The Three Phases of Questioning

Have you ever delivered a really clear teacher explanation and used lots of checks for listening to ensure your class was paying attention, only to find that when you ask your class a question to check for understanding they respond with:

  • “I’m not sure, sir” or
  • “I think [completely wrong answer], sir” or
  • “Is it [jumbled mix of words you said earlier], sir?” or
  • Been faced with not much participation?

In this blog, I explore why this happens and what we can do to prevent such responses. Specifically: what’s the best way to plan your questions and what’s the best way to deliver your questions.

What is the purpose of asking a question?

Two purposes include:

  1. To check students are listening – simple questions interrupt the loss of attention.
  2. To check students are understanding – trickier questions get students to apply knowledge or make a link, which makes them think hard.

Holding student attention using ‘checks for listening’ doesn’t necessarily secure good understanding. After all, simply listening doesn’t necessarily mean students are thinking hard. Listening is necessary but not sufficient for understanding. Therefore, if a teacher moves straight from using ‘checks for listening’ to using ‘checks for understanding’ it is likely that students will fail to answer the trickier questions correctly.

The problem with jumping straight to ‘check for understanding’ questions after an explanation is that an incorrect answer can have many possible causes:

  1. Poor recall – after all, there was a lot of information in the explanation. “I’m not sure, sir”.
  2. Poor fluency – the student knows the correct answer but is struggling to articulate it. “Is it [jumbled mix of words you said earlier], sir?”
  3. Lack of clarity – the teacher has delivered a poor explanation or the student needs further explanation.

In order to eliminate the possibility that students are answering ‘check for understanding’ questions incorrectly due to (1) poor recall or (2) poor fluency, the best teachers do something that others often overlook: build in lots of opportunities for their students to rehearse. How many opportunities do you provide students with to rehearse the key content you are explaining? Rehearsal ensures that an incorrect response to a ‘check for understanding’ question must be due to (3) a lack of clarity. The teacher now has more reliable data about what they need to re-explain and/or who in their classroom has these gaps in their understanding.

How to plan your questions

In the best lessons I observe where a new explanation is being delivered, there are three phases of questioning:

  1. Introduce a new concept, peppered with lots of checks for listening. The teacher secures 100% attention by expecting ‘all hands up’. This step also provides some basic opportunities to rehearse.
  2. The teacher regularly gives students more meaty opportunities to rehearse ideas as they are explained. This usually means giving students a chance to practise using the the new vocabulary or practise explaining the ideas in their own words. This not only holds students’ attention, but also gets students to build fluency. Do not be fooled into thinking rehearsal doesn’t require thinking hard: practising new language and articulating new ideas is always cognitively challenging, not easy.
  3. Finally, the teacher asks trickier questions to check students have really understood the content. These checks for understanding might be verbal, or take the form of independent practice, or indeed include both. ‘Checks for understanding’ require students to have done more than just listened to the explanation: they require students to apply their learning, tease out a misconception or make links to other previously-taught knowledge.

In short, by ramping up the difficulty of questions from ‘checks for listening’ and ‘rehearsal’, we set students up to succeed in answering ‘checks for understanding’. This provides more reliable feedback to us about the gaps in student understanding.

The best explanations are chunked, so the teacher cycles through the three phases of questioning for every chunk of an explanation.

How to deliver your questions

Now that we have a clear strategy for what kind of questions to plan, and in what order to ask them, we can begin to think about which means of participation (MoP) we will employ for each question. I always choose from five MoP:

  1. Cold call (I wrote about this extensively in a previous post)
  2. Choral response
  3. Turn and talk
  4. Mini-whiteboards
  5. Heads down

Since the default in my classroom after every question is ‘hands up’, I always decide how I’d like my students to participate after I ask them the question and after their hands go up. In other words, I backload my means of participation. I do this for three reasons:

  1. Culture. Getting hands up injects energy into the classroom and contributes to a culture of participation. Culture is everything. I want to see hands up.
  2. Information. Since I have a culture of hands up in my classroom, I can use the number of hands up as a reasonable proxy for how many students *think* they know the answer, and this allows me make an informed choice about what the most suitable means of participation is. I decide the MoP after seeing how many hands are up.
  3. Attention. In my experience, saying “On your whiteboards, write down the…” students will immediately be tempted to get out their whiteboards rather than listen to my question. Instead, asking a question and expecting hands up first and then saying ‘On your whiteboards – go!’ results in better attention.

