Monday, November 05, 2007

Unanswerable questions

Tomorrow I'm planning to teach my students how to respond to impossible questions. This is a follow-on from a few lessons I've been doing practicing wh- questions, and one of the homework assignments I gave them was to write ten questions. I have typed up their homework (making the necessary and endless corrections), ending up with four pages of questions, and intend to give them these to ask each other.

Some of these questions are unanswerable, however, and so I am first going to give them a little worksheet about how to respond when they get one like that. For this, I have classified unanswerable questions into five categories, based on the reason they are unanswerable:

1. You don't know the answer.
Example question: Who was the Prime Minister of Germany in 1958?

2. The question is based on wrong assumptions.
Example: How long did you live in China?

3. You need more information about the question.
Example: Did you see that movie?

4. Nobody knows the answer.
Example: Why are we here?

5. The question is too personal and you don't want to answer.
Example: How much do you weigh?

I will also give them example responses. (I don't know. What do you mean? I never lived in China! What movie? Who knows? I'd rather not say.)

I know I should not be making lesson plans the night before the lesson. I should have given myself a bit more time to think about it. I didn't, though, and now I'm sure there must be some category I've missed.

Can you think of any?


Contamination said...

Could you tell me your PIN?

Would you like to come back to my place and talk about whatever pops up? (Or your dress looks great and it'd look even better on the floor next to my bed)

Is that what you are looking for?

Subway Japan is Terrible

Badaunt said...

I was thinking more of categories rather than specific questions, but THANK YOU for two new questions to add to the fifth category. I was having real trouble thinking of examples. My students don't seem to think any question is too private to answer!

Contamination said...

So you often find your students delving into the realm of "too much information" and "I wish I didn't hear that"?

Badaunt said...

Oh, yes. Especially the boys, who quite frequently will excuse themselves to go to the toilet by telling me they need to unko.

But the worst example was a couple of years ago when a student turned up after five weeks absence and told me in loud clear English that he had been absent because his mother was murdered and he'd been at the police station.

Wouldn't the normal response to such a situation (if there is a normal response) be to get a note from the office? Or to talk to me privately? Especially since his mother was murdered in a particularly horrible way, and he was a suspect.

StyleyGeek said...

It's probably far too late, but what about questions that don't require an answer? Rhetorical questions are one of these, but also "questions" that are actually just polite directives.

E.g. "Can you pass me the butter?"

There are also questions you don't understand: either because the speaker's grasp of the language is not enough, or the hearer's. It strikes me your students might have had a lot of practice with these already, though :)