Section 3: Leading & Participating in Academic Discussions:

Activity Three: Interrupting and Asking Questions

Leading and Participating in Academic Discussions
Interrupting and asking questions
  • To become aware of common ways to interrupt and ask questions in a class discussion
  • To practice interrupting and asking questions
Handouts (provided) and the Internet
30-45 minutes



Many students who have English as a second language find that it is difficult to interrupt a class discussion or to ask questions. Why do you think this is? Part of the difficulty is cultural -- that is, because there are different ways of interrupting in an American classroom. Another part of the difficulty has t do with language -- that is, students are less familiar with specific vocabulary for interrupting and asking questions, and may have not had enough chances practicing this skill, in English, so that they may not have much confidence about their sense of timing for interruptions. And finally, part of the difficulty is simply because of the speed of the discussion.

Think about all the ways students interrupt in your native culture. Is there an appropriate way to interrupt another student? How do you interrupt a professor in your first language? (Or would you interrupt a professor in your native culture?) Are there specific phrases you use? Is there appropriate body language to interrupting someone?

There are many reasons to interrupt, for example to clarify something that was heard, to add your own comment or opinion, or to agree or disagree with something. There are also many different ways to ask a question. In this activity you will observe the ways that other students interrupt and asking questions, review some common ways to ask questions, and practice interrupting and asking questions.



Step 1. Observing your classmates. In order to feel the most comfortable interrupting, you should be aware of how your classmates manage this skill. Take some time in your next few classes to observe your classmates. Take notes, and be a keen observer. Do they use any specific phrases or just ask their questions? Is there a common phrase most students use? Do phrases differ depending on the question? For example, is a question used to check your comprehension different from a request or opinion? Do they raise their voices? Do most students seem to wait for a pause in the speech? What about body language? Do they lean forward in their desks? Do they raise their hands before they speak? Since this module asks you to imitate what you have observed others doing (what they say, how they say it, and what body movements they use), be sure you become very aware of the ways other students in your classes interrupt and ask questions.

Step 2. Review your notes and create an organized list of the ways your classmates interrupt and ask questions. Include common phrases, voice changes, body movement, and anything else you think is useful.

Step 3. Now that you have become aware of how other students interrupt, it is time to learn some common ways to ask questions. Click here to download an "asking questions" worksheet, then open the file and print a copy of the worksheet. Review the different examples, and take some time to pay attention to the different phrases that can be used to accomplish the same thing. Practice saying the examples out loud.

Step 4. Review your notes from one of your classes. Make your own questions based on your notes, and then practice (out loud) using the example phrases from the worksheet. As you practice, try using appropriate gestures or other body movements, too.



You will be listening to the same speeches as in Activity Two, Paraphrasing. While you listen you will be asked to think of questions and practice "interrupting" and asking your qeustions out loud. Because there is no real person to interrupt, you will have to practice by yourself on line and when you are ready, bring these skills into your classroom to try out. This may seem odd at first, but can be very important and useful to practice.

Step 1. Go to You will see a list of listening topics and a brief explanation of each. Choose a topic and click on one of the titles (if you did the paraphrasing activity, choose one of the topics you have already listened to). This will take you to a page for that topic, and you can click on the LISTEN button.

Step 2. As you listen to the speaker, think of questions that you might want to ask. Remember there are different types of questions and different reasons to ask. For example are you going to ask the speaker to clarify something you think you heard, or are you going to ask a question for additional information? Review the "asking questions" worksheet (Pre-Listening Activity, Step 3 above) to help you think of how you want to ask your question. Write down a few questions.

If you need some ideas about questions you might want to ask, you can click on "Questions and Answers" under the section "Study Aids" for the website. Remember, these are written comprehension questions, not naturally occurring spoken questions -- think about how would you change these questions to ask them out loud in a class. Would you start them with a phrase from the list? Would you paraphrase them? Think about how you might say them differently out loud.

Step 3. Think of how you might interrupt the speaker you just heard. Would you interrupt them differently if they were speaking in front of a class than if they were speaking just to you? Would you interrupt them differently if you had a question about something you didn’t hear or if you had your own opinion you wanted to ask about? Would you ask a question differently if you were asking it after the speaker was finished speaking? Would you use different vocabulary from the list? Brainstorm ideas of the different ways you might interrupt this speaker to ask your questions. Think about how your ways might change depending on where and when the speaker is talking. Choose a situation (for example, in a class, interrupting the professor, asking a question about my opinion), and write down some notes about how you are going to interrupt to fit that situation.

Step 4. Listen to the speech again, this time saying your questions out loud. You can either pause the Real Player when you want to interrupt, or just ask the question as the person is speaking. Also, practice saying your questions out loud after the speech is done, as if it were a Question-and-Answer session after the talk.

Step 5. Repeat Steps 1-4 with additional talks on this website.

Step 6. When you are in your own classes, think about the kinds of questions you can ask. Even if you do not interrupt the speaker or teacher to ask a question, think about what questions you might ask, and how you would interrupt to do so. Eventually, you'll have more confidence to participate more fully in class.



Keep track of your successes in a journal. Write down some of your sample questions to help you keep track of your improvement. Do you feel more comfortable interrupting? Do you feel more comfortable asking questions? Ae you getting faster at thinking of how to say your questions?






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