Gaining Speaking Confidence by Mastering Basic English Questions: Using Enjoyable Games within a Simple Framework

by John Paul Loucky

To help language learners become more fluent English speakers as fast as possible teachers need to show them how to use auxiliary verbs in a clear and systematic way. Since such a framework for more rapid acquisition of basic question and answer conversational techniques is so necessary and effective for developing learners' confidence and skills in basic oral communication, it is explained here based on ten years of use and refinement. By using it early in Oral Conversation classes we can begin early on to help our students learn the correct structures necessary for more confident conversation by teaching them the most essential grammar, writing and conversational skills along with the auxiliary verbs used in developing them.

The following method developed by the author ten years ago has proven to be highly effective when used to help Japanese English students at many different levels, when incorporated it into the teaching of semester courses in English conversation. This method, which uses a clear and simple framework for mastering "Question & Answer Conversation Techniques", may be called the use of "Green or Go Helping Verbs." Its 1) Basic Rationale, 2) Design, 3) Seven sample conversational games, and 4) Discussion and Recommendations will now be given.

1) Basic Rationale:

This simplified framework including all basic English questions was constructed by this writer after studying how to use insights from linguistics and new grammars to make the teaching of grammar and pronunciation more practical and memorable for students in language classrooms. It began with ideas from Allen's (1983) Inside English, which focuses on the twenty basic "Green or Go Words," the most common English auxiliary verbs, otherwise known as "Helping and Being Verbs." These 20 words serve a very special function in the construction of English sentences and have been called "X Words" by Robert L. Allen (1972) in his Sector Analysis. (For those interested in a more technical linguistic discussion, see Timson (1986).

The key point is that all of the English "Being, Helping and WH-Question" words are easy to teach, if isolated and presented as a basic framework for English grammar. They are also easy for students to remember, because they are the auxiliary words "which go" when we change statements into Yes/ No questions. Simply put, all "Helping and Being Verbs" are used to begin question sentences, but go to the end of sentences in answers. Think of how we use some of them, such as "can and could, shall and should, will and would, may, might, must, am, is, are," etc. Without mastering these questioning techniques, learners can't even get to first base in terms of making a conversation on their own, let alone decipher or negotiate the meaning of English that they hear or read, whether in print, video or internet media.

Both pedagogical and linguistic reasons exist for using such a simplified framework. Learning to monitor incoming English input through this kind of "Simplified Framework for Questions" obviously helps reduce the cognitive processing load for students once they have mastered it as they gain much greater confidence in speaking, especially if they have used it in many oral interview games and situations as those described and recommended below.

2) Framework Design:

As Allen (1983, pp. 5-22) says, "Most of the essential sentence types are relatively easy to teach when one understands the role of [these] twenty hardworking words." When one combines these twenty Green Words with the seven most common "WH Question Words," students are learning to master all of the question words used in the entire English language. This is a key insight, which I have code-named "The Top-Secret 27 Question Words," giving students much more confidence in speaking and listening (Author, 1994). This is because half of the structures involved in successfully negotiating conversations deal with being able to use and respond appropriately to various questioning techniques and formats. Besides simple "Tag and Rhetorical Questions," almost all other English questions begin with one of these "Being, Helping, or WH-Questions Words." What an amazingly simple framework this can provide to help language learners master questioning techniques and gain confidence in developing conversational, debate, discussion and interviewing skills. A brief overview of the approach's main principles will be given, as they really are the foundation for learning to use the rest of English grammar, writing and conversational skills. The five most essential points to keep in mind were given by Blanck (1991), summarized as follows:

1) Twenty words form questions that can be answered with Yes or No.

2) These crucial being and auxiliary verbs are known as "X/Green/Go Words." They bring time or tense to a sentence, all of which contain them. When they are not obvious they appear either when the sentence is made negative, made emphatic, or when it is turned into a question.

3) These "X/Green Words," which enable English to go or function, may be put into families, as shown here.

arehaddoesmust will
was    would

4) Use of these being and helping verbs follows three verb patterns, which are consistent throughout the most elegant of verb groupings.

5) These 20 Green Verbs or X-Words have two potential slots, and all that comes between these slots forms the sentence's subject, which may then be reduced to a subject pronoun.

