice, in the ‘We do’ section.
  • Questions can increase the quality of pupil talk: When conducting questioning, clear teacher expectations and scaffolding are important to support high-quality talk. Teachers can use questions to consolidate technical vocabulary, clarify how to structure answers and to encourage pupils to address other pupils’ misconceptions. (Jay et al., 2017).
  • The learning environment needs to be safe and secure: Pupil behaviour and outcomes are affected by teacher expectations and what they see other pupils doing (IES, 2008). Mr Ashwin needs to ensure behavioural expectations are enforced to ensure pupils feel safe to contribute answers when called upon through questioning. He needs to insist on mutual trust and respect and be clear that his purpose of questioning is pupil learning, rather than, for example, to catch pupils out.

Nuances and caveats

Great questioning is often delivered on the spot by experienced teachers and is the product of deep knowledge of their subject and their pupils. This knowledge takes time to acquire so, to be as effective, newer teachers can plan out some of their key questions in advance.

Key takeaways

To use questioning to support pupil thinking, Mr Ashwin needs to understand that:

  • questioning has many purposes for teachers, including checking pupil understanding, breaking down problems and extending and challenging pupil thinking
  • pupils need enough knowledge, guidance and thinking time to produce quality answers
  • questioning underpins quality pupil classroom talk, especially in the ‘We do’ part of instruction

Further reading

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8–21.


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), pp.5-31.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8–21.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University, UK.

EEF (2018). Preparing for Literacy Guidance Report.

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006). Working memory in the classroom.Working memory and education, 219-240.

Institute of Education Sciences (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.

Jay, T., Willis, B., Thomas, P., Taylor, R., Moore, N., Burnett, C., Merchant, G., Stevens, A. (2017) Dialogic Teaching: Evaluation

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.