Having answered many English language questions on italki over the last year, I can see how well students benefit from them. I've also learned a lot in the process about my own language and how to teach it. At the same time, I've sometimes seen students (and also teachers and tutors) not use the italki Questions optimally. In this article, I've come up with some ideas to help you ask good questions and hopefully get good answers.
I am grateful to Ruthi, a very experienced italki teacher, for her additional comments and feedback on this article, which I have incorporated.
The Three Keys to Good Questions
Three key points to remember for asking good questions are:
- Give context so teachers can give an accurate answer.
- Be specific.
- Make an effort to answer your own question first so that you learn more and learn better.
The following is a good question:
- Why is the present continuous used in this sentence and not the present simple: "I am brushing my teeth so can you wait a few minutes, please?"?
Now, here is a “less good” question:
- What is the difference between the present simple and present continuous?
The first question is a good one because it relates to a specific context. Tutors can therefore give a comprehensive and accurate answer. On the other hand, the second question is incredibly wide; whole chapters of grammar books are devoted to this theme and a simple Google search (for example: "present continuous simple") yields a huge number of relevant results within a few seconds. If a teacher or tutor answers a wide question like this, it's unlikely to be as comprehensive as a standard grammar book or coursebook and may not address your precise language difficulty.
A good question could be something like this:
- What does the word "fence" mean in the following extract: [quote it in full]?
It's important to include contextual information, especially the paragraph where you found the word and the kind of book. For example: a novel, an academic book about economics, pop lyrics, etc.
Even better, you could also check the word in a dictionary, guess the meaning yourself, and explain how you reached your conclusion. In my experience, people who do this are often right, and this can help you grow in confidence and independence. If you're not right but we can see your reasoning, we can then give you a more focused answer.
A “less good” question could be:
- What's the difference between "book" and "house"?
I know it's a stupid example (and not a real one), but it illustrates a point: if the ordinary meanings of two words are very different, then a conceptual discussion about their differences is probably not going to help anyone very much. On the other hand, words can have different meanings in different contexts, and these differences may not be at all clear. In this case, we can help you best if you provide this context.
How to Ask a Question
Here are some typical ways to ask a question:
- What is the difference between “X” and “Y”?
- What does “X” mean?
- When do people use this word "X"?
- Is "X" used formally or informally in this sentence: "..."?
- How should I pronounce "X"?
A common and wrong way is:
- How to say "X"?
**A question word followed by an infinitive is never correct in interrogatory questions, but it is possible in embedded questions or titles, such as the title of this article.
Another common and wrong way is simply to write:
- "Present perfect use"
- "Get on/off"
These are not questions and though we may sometimes be able to guess the point, it's not clear, it's not polite, and the information wanted is probably too general. See paragraph above.
Different Opinions from Teachers
Two heads are better than one, but unfortunately, tutors do not always agree on their answers; deciding who is right in this case can be a difficult task. There is no foolproof solution, but there are two possible strategies:
- Ask all teachers who answered which answer they think is best.
- Check the profiles of the teachers to see who has the most teaching experience.
I have to make a confession here: on a few occasions, I have corrected students who have used US slang or words which are particular to the US, but which I have never seen before. US teachers have then added their contributions, my ignorance has been revealed, and I have eaten humble pie. Occasionally, I have seen the reverse, and US teachers have been unaware of standard UK usages of particular words or expressions.
In grammar, the differences between US and UK usages are few and minor; however, there are many national differences in slang, some of which are commonly known in both countries and some of which are not. Also, some other words which are not slang are local to only one country. Some words have different shades of meaning or additional usages in only one country. Hopefully, enough tutors will answer so that confusion is avoided, but if you're not sure, ask. I acknowledge that there are variations in other English-speaking countries too, but I mention the US and the UK only because the differences between them are the most frequently mentioned.
Help with Exam Questions and Exercises
A common type of question is something like this:
- Describe an older person who you admire.
Invariably this is an exam question and we can imagine that the student wants an answer they themselves can use or adapt. Sometimes students simply copy and paste a gap-fill exercise and ask for answers. If you need help answering an exam question (for example, an IELTS speaking topic) or an exercise from a coursebook, I recommend that you attempt to answer it yourself first and ask us to check and correct your answers.
In this way, we can see more clearly your language issues, you will learn more deeply, it will take us less time to answer, and it's also more satisfying for us. Teachers want to teach, and simply giving their students the right answers is not teaching, nor will it help them to learn very much. Sometimes students post questions related to exams that they are due to take very shortly. Again, they may be tempted to just want the right answer and not to learn. Learning a language is a long process which takes time for new information to sink in.
In my opinion, the following situations are not good uses of italki Questions:
- Corrections of texts or a large number of practice sentences (use italki Notebook, which also has a better editing capability for tutors)
- Language exchange requests (use italki Language Partners function)
- Requests for detailed individual guidance, such as for interviews. There are numerous free online guides on how to handle interview questions. For example, if you need more specific advice on your circumstances, you probably need to spend time speaking to someone (for example, me, in an italki session)
- Teachers and tutors occasionally advertise their services directly by means of an apparent “question." They are not normally the same people who regularly answer questions and should be shot!
Questions in Other Languages
I appreciate that there are many good reasons for students to ask questions in their own languages. However, I've noticed that such questions are sometimes not answered. If this happens, it may be a good idea to try again in English.
Saying Thank You
Finally, don't forget to say "thank you" for the answer, even if you think the answer was rubbish (US: garbage)! The internet can be a cold and faceless world, so it's "nice to be nice."
To conclude, questions can't substitute for coursebooks, dictionaries, or face-to-face contact with teachers. However, you can get a lot out of italki questions if you are specific, include context where appropriate, and show us that you have first made an effort to use a dictionary and understand the issue yourself. We all like to help people who are enthusiastic. Keep up the good work!