Storytelling Basics: Asking “Circular” Questions

Circular questions allow leaners to process the language, negotiate meaning, and think of a response.

Asking repetitive questions is the key to teaching a language to someone else. Questions allow learners to mentally process the language and to negotiate meaning, and they force learners to think up a response. I see this everyday with my children. The questions I ask them drive their acquisition of language. Circling is an intuitive (although not necessarily at first) technique to ask many, many more questions in a way that keeps the questions from being repetitive. 

Circling was made famous in TPRS©, which is essentially a pre-reading strategy that is engaging and comprehensible. I highly recommend learning more about it, if you haven’t already.

The Basics of Circling

There are some simple steps you can take to begin circling in L2.

  1. Decide a statement to circle. In the storytelling classroom, this is generally about a character.
  2. Repeat that statement in question form.
  3. Once the class has answered, re-ask that question in various different ways (A questions with a “yes” answer, a question with a “no” answer, an either/or question.
  4. Ask a question with a “W” word. Who, when, what, where, why…. how?

Here is an elementary example:

Prof: The boy has a red cat.
Prof: Class, does the boy have a red cat?
Students: Yes.
Prof: Yes, the boy has a red cat.
Prof: Does the boy have a blue cat?
Students: No.
Prof: No, the boy doesn’t have a blue cat. He has a red cat.
Prof: Does the boy have a red cat or a blue cat?
Students: A red cat.
Prof: That’s right. He has a red cat.
Prof: What does the boy have?
Students: A red cat.

Notice how you ask a bunch of questions around the basic sentence. In essence, you are teaching the same sentence over and over. But since it comes in this varied way, the students’ brains don’t pick up on this trick as easily. This is especially true in L2, where they are hanging on for dear life just to comprehend what you are saying.

You don’t have to ask questions about the object. You could circle any part of the sentence that you want to highlight. For example, you could circle the verb (Does the boy have a red cat or does the boy eat a red cat?). Or you could circle the subject (Does the boy have a red cat or does the girl have a red cat?).

Many people get confused at this point. They think they have to exhaust all the possible questions in one line of questioning. Not so. In fact, circling the subject, verb and object each time would be painfully boring. The point is to ask lots more questions, but you should also ask a variety of them.

Read the room. You’ll know if the students are getting too many repetitive questions.

When and how often should I ask circular questions?

The most important time for circling is during the first few weeks in the term. Students need to get more comprehensible reps on the high frequency verbs/other vocabulary so we can actually start telling stories that are worth telling.

Once students seem to get the hang of the basic vocabulary, you don’t need to circle as much. It doesn’t make sense to circle and circle and circle things to death. It might lead to more acquisition in the short term,  but students will get burned out on this technique if it’s overused. Instead, focus on asking relevant questions and keeping discussion interesting.

Besides a heavy dose of circling at the beginning the term, I only ask circular questions when presenting the foundational vocabulary for a story during PQA or when I want to highlight a particular structure.

Comparing Form with Questions

Here’s where circling with questions gets better (and I mean waaaay better). Ask a specific student a parallel question to one of the statements you make. This will let students hear the “tú” form in context (or “vous”, “você”, “du”, “you”, etc.). Next, add yourself while you are asking varied questions around the subject. This allows you the instructor to model the “yo” form for students  (or the “eu”, “je”, “ich”, “I”, etc.). 

Since the Input Hypothesis states that we only acquire language when we hear/read comprehensible messages in L2, it’s imperative that we model forms other than “he/she”, which tend to be overrepresented in language learning materials. If we really want learners to internalize all the different forms, we have to provide them enough chances to negotiate meaning in those specific contexts. Furthermore, as instructors it’s natural that we use the “I” form in a natural way. Circling provides the opportunity to do just that. 

Here’s another example where I ask questions without using all possible variants.

Prof: Mikey went to the store.
Prof: Class, did Mikey go to the store?
Class: Yes.
Prof: Yes, that’s right. Mikey went to the store.
Prof: Did Mikey go to the restaurant?
Class: No, he didn’t.
Prof: That’s right. No, Mikey didn’t go to the restaurant. Mikey went to the store.
Prof: Did I go to the store?
Class: No.
Prof: No, I didn’t go to the store.
Prof: Class, where did I go?
Student suggestion: You went to the gym.
Prof: Did I go to the gym (self-deprecating joke – No, I didn’t go to the gym. Ha! Ridiculous!).
Prof: Where did I go? I didn’t go to the gym, so where did I go?
Student suggestion: You went to the library.
Prof: Yes! That’s right! I went to the library.
Prof: Who in the class goes to the library?

Student raises her hand.

Prof: Mary, do you go to the library?
Mary: Yes, I go to the library.
Prof: Class, Mary goes to the library!
Prof: Mary, why do you go to the library?
Mary: To study.
Prof: Excellent! Class, Mary goes to the library to study!
Prof: Mary, do you study alone at the library? Or do you go with friends?
Mary: I go with friends.

The amount and quality of input I provide is high. It’s also highly personalized which makes it more engaging, especially for that person involved in the one-on-one interaction.

The other thing I like about the modeling with “I” and “you” is that it allows the quieter students to see other students succeed using the language in a highly comprehensible, low-pressure context. It mimics how children observe adults using language in a conversational context by being the proverbial fly on the wall. Talk about lowering the affective filter for those students.

Final Thought

In another post I will explore the idea of using circling in a storytelling context. Some people refer to this as asking a story, and I think it’s the best way to build a collaborative story.

However you decide to employ circling, be sure to ask your students many, many questions. They will negotiate meaning and they will acquire language as a result.

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