Introduction to PQA

Updated February 4, 2018

PQA (Personalized Questions & Answers) is a special name for something that you probably already do: talk to your students about themselves and their interests in the target language. In a traditional TPRS classroom, PQA would take place before story-asking 1. However, PQA can be used independently of TPRS by any language teacher. If you are unfamiliar with input-focused language teaching, I suggest that you read this post first.

How to PQA 2

If your target structure is watches TV, you could talk to your students about what they watch on TV, how long they watch TV, if they watch more TV or Netflix, etc. PQA can also be used to personalize classroom novels, MovieTalks, or even reading passages from the textbook. All you have to do is find a way to connect students to the content. For example, if you’re reading a boring passage from your textbook about people ordering food at a restaurant, you can make it more interesting by asking students what their favorite restaurant is, what they order there, etc. While doing PQA, the teacher should use the circling technique to repeat the structures and comprehension checks to ensure that everyone is understanding. Below you can watch a demonstration of PQA in an adult ESL class by Carol Gaab.

Ensuring Success with PQA 3 / 4 / 5

The idea of PQA is simple, but sometimes it can be difficult to execute. For example, what if none of your students want to answer your question? A few small changes can help.

  • Use pre-discussion activities: If students are reluctant to participate, use pre-discussion activities such as drawings or written answers to a warm-up question that solicit the information you want. Then you can lead the discussion by asking students about their responses. This could even be as simple as having students talk to a partner about their answers before sharing with the whole class. See here for more ideas.
  • Establish the purpose Students need to understand that while PQA should be a fun discussion, it is also meant to help them learn the target structures. Below is a script by Martina Bex (which I edited slightly) for introducing PQA. To reinforce the purpose of PQA even further, turn it into a game by giving the classroom job of structure counter. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes and see how many times you can use your target structures.
Now, we are going to talk about ________. The goal of this conversation is to have fun talking about ________ AND to get comfortable hearing and using ________ [the new structure]. In order for that to happen, you need to hear ________ many, many times in a context that you understand. So we are going to be discussing ________, and over the course of the conversation you are going to hear and understand me saying ________ many times, and this is going to help you acquire it, or get comfortable hearing and using it.
  • Stay comprehensible: If the students are unsure of what you’re saying, they won’t answer your questions. To ensure their comprehension, make sure that you (1) introduce the target structures with their meaning in English, (2) write the structures and their meanings on the board for the students to refer to during the lesson, (3) make use of cognates and proper nouns, (4) stay in-bounds, and (5) use comprehension checks.
  • Involve multiple students: Try to include multiple students in each question by comparing and contrasting them. This will keep more students engaged in what you are saying, and it offers the opportunity for more repetitions of the target structures. For example: “Sarah, Hannah says that she would not like to eat a tuna fish pizza. Of course you would like to, right? No? You wouldn’t like to eat a tuna fish pizza either? You’re really missing out!” Others ways to engage the whole class is to ask them to think about their own answer to a question or to ask them to predict what another student will say. You can also mix PQA with TPR to keep students on their toes.
  • Use structured questions: Don’t ask too many open-ended questions. It stresses some students out to come up with a creative answer, and it also becomes more difficult to stay in the target language when they respond with answers that use out-of-bounds language.
    • Bad Question: What would you really like?
    • Better Questions: Would you really like to eat a tuna fish pizza?
      • What would you like to do this weekend?
      • What would you like to do with $786,429.13?
We can insult Hannah Montana in a story, but never our own students, who are the best at everything […] So, in stories, we remember to avoid anything that could be interpreted as personally attacking 6.
  • Don’t start with the students: It helps to begin the discussion by talking about yourself, someone who isn’t in the room, or a fictional character. For example, if the structure is would really like to, you can tell the students what you personally would really like to have for lunch. Or, you could show a picture to demonstrate what a celebrity or a cartoon character wants for lunch. Then you could ask a student for agreement: “Would you really like to have _____ too?” If they say no, you can then ask them what they would really like to have for lunch.
  • Be a safe zone: For PQA to work, students need to feel comfortable in the classroom. Several ways of making your classroom a safer place are (1) avoiding possibly uncomfortable topics (i.e. some students have difficult family situations and wouldn’t want to talk about that), (2) emphasizing to the students that they may pass on any sensitive question, (3) allowing make-believe in their responses (isn’t it much cooler to say you went to Mars over the weekend instead of baby-sitting your sister?) and (4) using both personalization (using actual information about the students) and customization (using information about people or things your students are interested in) as appropriate, which is a distinction from Terry Waltz 7.
  • Avoid if unnatural: For PQA to work, the students need to be emotionally invested. If they’re not, don’t push it. PQA won’t always work. However, to improve the chance that students will be engaged, I recommend the book Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. During the discussion itself, don’t be afraid to change students if the discussion isn’t working. Remember to always honor the student by reacting to their answer in some way, but don’t be afraid to move on to a different student when interest wanes. You will know that a conversation is interesting when students are looking at you, answering your questions, and reacting in natural ways.
One thing I have to remind myself at times is that not all structures lend themselves to easy PQA. If the PQA feels unnatural, forced and disengaging… skip it. Find other ways to get reps. I love PQA and often use it to accomplish much of my input, but sometimes I need to let it go and move on” 8.
  • Be spontaneous: Ben Slavic once said: “Whenever I find out something new about a kid, if they go to a concert or to a boarding competition in the mountains, I PQA it. I don’t forget that I have a story lined up, but, because my class is about the kids first and the language second, I spend some time talking to Joe about his boarding […] If that scene about Joe’s snowboarding turns into a full blown story, great – I have a more personalized story. If not, great – PQA, which is at the heart of the method, is occurring. I can always ask my other story on another day” 9.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the benefits of PQA?
How is PQA different from questions in the textbook?
How does PQA support the Common Core State Standards?
What can you do after a PQA discussion?

Conclusion

I hope that you have gained the confidence to try some PQA in your classroom! Let me know if you found anything in this article confusing. I always love responding to comments. If you feel pretty good about the basics of PQA, check out my article called 10+ Variations on PQA where you will find several novel ways of using the same basic skills that you learned here.

References

Learn to use PQA in your TPRS classroom.

  1. Scott Benedict, Power PQA—The Power of Personalization (2013).
  2. Susan Gross, How to do PQA (2005).
  3. Martina Bex, TPRS® 101, Step Six: Give It a Try! (2016).
  4. Many of these tips come from Mike Knox on the TPRS listserv.
  5. Carol Gaab, Repetition vs. Repetitious (2013).
  6. Ben Slavic, Offending Kids (2008).
  7. Terry Waltz, TPRS with Chinese Characteristics: Making Students Fluent and Literate through Comprehensible Input, Kindle Location 670. New York: Squid for Brains (2015).
  8. bck15@hotmail.com on the MoreTPRS listserv (2014).
  9. Ben Slavic, Extending PQA into Stories (2008).
  10. Annabelle Allen, Methodology.

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