Student Questions Matrix, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a series on Student Questions. See Part 1 here.

Today I’m going to look more deeply into the questions of what (to me) makes a student’s question important and/or relevant.

The Graphic (click to enlarge)


The Axes

As you can see, the two axes I use are importance and relevancy. But let’s unpack what I meant by those.

Firstly, I liked both categories because I see them as flexible and subjective. What’s “relevant” in a syllabus-based EAP class might be much more narrow than in a community education life-skills class. What’s “important” in a free basic life-skills class in an English-speaking country differs greatly from advanced academic speaking taught as a foreign language.

Importance to me is about significance in the context of the topic and the students. Is it crucial to the content? Is it vital to the people studying it? It’s two measures disguised as just one.

Looking at importance re: content, if students in an intermediate grammar class are having trouble even recognizing Present Perfect, that’s very important. Recognizing a specific two-word verb tense is crucial for mastering Present Perfect and most of the English verb tenses. By contrast, if those students are trying to figure out the difference between “I already ate” and “I’ve eaten already,” I wouldn’t categorize it as particularly important because there is no functional difference in that example. It’s a rather insignificant detail, not the crux of the matter. I might advise them to focus on something where there is a functional difference, like “I was there” vs. “I’ve been there.”

The other side of importance is how important something is to the students. The sounds /r/ vs. /l/ might be very important to your Mandarin speakers but not at all to your Spanish and Arabic speakers. English-language traffic signs would be vital for the very safety of beginners in the USA, but not particularly crucial for beginners in a classroom in South Korea.

Relevance to me is a question’s connection to the material at hand. If you’re teaching Present Continuous in the context of household chores and then a student asks a question about the three present forms of “to be,” that’s extremely relevant, as it’s a building block of the verb tense. However, if in that same lesson a student asks about the passive voice in past tense from the US Constitution, you’re looking at a legitimate and potentially important question that’s still really outside the scope of where the class was headed that day. Relevancy is generally separate from importance.


One other point to mention is that some extreme outliers in these categories warrant different treatment.

Looking back at the traffic signs example for learners new to the USA, if you realize your students can’t interpret a WALK/DON’T WALK signal, this is not just important; it’s potentially life-and-death. To me it seems worth risking a tangent to make sure none of your students get flattened on their way home. (Teachers of new beginners, have you been in this type of situation, where a real safety concern comes up? What do you recommend for handling it?)

Another extreme can happen when a question is only important to one person in the room. At a really fantastic Microsoft Access training I attended at the Science Museum of Minnesota, one of my classmates kept asking detailed questions specific to her organization’s database needs. It was like she was trying use our class time as her own personal one-to-one consultation with the teacher. The instructor (I think rightly) did not address these questions at all during class time.


Imagine a high-intermediate ESL course on the first day of a unit focusing on Present Continuous in the context of leisure activities.

Here are four example questions based in that imaginary context. I see each of these as a different category of question. What do you think?

  1. Can you explain gerunds?
  2. It’s “-ing” so it’s Present Continuous, right?
  3. Why is “stop” followed by a gerund or infinitive?
  4. “What are the -ing spelling rules?

You might disagree with me, but this is how I see it:

  1. Can you explain gerunds? – Reasonably important for high-intermediate students to know, but not relevant to today’s lesson on Present Continuous
  2. It’s “-ing” so it’s Present Continuous, right? – Important to know and highly relevant to today’s lesson. Those helping verbs aren’t just there for fun!
  3. Why is “stop” followed by a gerund or infinitive? – Not important for this level and “why” isn’t a constructive question here. English is often arbitrary! It’s not at all relevant to today’s lesson.
  4. What are the -ing spelling rules? – I might get myself in trouble here, but to me spelling is of lower importance than structure and usage. The spelling rules are certainly relevant, though. Hopefully this one can come out of the Parking Lot within the next couple of class sessions!

Next Week

Next week I’ll be posting Part 3, which will go into more detail about the action steps from the graphic.

You’re reading Student Questions, Part 2, originally posted at


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