English – Asking the Right Question

It’s twenty years since we were first introduced to the rather wacky sounding Yahoo! internet search engine. Over the years we have come to realise that unless we phrase our questions accurately or succinctly, search engines will throw up millions of results leading to a frustrating time of reading through each to check it’s giving us the information we want.

Rudyard Kipling gave us a crude kind of search engine in the poem from his story, The Elephant’s Child. The poem’s title; I Keep Six Honest Serving Men is a metaphor for the question words; what, why, when, how, where and who and we can use them to find out lots of information.

Suitable for: Year 2 to Year 6

Learning Focus:  Be able to ask the right questions to find the answers we want

To analyse questions to understand what kind of answers we will receive from them

To understand the importance of key words in questions for the internet

Activity One:

 In this activity, the pupils will be introduced to questions that may not give them the answer they want.

Use the list of questions which accompanies the activity and ask the pupils what they think the answer to them may be and what, if anything, is wrong with the question.

For example:

How tall is a tree?

You may receive a variety of numerical answers or a general answer such as ‘very tall’, ‘taller than my teacher’, ‘taller than a house’ but some pupils may say it depends on the tree variety and how old it is. Ask them how they could phrase the question better. You should get answers such as ‘How tall is a fully grown oak tree?’

Now try the questions on the list.


 Activity Two:

The next activity asks the pupils to think of their own questions based on the work in Activity One. Remind the pupils that you are looking for questions which carefully define the kind of answer they are expecting after asking it. You can make the questions those of a general knowledge kind or about yourself. Watch out for questions like…

What was television like when you were young?

…and you could answer that it had smaller screens, was chunkier and didn’t have a remote control!


Activity Three:

Linking the previous activities with the Yahoo! anniversary, now it’s time to see how the internet answers pupils’ questions.

You can use some of the questions on the list we’ve used previously or use the refined questions that came out of the work in Activity One.

This time, ask the pupils to think about how the search engine interpreted the question. Use www.yahoo.co.uk and, once you’ve typed in the question, check out the ‘Yahoo answers’ results for the most interesting interpretations.

In them they’ll see how the search engine has tried to offer the most relevant answer based on the use of key words. The question about the queen picks out the words queen, is and old.

 Ask the pupils to pick out what they think are the key words from their question. Allow them to enter the question in full and then just the key words. Is there a difference in the results they are given? Does the order of the words make a difference?

Understanding the use of key words will be a vital tool in enabling them to carry out accurate, relevant and efficient research.

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