3) Sample Games:

While Blanck (1991, p. 2) is correct in asserting that "Once you have got the basics . . . you can analyze ANY sentence in written English using the grammar," of course students must also learn the seven basic WH-questions as well as sense verbs and the most essential common, core high-frequency vocabulary as well (West, 1953; Coxhead, 1998 & 2000; Nation & Newton; 1997). Two sample self-designed activities can help demonstrate how to use this method more effectively: a) Personal Interviews and b) Vacation Interviews, both of these being activity worksheets which require students to use the basic "7 WH- Questions" in conversational interview formats with as many partners as possible. Two speaking practice games designed for use with any conversational class that has first learned the "Basic 27 Framework" are a "Baseball English Game" to help students learn and recycle these forms enjoyably by using all 27 Question Words, and another "Beanbag" or "Otedama Game." Both of these games help learners produce both auxiliary verb- and WH-questions, either on teams or with a partner. In addition, some games that review subject-verb agreement and a host of other grammar points from Bendel's (1998) humorous Can You Relate? were also used enjoyably.

A similar game was mentioned at JALT '91, "20 Questions," used by Blanck (1991) to introduce and review X-Word Grammar, popularized by Allen (1972; 1973; 1975); Kunz (1977); and Sloane & Frorup (1976). It consists of the basic elements most critical to the verb system of English, all sentences of which contain at least one of these "X/Green/Go Words." As Blanck (1991, p. 1) defined it, "X-Word Grammar is . . . a functional grammar which shows how things work; it provides tools for manipulating the language." Many students and even language teachers have asked, "Why didn't they teach us this in school?" since it seems to be an often missing crucial link, and as such a simplified framework that is often neglected throughout all the years of one's English language education, even at times in that of natives as well.

Four excellent games for practicing these basic questions were reviewed by Gottlieb (1991) at JALT '91 as well that are very fun and practical. These were in turn summarized from Claire (1988, pp. 114-120). These include:

1) Scramble: (Recognition of Correct Matching of Questions & Answers)
For one or more players. Place all of the [following Q&A] cards face up in front of the players. Mix the pairs thoroughly. At the word "go," students pull out matching pairs and place them in front of them. The student with the most pairs wins.

2) Find Your Partner: (Develops Oral and Grammatical Fluency)
Each student has a card. When the teacher says go they run to each student and say their Q/A. When they find their partner they go to the teacher and say their dialogue. Students should not show the other student their card. The goal is to SAY their question or answer. (Note: Especially good for large classes.)

3) Concentration: (Develops Visual Memory and Prediction Skills)
Lay all cards face down flat on a table. One student turns over two cards at a time. If they match a Q&A, they pick up the pair and turn over two more cards. If it is not a match, the next person tries. Person with the most pairs wins.

4) Listen and Answer: (Develops appropriate listening and response skills).
.Divide the class into teams. T reads the question and students race to answer. At this time the teacher can check understanding and can change questions slightly depending on level of the students. 10 sample Questions and Answers to use with above Card Games are these:

1)What's your name?My name is _____.
2)Where are you from?I'm from _____.
3)How are you?I'm fine, thank you.
4)How old are you?I'm _____ years old.
5)What day is today?Today is _____.
6)What time is it?It's _____ o'clock.
7)What school do you go to?I go to _____ school.
8)When is your birthday?My birthday is on _____.
9)What is this?This is a _____.
10)Do you speak English?Yes, I speak a little English.

Additional games that can be used to encourage student practice in mastering basic questions include:

1) 20 Questions for Kids (4,200 yen) and

2) 20 Questions (for Older Students, 2800 yen), both available from

3) The traditional "Twenty Questions" travel game, where the teacher starts by saying: "I'm thinking of something in this room. Can you guess what it is using just Yes or No questions?"

4) Playing with Questions - A Game for young Learners. Online at,
'Going to, Present, Past Simple' Question Boards at

5) Do You Have a ....? Game. Online at

6) Where Are You Going? Lesson Online at:

7) Playing Store. Use to practice conversations using 'need, go, want, like' at four kinds of stores. Online at:

4) Discussion and Practical Recommendations for Teaching

Helping students to see English as a systematic negotiation game not only improves their writing and speaking, but also helps raise their reading comprehension, because they come to understand more clearly how sentences found in their textbook prose came to be formed. Allen's (1983) Inside English uses an inductive step-by-step approach to help students and teachers uncover areas of English grammar which are far more systematic than most people realize. Long (1999) and DiPietro (1994) have also advocated a type of systematic negotiation exercise game with their use of "Strategic Interactive Gambits." By using this approach when dealing with prepositions and verb tenses as well, learners can be helped to recognize and remember consistent syntactical patterns. A similar systematic approach can be used, as Gitsaki (1997; 1999) has advocated, for learning lexical phrases and patterns of collocation and vocabulary acquisition.

