It was at my first comprehensible input (CI) conference 25 years ago when I heard three simple yet very powerful words: Personalized Questions & Answers, or PQA. As my journey as a French teacher has unfolded over the last two decades, I’ve witnessed the ebb and flow of acquisition-driven strategies, trendy videos, and the ever-evolving landscape of pedagogical practices. Yet through all these changes, one powerful approach has remained steadfast in my teaching repertoire –– Personalized Questions & Answers, a.k.a. PQA. Through the ups and downs, the challenges and triumphs, PQA has stood as a constant, guiding my students and me on a transformative language learning journey.
The Power of PQA: Transformative Language Learning Through Personalized Questions & Answers
Note to the reader: This is a guest blog post written by Donna Tatum-Johns
At its core, PQA is a student-centered strategy where teachers ask questions tailored to learners’ interests, experiences and abilities. These questions are designed to be engaging and comprehensible, encouraging students to respond in the target language.
Not only does PQA allow educators to provide robust exposure to high-frequency structures, but it also allows us the opportunity to learn about each other's families, interests, and dislikes, fostering a strong sense of classroom community. Through PQA, meaningful communication can blossom, allowing students to develop practical language skills while staying motivated and connected during the learning process. This aligns seamlessly with ACTFL's objectives, emphasizing real-world and meaningful interactions in the target language.
In order to effectively and dynamically implement PQA, it should not be viewed merely as a standalone activity; instead, consider it an integral part of a holistic approach to promote language acquisition, which is regularly integrated into the curriculum. With practice and awareness, you will create a flow where you transition from talking about the lesson to conversing with your students about themselves.
Let’s look at an example PQA transcript, and then we’ll explore how to plan and implement PQA.
Begin PQA by asking a question
PQA begins with questions. In the example transcript from a sample conversation in my class, my goal was to learn more about my students by inviting them to compare and contrast themselves with characters from a text we were reading. The questions we discussed included:
Let’s take a look at the conversation, in which we begin looking for comparisons between students and Carson, who is a character in the reading:
The most significant elements that I want you to notice about the conversation you just read are:
- I’m asking questions to individual students.
- I’m using their answer to create new questions that I ask to the rest of the class.
- Some of my questions are used to get personalized answers; others are used to support and check for understanding.
Where does PQA fit in?
As you can see from this transcript, the jumping-off point for our conversation was a comparison between a student in my class and a character in a reading. In my classes, PQA is often somehow connected to a teaching tool, which is content that I am exploring with my students. It could be a reading, a video, or a picture, and it will create a context for your PQA conversation; or a reason to bring up a specific question or series of questions.
In my example, the four short readings from the Nous Sommes curriculum were my teaching tool. My goal for PQA was two-fold. I wanted to provide students with additional exposure to the linguistic forms that they would encounter in the text in order to support the ease of reading. Secondly, I wanted to help students create connections with the ideas presented in the text.
However, PQA does not need to be connected to a teaching tool. If there is a question that you would like to discuss with your students, ask away! It does not have to tie into a piece of content you have planned to work with in class.
Planning for PQA
PQA can be a spontaneous activity that takes no pre-class planning. Whether you jump into PQA on the fly or strategically plan for it ahead of time, you will need to cover the same bases: identifying vocabulary that must be defined and creating questions to discuss.
Identify key vocabulary
PQA does not have to be conducted with new vocabulary; a personalized conversation with students can be considered PQA even if you are not intentionally introducing any new words to your students.
If you are using PQA as a means to expose your students to new vocabulary, or if you will be using unfamiliar vocabulary during PQA, begin by identifying the specific words or phrases that you want to ensure your students understand. Limit the number to no more than three, and consider the degree to which the vocabulary you are choosing is useful to communication. It would likely not be worth devoting 20 minutes to the word “peas”, but having a conversation using high-frequency vocabulary such as has, begins, or wants to go would be time well spent. You may be tempted to sneak in one or two more focus vocabulary terms, but I urge you to stay within this boundary.
Key vocabulary from the example PQA conversation:
Let’s consider how I chose the vocabulary I wanted to focus on in the example conversation I transcribed above.
After ten or so hours of time on task this year, my French I students were ready to read brief, highly comprehensible passages about four individuals in the Nous Sommes curriculum. The readings introduce four people, detailing their names and providing insights into their personalities. For instance, Carson is depicted as artistic, honest, and sincere, while Alyssa is described as reserved, creative, and fantastic.
In my example script, the verb is –– is, isn’t, am, and am not –– was the focus. The rest of the text was heavy with new cognates, or words that sound a great deal like or look like English words with which my students are familiar.
Since the readings were projected on the screen, I wrote the phrases below on the board to help ensure that everyone could understand the discussion that was about to take place. I wrote:
Before we began the conversation, I read aloud these questions and sentence stems to students in French while I pointed to the meaning in English.
