Getting students to engage and participate in class has been one of the most common teachers’ struggles throughout the history of teaching languages. Being a language teacher, we know that learning happens in communication and for communication. Hence, speaking and active listening are two pillars of utmost importance if we want to get our students to learn. While I believe that there’s a lot going on at the moment that is out of our control, there are a couple things we can do to better engage students in class. In this article, I’m going to describe what I’ve recently come to name as The Dora Explorer Effect and why and how to avoid it. Allow me to expand on that in the following paragraphs.
Dora the Explorer is a popular cartoon that depicts a little girl and her pet monkey’s adventures through a 2D world and that aims at entertaining children while teaching them some English. As Dora ventures into her world, she poses questions to which she obviously knows the answers to the audience at home. She then pauses for a while, to allow enough time for us, I mean, the children, to reply and then repeats the answer back to the viewer and carries on with the show. Sounds familiar?
To me, The Dora Explorer Effect is the common practice of asking students questions we obviously know the answers to, which are called display questions. These questions aim at testing students’ knowledge and checking understanding. Clear examples of display questions are concept checking questions (i.e.: Is ‘last week’ about the past, present, or future?) and instruction checking questions (i.e.: After giving the instructions, asking ‘Are we doing this task individually or in pairs?’). These questions, while absolutely necessary, fail to provide students with a sense of real, authentic communication. These usually fall under the Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) framework in which the teacher initiates the interaction, the student responds, and then the teacher gives the student feedback on their answer. Again, clearly the kind of conversation* you’d only have within classroom walls.
Referential questions, authentic questions, on the other hand, are questions freighted with meaning and intentionality. The aim of such questions is to find out the piece of the communication puzzle that will fill in an information gap. For example, instead of asking students what they can see in a picture (which is exactly the same thing everybody else is seeing), we might want to ask what students think about that picture or even what questions they would like to ask the photographer or the people in it. These questions are much more likely to yield a more meaningful response from learners, which might help foster learner engagement in the lesson. This happens because they are real questions with no hidden agenda or a purely assessment-oriented goal in mind.
So I did what any curious teacher out there would do: I recorded and observed some of my classes and a couple of peer classes to find out the balance between Dora questions and authentic questions. Even though I was paying attention to try and strike a balance between Dora and referential questions, my numbers were much higher on the IRF side of the scale. The same happened in the lessons I observed from peers. We do preach authenticity and meaningfulness in our classes but, might we be asking too many display questions and harming the validity of our classroom interactions? The way I see it, if we want students to learn how to communicate outside the classroom, we ought to teach them in a way that is valid in terms of real-life-like interactions. And asking questions we obviously know the answers to is probably not the best course of action.
In a nutshell, the point I’m trying to make is not banning Dora, or display, questions from the classroom, but rather striking a better balance between display questions and referential questions for the sake of authenticity of in class communication. Going back to the point made at the beginning of this piece, if we know that language learning happens in communication, shouldn’t we strive to make it as authentic, meaningful, and valid as possible?