These 27 questions are not only seen to be foundational by grammarians, but can be learned in an interesting and motivating way, by using some of the games listed in the approach designed above. In short, using such a simplified grammatical system as a basic framework will greatly benefit Japanese students, and even more-so if more of their grammar and pronunciation learning would be done in English. Since English is their Target Language, they should study about its grammatical system in that same language as naturally as possible. Yoko Matsuka's Phonics Institute has extensive experience and materials for children and youth, a Phonics-based method using English exclusively. Various reading studies (listed in Groff, 1987) have also shown the validity of this Phonics-based approach. Her Grammar Games for Fun (Books 1 and 2) also provide a clear system for understanding English grammar, and sequentially build new skills and functions upon a clearly discernable simple framework.

All language students need a bedrock foundation of grammar and vocabulary skills and a simple, recognizable framework for learning both to get the broad picture of the Target Language, with various interesting and enjoyable activities that help them to integrate newly acquired vocabulary. Teaching and mastering the basic question words has proven to be effective in helping learners to become more confident and fluent English speakers as quickly as possible. Such a framework for using auxiliary verbs in a clear and systematic way has helped Japanese students at various levels of proficiency (Author 1996; 1997a & b; 1998; 2003c) to achieve more rapid acquisition of basic question and answer conversational techniques. It is therefore now recommended to all ESL/EFL teachers everywhere, especially to those who would like a simpler method of helping their students to gain confidence and conversational fluency using the most frequent question and answer patterns that exist in English. Since many college students in Japan are still at an intermediate grade level in their vocabulary and reading abilities (Author 2002c, 2003c), teachers can greatly help them to develop these areas by knowing which words are the most frequent common core vocabulary to focus on (Author 2002c, 2002e). In addition, teachers should help students to build up their TL vocabulary in both receptive and productive areas, by giving them well-integrated tasks that involve the development of both audiolingual (listening and speaking) and graphic skills (reading and writing). Requiring written and then oral use of various common Keyword concepts and high frequency words first in question form, and then in interviews and conversations is a natural way to help students develop both lexical, grammatical and oral proficiency simultaneously, even at advanced levels (as shown in Author 2004a, 2004b).

Knowing how to "tackle" or study a language includes learning how to create and use short-term "anchors" as audio-visual mnemonic clues to help build up one's short-term memory connections between L1 and L2. Technical know-how would extend to skills in the use of print or electronic dictionaries to maximize one's language learning and use, as well as particular reading comprehension skills. Besides these formal strategies, students need so-called "Empathic Strategies"-showing an outgoing and accepting approach to the TL and its speakers, enough to be motivated to take the initiative to associate with them. They also need to develop various Communication Strategies"-including a willingness to use the TL for real communication needs. Finally, they need to use "Practice Strategies"-being willing to practice and USE the TL for both simulated practice as well as authentic task-based language purposes.

One final area important to consider when trying to help language learners develop their productive skills is how to use various types of dictionaries, especially rapid access bilingualized electronic CALL devices (both online and off) to more effectively promote both receptive and productive skills in the target language. Language learners, especially those at lower levels of proficiency, need access to various types of bilingualized, computerized dictionaries if at all possible, meaning those which include whole sentence examples as well as both L1 and L2 information. They can then use these as models for their own progressive attempts at productive expression. Those interested in more on this crucial topic are encouraged to investigate it more deeply by examining some of the annotated references on this issue (Author 1999; 2002a, b, d, & e; and 2003a, b, d, & e; 2005a, b, c, d), by joining JALT's CALL SIG or attending its national conferences, or by surfing the author's website

© Dr John Paul Loucky
CALL for All


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_______. (2003c). Testing vocabulary levels in Japan, Part II. The Japanese Learner, No. 29, (March), pp. 15-20. Oxford: Oxford University.

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______. (2004b). Improving cognitive, linguistic and computational processing of new vocabulary using an online Semantic Field Keyword Approach. Japan Association of Language Teachers CALL Special Interest Group, C@lling Japan. Spring 2004, Vol. 12/1, pp. 7-20.

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