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Tips For TOEFL Tutors: Use Open Questions


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If you search the web for test prep teaching jobs, you’ll find a lot more listings for tutors, compared to classroom teachers. And even classroom TOEFL teachers often find themselves giving quite a bit of individualized feedback to their students. Test prep, with its emphasis on individual scoring and test-taking, really is geared toward tutoring.

When you meet with an individual student, it’s very important to ask that student good questions. You need to accurately figure out the student’s skill level, and any new improvements or new struggles that emerge as the student learns. So it’s important to ask the right kinds of questions in tutoring sessions.

Asking really good questions is especially important when you help students with their TOEFL Speaking and Writing. Students often struggle to find the right words to express themselves. As a tutor, you can have in-depth conversations with individual students, working to carefully to draw out the student’s true thoughts.

The trick here is to ask the student questions that require complex responses. If you ask a student a question that’s too simple, the student may simply give a quick answer that doesn’t reflect his or her real thoughts regarding a Speaking or Writing question. Overly simple questions can also be leading—the student may wind up giving a response that consists mostly of your ideas, and not theirs.

To help your students find their own true voice in English, you need to ask them questions that are open. In the strictest definition, an open question is a question that has more than two possible answers. Most questions that start with the “wh-words” (who, what, when, where, why, how), are open. Yes/no and either/or questions are not open, and can instead be described as closed. Either-or questions are also closed, even when they start with a wh-word.

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Suppose a student is trying to answer the following TOEFL Independent Writing question:

  • Explain whether you agree or disagree with the statement below.
    Keeping your old friends is more important than making new ones.
    Support your answer with reasons and examples.

Let’s look at a few closed questions that you could immediately ask the student (but probably shouldn’t):

  • Do you agree with the statement?
  • Are your older friends more important to you than newer ones?
  • What matters more to you, meeting new people or keeping in touch with the old ones?

When a question has only two answers, students often think of the questions in terms of the right answer or the wrong answer. Because of this, the simple questions above could lead the student to give you the answer they think you want to hear. What the student really needs to do is choose the answer they want to give—the answer they would be most comfortable writing or talking about.

To help the student find the answer that works best for them, you’d want to try some open questions, such as:

  • How do you feel about the test’s statement on friendship?
  • How long have you known some of your most important friends?
  • What do you value most in your friendships?
  • Tell me about the friendships you have.

In other words, you want your first questions to be broad requests for information, the broader the better. You may continue with narrower open questions as the conversation with your student progresses.

So for instance, if the student indicates that they agree with the statement, you could ask an additional open question like “Why do you agree with that statement?” Or “Why are your older friendships more important to you?”

Asking open questions while avoiding close does takes some getting used to. In real conversations, there’s a more even balance between those two kinds of questions. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to give your students truly powerful tutoring sessions.

And if you need help finding more students….

Are you looking for test prep job opportunities? Be sure to check out — especially their tutors top tips to becoming fluent in a foreign language. You create your lesson plans and set your own rates; TakeLessons provides marketing assistance to help you find new students, and online tools for teaching, scheduling, and easy payments. Learn more here! 🙂


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