Write questions for PQA
Think of questions you can ask your students that are related to your teaching tool. In the beginning, I recommend that you write a "script" of questions. Doing this will give you the time to think about different ways to ask questions and include more people in the conversation. It will also eliminate the stress of having to think on your feet. With time and experience, most teachers find they script less and less.
In my example, I asked students questions about their personalities and prompted them to respond by moving their bodies to keep them focused and engaged. For instance, I often said in French, “Stand up if you are ____,” filling in the blank with one of the adjectives from the reading.
How to lead a PQA conversation in class
Leading a PQA conversation in class is straightforward. However, it takes practice to feel comfortable, to master the art of keeping the conversation comprehensible, and to learn to discern when to lean into a given question or answer and when to move on. Follow these simple steps to get started.
Begin PQA by quickly writing or displaying the vocabulary or phrase in the target language and English using contrasting colors to make it easier for students to process (as in the examples pictured above). Use visual supports such as pictures or graphics when possible.
Facilitate the conversation
During PQA, the teacher’s job is to facilitate the conversation. The teacher asks the question and then interacts with individual students and groups of students as the conversation unfolds.
Move between students, noting their similarities and differences in the target language. Compare and contrast them with characters in the teaching tool, and occasionally share tidbits about yourself.
During my lesson, Annabelle freely admitted she is quiet and reserved but artistic. Dania shared that she is creative but not very optimistic, while I repeatedly reinforced that I am not artistic.
If you are integrating PQA with a teaching tool, shift back and forth between the teaching tool and PQA. In my example, it felt like I was doing a dance between talking about the characters in the Nous Sommes readings and talking to my students. When I felt the conversation start to dip, I moved back to the text and read the next line or two, until the opportunity for a new Personalized Question presented itself.
Strategies to support comprehension during PQA:
Perhaps the most important key to PQA success is to ensure that all students understand the conversation. Students cannot participate in a conversation if they do not understand what is being stated or asked. Furthermore, any student who is left out of the conversation due to a lack of understanding will be excluded from the community building and other connections created through PQA. It is counterproductive to the goals of PQA to implement this activity without attending to the comprehension of every student.
During a PQA exchange, I use multiple strategies to support my students’ understanding. I point to the key structures and question words and use logical or pre-determined gestures. Both of these strategies provide visual cues that help my students recall the meaning of the words I am using. Additionally, I use English to freshly establish meaning when I anticipate that students might not recall the meaning of keywords.
I also periodically conduct short comprehension checks to ensure everyone understands, using questions like:
- "What did I just ask?"
- "What does _____ mean?"
- “What did I just say?”
I conduct these frequent but very brief comprehension checks in English –– limiting them to 5-10 seconds –– for two reasons: English is our shared language, and it gives me immediate feedback about who understands what.
LEVELING UP PQA
Leveling up Personalized Questions & Answers for more advanced learners might seem tricky at first, but overall, it is relatively simple. You basically follow the steps outlined above, using more complex yet high-frequency structures. Limiting the vocabulary to what students know but keeping the grammar real and authentic is crucial. In other words, if you need to use the subjunctive, use a subjunctive but ensure comprehensibility by incorporating familiar vocabulary and/or cognates.
With intermediate or advanced learners, you can use PQA to:
- elicit predictions about future events
- create situations where students compare and contrast
- engage students in conversations where they defend their opinions
These questions require students to draw inferences based on prior knowledge in order to support their opinions. In other words, they engage students in high-order thinking skills.
When working with language learners, the importance of incorporating critical-thinking questions into PQA sessions cannot be overstated. While its core principles emphasize personalization and engagement, moving beyond factual observation and rote memorization is equally crucial. Questions that prompt students to compare and contrast, predict outcomes, or defend their opinions serve as effective tools for stimulating their cognitive abilities. When we encourage critical thinking in our students, we empower them to interact with the language more profoundly, promoting intellectual growth alongside linguistic competence.
QUOTE: Incorporate critical-thinking questions into PQA sessions. [...] When we encourage critical thinking in our students, we empower them to interact with the language more profoundly, promoting intellectual growth alongside linguistic competence.
Structured forms of PQA
PQA does not need to be embedded in a lesson. In fact, I frequently engage my learners in PQA activities independent of a teaching tool, whether at the start or end of class, as a backup plan when technical issues arise or a lesson isn't going as planned.
Based on my experience, students have an innate enthusiasm for talking about themselves, making activities like Community Circles, "Would you rather…," or “Moi Aussi” (Me too) incredibly effective and enjoyable. Additionally, these activities help nourish and foster a sense of classroom community where everyone will feel seen and valued.