Choral response

If my ‘check for listening’ question has a one-word answer, and all hands go up, I say: “On three: 1, 2, 3!”, and all students shout the answer out in unison. This is a choral response. It’s so speedy, I can fit dozens of these into my explanations seamlessly and it doesn’t interrupt my explanation. This makes choral response far superior to using mini-whiteboards, which would take a lot longer, and zap energy out of the room.

Turn & Talk

I could (and I will!) write an entire blog about how I use turn and talk. Turn and talk is my absolute favourite strategy. I use it at least 20 times per lesson. This is the main strategy I use for the ‘rehearsal’ phase of questioning. Here is how it works:

  1. Every student knows who their partner is – the person they will turn and talk to.
  2. I ask a question that requires a full sentence answer. This is often as simple as turning the sentence you explained into a question.
  3. If anywhere between 50-100% of hands go up, I make the decision to use turn and talk: “Partners – go!”
  4. There is a buzz in the room. Every single pair turn to face each other. They each say the answer. I give between 5 and 15 seconds (yes, that is a really short time!) and then I say…
  5. “3, 2, 1, all hands up!” Every single student in the room has their hand up in total silence by the time I reach the words ‘hands up’.
  6. I select a student and all hands go down, back in SLANT. This is effectively an “all hands up warm call” since the students have rehearsed their answer.

‘Turn and talk’ is also great for ‘checks for understanding’ because it allows 16 students to answer the question simultaneously rather than just one student that would get to answer during a cold call. I can then shout ‘swap!’ and the other person in the pair has to share their answer (or repeat their partner’s). If only 50% of hands go up when I pose the question initially, I should have 100% of hands up at the end of a turn and talk.


I use MWBs mainly for ‘checks for understanding’ questions. The advantage of mini-whiteboards is that you can see 32 students’ thinking simultaneously. The participation ratio is as high as it can get. Many other bloggers have documented the benefits, so I won’t delve much further. I think they are particularly useful for calculations and for diagrams.

On most other occasions, I think that the other means of participation are superior because they are quicker to execute which means you can ask more questions and get more rehearsal in. But it depends on the question, content & confidence of the class!

Heads down

For ‘checks for understanding’ that are multiple choice questions, this is the best strategy.

“Which organ of the digestive system releases only protease?” Hands go up. “Heads down!”

All students put one forearm on the desk and rest their head on their forearm. They place their second hand on top of their head in a closed fist.

“Open if you are not sure!” Pause and scans for any open palms. “Close.”

“Open for small intestine!” Pause and scans for any open palms. “Close.”

“Open for stomach!” Pause and scans for any open palms. “Close.”

“Open for salivary gland!” Pause and scans for any open palms. “Close.”

“Heads up!”

This check for understanding is magical! It’s so easy and quick to execute and you can easily see who voted for which option. It is superior to other types of voting because students cannot see which way others have voted. Since students are simply opening and closing their fists, which remain stationary on their heads, students cannot hear any rustling which may give away which way others have voted as well. Well-designed MCQs and distractors can do wonders for revealing whether students understand or have a particular misconception.

Putting it all together

In the main this is how I structure my three phases of questioning:

Over time with a class, as I feel the culture of participation and engagement strengthen, I feel I can use fewer checks for listening. However, I wouldn’t totally eliminate this because checks for listening are still invaluable at keeping students attentive. On days when a class is feeling lethargic, using lots of choral response can wake them up! Checks for listening can act as an energy booster.

Of all of the means of participation that I use, I think the most powerful is ‘turn and talk’. Not only is turn and talk great for rehearsal, it is also great for ‘checks for understanding’ question. In my next post, I will explain more about how and why I use this versatile strategy.



If you’ve been enjoying this blog and would like to see the ideas in action, you are more than welcome to visit us at Ark Soane Academy. Send me a message on Twitter if you are interested.


One thought on “The Three Phases of Questioning

  1. Pingback: Technique, personality and values. (Or: why I wouldn’t ever do ‘all hands up’.) – teacherhead

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