Ask a Stupid Question Day


When you saw the title of this post you probably thought that this is just the latest example of a world gone crazy with yet another apparently random silly holiday.  Better think again.

Ask a Stupid Question day, far from being a pointless unofficial holiday, was created in the 1980’s by a group of teachers with a very specific purpose in mind: encouraging their students to participate more in class by asking questions. They knew that most of them had lots of questions but believed they kept many to themselves for fear of being laughed at.

It takes place on the 28th of September, but it’s commonly celebrated on the last day of class this month. Since its creation, this has been an annual tradition in American schools, and has recently become popular in Britain and India.

So how might we English teachers take advantage of this date at the beginning of the year to foster a more participative classroom which focuses on the needs of our learners?  No doubt you have your share of eager students who are always asking questions about new vocabulary, or doubts with grammar, but what about the shier ones?  How can we get everyone asking questions?

If you think your students could be holding back questions out of fear here’s a step by step activity for taking advantage of this day in class.  Though it’s primarily thought out for use with teens and adults, with a few variations it could easily be made to work in the primary classroom as well.  The activity works best over two classes.

What you’ll need

For the activity, all you will need is a box and pieces of paper for students to write on.

The box can be almost any size, just not too small since you’ll need space inside for all the pieces of paper to fit in. Make sure the box is closed and cut a slot in the top to put the pieces of paper in.

The box should then be labelled “Stupid Questions?”  (The question mark is important here.  You’ll see why later.)  You can decorate the box on the outside if you like, or you can ask your students to do so later.


Create expectation

About 30 minutes before the end of the class prior to Ask a Stupid Question Day elicit the word “Holidays” (you could do this via a traditional hangman activity) and then get your students to brainstorm all of the holidays they know.  Then in pairs ask them to talk about which holidays are their favourite ones and why.  Get them to give some of their ideas to the whole class and finish off by asking them why special days like this exist, what their origins are or where they come from and what social purpose they serve.  Next ask them if they have ever heard of any strange or modern celebrations or holidays and what they are.  Finally write “Ask a Stupid Question Day” on the board and ask them what they think the origins of this holiday are, who invented it and why.   After listening to some of their ideas tell them about the holiday (an alternative would be to have them research is online) and explain that you are going to celebrate it in class with a special activity.

Stupid questions?

Think of a time that you were reluctant to ask a question that you thought might be interpreted as being stupid.  It would be best if this happened to you as a student or in a language learning situation.  Tell students why you were confused, why you thought the question might sound stupid and the consequences of not asking it.

Now ask students to close their eyes and listen to you ask them the following questions:

What do you think you’re good at in English?  Vocabulary, Grammar, Speaking, Writing?  Do you read a lot?  Can you pronounce English well?

What about things that you’re not so good at?  Is there a word that you always have problems pronouncing?  Or a difficult aspect of grammar that you have never fully understood?  Is there a word or phrase that you’ve always wanted to know in English, but have never really found out how to say?  Are there words that you get confused in English and you never know which one to use and in which context?

Tell the students to open their eyes.  You are going to give them a piece of paper in a moment and you want them to write down just one question about English that they would be afraid to ask in class.  It can be on literally anything they like.  Then take out the box and show them the label “Stupid Questions?”  Ask them why they think there is a question mark and elicit that no question is stupid, because no one has all the answers, and at one point or another in out learning, we all often have the same types of questions. What’s more, we can often help each other to learn by sharing our questions.  After all, a question that may seem dumb is better than a dumb mistake for not asking.

Students then write their questions, fold them up and put them in the box.  Tell them you’ll be looking at the questions the next day in class and learning from them.

The next day

Before the class on Ask a Stupid Question Day you will need to have looked at all the questions carefully and made some considerations.

  1. How many of the questions do you think some students in the class might be able to answer?
  2. Which of the questions could you as a teacher offer a fairly succinct and memorable answer to?
  3. Are there any questions which you think will be covered over the coming course or which they will be seeing in their coursebook?
  4. Which of the questions do you think are quite difficult or perhaps above the general level of the class?

Be prepared to deal with each of the questions in some way (see below).

When the students come into class remind them that you will be looking at the questions from the previous day.  Have the questions written to the board or copied on a handout.   In pairs have them look through the questions and see how many they think they can answer very well, how many they sort of know the answer to and how many they’re not sure of.  Go around and monitor seeing if your expectations match up with the students’ comments.

Now whole class pick out one of the easier ones and see who in class can give an answer to it.  Help the student if necessary, reformulating the answer and using the board for visual support.  Do a few of these.  Allow students to take notes if they find them useful and make sure you stress why you think these are all important questions for learning English.

If you encounter a more difficult question the students can’t answer or something which might be above their level, give them an answer pitched to their level or mention that they will be covering that in the course later.  You might even want to point them to the page or unit in the coursebook that covers it.  Upon dealing with each of the questions elicit reasons as to why it is a good question and how it might help the students to improve their English.

Follow up

Ask students the following questions and conduct a brief discussion:

Did you learn anything new today?

Which of these things will we be learning about in more detail later in the course?

How does asking questions in class help other students?

How does asking questions in class help the teacher to teach better?

Would you like to use the “Stupid Questions?” box in the future or do you feel confident enough asking questions in class?

If you decide to use or adapt any of these ideas for Ask a Stupid Question day, or if you have some other ideas for fun activities that you’d like to share, tell us all about it in the comments!

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