Community Circles as a form of PQA
Community Circles, also called Conversation or Connection Circles, are a post-Covid addition to my PQA repertoire. Here are the parameters for « un cercle de la communauté » in my classroom.
- We arrange our chairs in a relatively tight circle. I sit with my back to the board.
- I project a question on the screen. The question is in both French and English to ensure everyone understands.
- We go around the circle, and everyone, including me, has the opportunity to share. Students have three choices: share in French, pass or share in English.
- Following each student’s contribution, I acknowledge what they say, thank them for their participation, and sometimes ask a follow-up question, all in the target language. On the rare occasion I sense a student may need extra support, I respond in English
Below are some examples of my community circle slides from recent weeks.
Special Person Interviews
In addition to Community Circles, I frequently do Special Person Interviews and an activity I call “Stand up if…” in all my classes. “Stand up if you don’t like pizza, if you like to ski, if you want a snake, or if you played Minecraft yesterday, for instance.” For this activity, I keep a running and ever-expanding list of questions in the target language handy because I never know when this PQA jewel might bail me out of a tough spot. It also doesn’t hurt that it gets students up and moving!
Leveraging PQA to build lessons
Having a PQA conversation with your students does not need to be followed with activities related to the PQA. Simply engaging in the conversation and understanding will be enough for your students to acquire language! However, there are many ways that you can leverage PQA to build longer lesson sequences.
Play a game with PQA information
When things are going well and I have the time, I transform the insights learned from students into a game. This has a whole host of benefits.
- It offers additional exposure of high-frequency structures.
- It infuses an element of playfulness.
- It provides a platform to celebrate my students’ unique qualities further, thereby enhancing our classroom community.
Online platforms like Gimkit, Blooket and Quizlet Live are among my go-to favorites. These platforms are easy to use and popular with students. Of course, The Unfair Game, Trashketball and Grudgeball also fit the bill nicely on any given day.
After several Special Person Interviews, for instance, I might include questions like the ones listed below in a low-tech or online game.
- Qui a un chat qui ‘s’appelle Dexter? (Who has a cat named Dexter?)
- Qui a 2 frères et 3 sœurs? (Who has 2 brothers and 3 sisters?)
- Quelle est la couleur préférée de JJ? (What is JJ’s favorite color?)
- Kase joue à quel sport? (What sport does Kase play?)
- Qui aime faire du ski? (Who likes to ski?)
As an example, here is a screenshot from a GimKit game that I created using information that we had discussed during a Special Person Interview and a Weekend Chat. I created the game to be a sub plan while I was out of school leading a workshop for a department in Tennessee.:
Follow PQA with Write and Discuss
When I don't have the time or energy to gamify my insights, I frequently turn to a simple yet effective technique that requires zero prep: Write & Discuss. To get started, I open a document projected on my screen or grab a dry-erase marker and head to the board. Together, the students and I revisit and summarize newly gathered information. This recap can take the form of a well-structured paragraph or a bulleted list. Sometimes, the students actively participate in the writing process, while in other instances, they merely contribute to the content as I write what they share. This versatile approach allows me to reinforce key learning points as we collectively consolidate our classroom interactions.
Remember what you learn during PQA
On the days when I don’t have the bandwidth to gamify the content or the class time to engage in Write & Discuss, I sometimes jot down noteworthy observations I might incorporate in future lessons or class conversations. Keeping track of those meaningful tidbits in a notebook proves immensely helpful in the long run. Alternatively, there are times when I choose to take no action at all and let the knowledge gleaned from Personalized Questions & Answers sit. Instead, I move on, looking for the next engaging activity that will help support my students’ language learning journey.
PQA doesn’t have to be perfect
As I have honed my CI skills over the last two decades, one mantra has guided me through many emotional ups and downs, the quote by G.K. Chesterton: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly [at first].” This invaluable way of thinking means that when we embark on something new –– when we are beginners –– we must grant ourselves the grace to make mistakes and navigate the learning curve.
So, if you currently find yourself a PQA beginner, I encourage you to embrace the messiness that can accompany learning something new. Give yourself permission to learn the skills that will allow you to incorporate Personalized Questions & Answers into your teaching repertoire successfully. And when you do, I suspect, you’ll discover the power concealed by these three simple yet very powerful words.
About the author:
I’m Donna Tatum-Johns, and I call Kentucky my home, where I share my life with my loving husband, Dean. Together, we've embraced the bittersweet journey of empty-nesting, being the proud parents to two remarkable young women, Bailey and McKenzie, and my amazing bonus daughter, Alex.
My passion is twofold: teaching French using comprehensible input strategies and empowering educators with these same techniques. With 36 years of experience as a French teacher and 21 years as a teacher trainer, I continue to find joy in the world of language education.