Socratic questioning

Yesterday I received a text message from my niece, who has recently started high school. She couldn’t understand one particular sentence from a paragraph that she was translating from English to her native Japanese. I guess she feels lucky to have a native English speaker in the family, and when she sent me that message I am sure that she expected me to reply immediately with the answer. What she got was a back and forth of multiple text messages, as I gave her a series of five or six questions to get her to find the answer for herself.

Our last correspondence went something like this (translated into English)
Me: Are you annoyed I didn’t tell you the answer right away?
Ms S: But it was good study! LOL (yes implied but not stated directly)

It got me thinking just how important Socratic questioning is in my teaching. The thought takes me back to my teacher training days, where we were encouraged to respond to a students’ question with another question. This technique of disciplined questioning is widely attributed to its namesake, Socrates, and is guided by the assumption that “thinking is driven not by answers, but by questions” (Elder & Paul, 1998).

A range of  question types were used by Socrates, recorded by his student Plato, and categorised most recognisably by Paul and Elder (2006). Socratic questions are thus used for clarification, and for probing assumptions, purposes, reasons, information, viewpoints, and implications, and then there are questions that question the question itself!

In the language classroom, Socratic questioning is vital, because it encourages students to take control of their own learning, and dissuades dependency on the teacher, who will not always be present through the students’ language learning process. Socratic questioning can be used to encourage deeper thinking about the topics students are covering in class, but also to encourage thinking about the methods they use to study, their strengths and weaknesses, and the decisions they make throughout their language learning journeys.


*Do you always answer a question with a question?
*Do you do this consciously or unconsciously?
*What types of Socratic questioning have you used in your classroom?

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Elder, L., & Paul, R. (1998). The role of Socratic questioning in thinking, teaching, and learning. Clearing House, 71(5), 1-8.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2006). The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning. Dillon Beach, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Image by Mbdortmund – Own work, GFDL 1.2,

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