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At our faculty meeting last week, we saw short clips of various teachers demonstrating instructional strategies.

In one of them, Tim Fung, a talented colleague, used a series of “binary questions” to move along his math instruction.

Binary questions are ones that only have two answers.  Often, they’re used with “Yes/No” or “Agree/Disagree” responses, and sometimes receive criticism for their narrowness.

However, it got me thinking about how to use them in my ELL classroom.

Yes, providing think time, or doing think/pair/share, after asking a question can be very helpful.  However, challenging students to come up with answers which sometimes might appear to be “out of the ether” since they are also dealing with language issues, can sometimes seem intimidating.

I wonder if using binary questions,  and then following up with giving students more time to think and share about why they chose one of the two answers, could a constructive form of differentiation.

A simple example is one I tried on Friday in my Intermediate ELL class.  We’re writing autobiographical incident essays.  I showed a “hook” (a essay beginning) of “How do you think you’d feel if you had to leave your home and move to a new country?” and asked:

“I’m going to ask a question, and I don’t want anyone to shout out an answer.”

“What kind of hook is this?”

I gave people a few seconds to think about it.

Then, I asked, “Is it an interesting fact or a question?  Be prepared to explain why.”

I then called on a student who is often very reluctant to participate.   I had given the class time to think about it and try to come up with the answer on their own in their minds, and then provided the scaffold of two choices.  Both increased the odds of him feeling confident in his response.

He immediately answered, “Question.”

Then, I followed up with, “How do you know it’s a question?”

He, again, immediately answered, “Because it has a question mark.”


This is obviously not an amazing instructional strategy.  However, I was not familiar with the idea of binary questions before last Thursday, and it’s just one more tool in my differentiation toolbox that I can use sometimes to promote participation from sometimes reluctant students.

I’d love to hear other ways teachers have used them!

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