For 15 years, my day job has been teaching ESOL in public schools. Last fall, I began teaching adult literacy at a local community college and immediately noticed a difference.

Adult learners often could not respond correctly to simple questions they actually understood. When asked, "Do you need a pencil?" they would answer, "Yes, I need" or they would hesitate too long to answer.

Unlike in the classroom where the teacher is a well-trained professional, there is no wait time in the real world. Adults have to function in an English-speaking environment where they are expected to respond quickly to simple questions from a boss, a customer, a doctor, a bus driver or a clerk at the local supermarket.

My idea for a simple language lesson came from this experience. I decided to start every lesson with a warm-up that would allow students to practice answering yes-no questions in a "safe" environment.

The beauty of this activity is that it can be adjusted for any level of English language proficiency, from absolute beginner to advanced. The teacher questions can be tailored to emphasize good listening comprehension, reinforce new vocabulary and review course content. Here's how it works.

With beginners, the teacher can start with the verb "to be" in the simple present tense:

  • "Are you tall?"
  • "Is this a pencil?"
  • "Are we in Room 248?"

For more advanced students, the teacher can ask increasingly complex questions:

  • "Have you ever bought a lottery ticket?"
  • "What would you do if you had a million dollars?"
  • "Would you mind turning off your cellphone?"

To keep the activity simple, the answers always start with yes or no. I usually tell the students to listen carefully to the first word of the question and to use it in their answer. For visual learners, I provide a chart with all the possible answer combinations for reference.

To broaden the activity and make the lesson more interactive, I distribute a set of index cards randomly. Each card has either one question or one answer. Students with questions have to find the person who has the matching answer and vice versa. Question formation is a completely different skill, so I try to keep this lesson focused on oral language. In the past, I have had students write a dialogue with their Q & A partner.

With practice, students are able to respond more quickly and accurately to these questions. They become more confident and competent in their listening comprehension, and I meet several lesson objectives at once. The class always looks forward to a fun, low-pressure way to start each lesson.

Short-answer responses require little language output, but don't be fooled. The cognitive processing is actually quite demanding.

For short-answer student and teacher guides, see this attachment.