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Read About Best Practices in Effective Listening and Questioning Techniques


Effective listening and questioning techniques are two of the most powerful skills coaches use to help educators obtain knowledge, deepen understanding, refine skills, reflect on instructional practices, and learn how to successfully communicate with students and colleagues. In this module, coaches explore the fundamental steps necessary in planning for, cultivating, monitoring, and maintaining the ongoing cognitive growth and verbal interactions of teachers.

Communication Theory

Administrators, teachers, students, parents, and fellow coaches rely on you because of your position in the learning community. For this reason, you must be well versed in the functions, features, and purposes of communication and able to model good communication skills when working within and across diverse groups. In addition, professional conversations are a necessary tool to assist teachers in mediating their own learning processes and, in turn, mediating the learning processes of their students.

Teachers know they must link instruction to prior knowledge and remain mindful of how well students comprehend the messages and information transmitted. The same holds true for coaches. In order to facilitate understanding during shared professional development discussions, coaches must mesh the chosen topics with teachers’ classroom experiences and be keenly aware of confusions and difficulties teachers may have with the conversation at hand.

Communication is the process by which we share and receive information and ideas. According to Marie Clay, the components of communication theory are:

  • a source of messages
  • a sender of messages
  • a channel along which messages flow
  • a receiver of the messages
  • the receiver’s knowledge of the code

Speaking and Listening

In the art of effective communication, the speaker and listener have specific, equally significant roles:

The speaker must . . . The listener must . . .
- acquire the attention of the
- be responsive to the listener
take into account what the listener
- judge what the listener needs to
- wish to be understood
- ensure that the information
transmitted is of interest to the
- monitor the listener's behaviors
to determine whether the message
is getting across
- keep the challenge of new
information to a minimum and make
sure it is grounded in the “known”
- be able to determine when it is
his or her turn to become the
- bring considerable information to
bear on the conversation in order to tie the discussion to previous learning
- judge whether he or she is getting
the message
- recognize when the meaning has
been lost and know how to communicate this to the speaker
- know when to ask for additional
information, clarification, understanding, or insight
- listen carefully to determine when it is his or her turn to become the

(Adapted from: Clay, M.M. By Different Paths to Common Outcomes. York, Maine: Stenhouse, 1998.)

Questioning and Answering

Effective questioning involves two important elements:

  • the speaker’s ability to construct and purposefully dispense well thought out questions
  • the listener’s ability to provide answers based on background knowledge and experiences

Whether coaches are crafting questions for the teachers with whom they work or are helping teachers craft questions for their students, it’s important to anticipate potential responses to the questions (Morgan & Saxton). In other words, when considering the questioning technique as a learning device, educators must be deliberate, intentional, and thoughtful about both the questions and the answers.

Questioners must also give participants time to think before answering. According to research (Morgan & Saxton), wait time or think time after posing questions yields significant results:

  • More participants volunteer answers.
  • Participants provide longer answers.
  • Participants’ responses are more creative, evaluative, and analytical.
  • Participants generate more follow-up questions.

Questioning is one way to ensure that teachers engage during professional development activities, think more critically, and become more reflective. It is also a way to model instructional practices to utilize with students. According to Morgan and Saxton, coaches who question effectively wait patiently for answers and then “send the ball back” so that learning is perceived as a dialogue in which everyone’s thoughts, feelings, and actions contribute to individual and collective understanding. In turn, teachers who effectively respond to coaches’ questions actively listen, concentrate on their thinking process, and take note of their own and others’ answers (Morgan and Saxton).

Question Models

Questioning must never be the result of thinking What type of question should I ask? Instead, ask yourself What do I need the question to do? (Morgan & Saxton) The ultimate goal of effective questioning is to deepen understanding. In addition, participants’ thoughtful answers to your carefully crafted questions should have an immediate and direct impact on future teaching decisions.

Questions fall into many categories, and a working knowledge of available question models can result in improved communication with colleagues by allowing you to match the purpose to the situation.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy supports instructional objectives, strategies, and interactions by strengthening logical thinking processes, including questions that:

  • measure knowledge
  • assess comprehension
  • call for application of knowledge to solve a problem or complete a task
  • promote analysis
  • encourage synthesis
  • foster evaluation

Traditionally used by teachers in the classroom, the levels of questioning in Bloom’s Taxonomy are equally effective when working with educators (Morgan and Saxton).


Another model of questioning includes three distinct types of inquiry. The question classifications may be used by coaches to help establish rules and routines for professional development sessions, increase and build upon participants’ existing professional knowledge, and help teachers think critically about their current classroom practices. The different kinds of questions that a coach might use in her conversations with teachers are shown in the chart below.

Category A
Eliciting Information

This category includes questions that:
Category B
Shaping Understanding

This category includes questions that:
Category C
Promoting Reflection

This category includes questions that:
- establish the “rules of the game,”
such as Should we entertain
questions during our PD meeting
or at the end?

- establish procedures, such as
How could you regroup for
guided reading? When would be a
good time during your morning
block for spelling instruction? Why is this a better time?

- establish or help to control group discipline, such as How can we best arrange ourselves to participate in this activity? Who will be responsible for recording your group’s ideas?
- focus on recall of facts
- supply information and suggest implications
- reveal experience, such as What sort of ideas do you have when you hear the phrase . . .?
- focus on making connections
- challenge individuals to rethink or restate by being more accurate and specific, such as What do you mean by . . . .? How do you perceive . . .?
- help promote expression of attitudes, biases, and points of view, such as What are your concerns? Would you rather . . . or . . . ?
- call for interpretation, such as What might be implied about the student’s understanding from the scenario just observed on the video?
- develop suppositions or hypothesis, such as What might happen in your class if . . .?
- focus on personal feelings
- focus on future action
- develop critical assessment and value judgments, such as What’s the best use of your time—conferring with individual students about their writing or conferring with small groups? How can you impact the writing development of more students in your class?

Adapted from: Morgan, N. & Saxton, J. Asking Better Questions: Models, Techniques and Classroom Activities for Engaging Students in Learning.

The Socratic Method

The Socratic Method is an exploratory model of inquiry that promotes independent critical thinking skills. Participants work together to investigate a topic in order to find logical answers to challenging questions, requiring ongoing professional dialogue. In contrast to lecturing, this classic approach provides feedback, which allows the coach to monitor participants’ understanding during the teaching and learning process.

Steps to Socratic Questioning

  1. Select a question or issue of interest.
  2. Produce and examine a central statement.
  3. Clarify the statement and its relationship to the question or issue.
  4. List and critically examine support, reasons, evidence, and assumptions related to the central statement.
  5. Explore the origin or source of the statement.
  6. Develop and critically examine the implications and consequences of the statement.
  7. Seek and fairly examine conflicting or alternative points of view.