Display and referential questions

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A display question (also called known-information question) is a type of question requiring the other party to demonstrate their knowledge on a subject matter when the questioner already knows the answer. They are contrasted with referential questions (or information-seeking questions), a type of question posed when the answer is not known by the questioner at the time of inquiry.[1][2]

Both question types are used widely in language education in order to elicit language practice but the use of referential questions is generally preferred to the use of display questions in communicative language teaching.[2][3]

Display questions bear similarities to closed questions in terms of their requirement for short and limited answers and they can be classified under convergent questions. On the other hand, referential questions and open questions are similar in their requirement for long, often varied, answers, and can be grouped under divergent questions.[4]

Both display and referential questions are subcategories of epistemic questions.

Epistemic questionsEdit

Epistemic questions are questions that seek information. Subcategories of it includes display, referential, rhetorical and expressive questions.[5]

Context of usageEdit

Language education classroomsEdit

Long and Sato (1983) first applied the terms display and referential questions in the field of second language pedagogy, differentiating them according to the actions each type of question performs.[6]


Richards and Schmidt give the following example of a display question:

Q: Is this a book?
A: Yes, it's a book.[2]

Omari gives the following examples of a referential question:

Q: Which character in the story you admire most and why?
Q: What would you do if you were in the judge’s place?[7]


Referential questions are employed at higher rates when brainstorming a topic and gathering responses.[8] As there is no one fixed answer to referential questions, they can be used to instigate genuine communication, thereby facilitating less restricted discourse and promoting greater creativity in the classroom.

Eliciting existing knowledgeEdit

Display questions work best for eliciting short and low-level answers that correspond to the answer already expected by the teacher. Since referential questions serve to request for new information, answers can be subjective and varied based on the students' opinions, judgement and experiences. Students answer referential questions with the goal of assisting teachers in filling the information gaps.[4]

Checking on understandingEdit

Display questions are mainly used as a means to evaluate whether the listener has understood what is needed.[9] There is a tendency for display questions to be employed when addressing groups of people, such as in a classroom setting, and referential questions when addressing individuals. In addition, students' language proficiency greatly affects the chances of being asked display questions by the teacher. Teachers are more likely to pose display questions to the student with a lower proficiency on the topic being discussed. The teachers' teaching skills also correlates to the frequency at which display questions are asked. Less experienced teachers tend to ask more display questions.[10]

A study by Barnes (1983) found that in universities, about 80% of the questions asked by the teachers are to recall facts. Questions by teachers tend to be display questions while student-initiated questions are referential (Markee, 1995).[11]

Online communicationEdit

A study by Blanchette (2007) shows that in online communication, the teacher asked both referential and display questions while students asked only referential questions. This finding agrees with Markee’s (1995) conclusion that the majority of student-initiated questions are referential. However, this is not because the participants only asked questions for which they did not know the answer for. These questions can bring numerous possible responses and therefore it reflects the higher cognitive levels in the questions.[11]

Other institutional settingsEdit

Asymmetrical conversation is characteristic of institutional talk as opposed to everyday interactions among participants of equal status.[12] As the use of display questions tend to reproduce asymmetrical conversation[13], they can be found in several institutional settings.

Display questions may sometimes be used by media interviewers and courtroom attorneys in the presence of an overhearing audience to assert their views or opinions.[12] In a counsel-witness interaction, a counsel's question is directed at the witness with other participants acting as indirect receivers, and the witness's response is not in actual fact directed at the counsel, who typically already know the answer to their own questions, but at the judge and jury. This kind of interaction can be seen as a display talk.[14] Similarly in media interviews, the follow-up is usually left to the listener or viewer following the interviews, unlike situations like classrooms and quizzes where a follow-up from the questioner on whether the answer is correct is present.[15]

Doctors also often use known-information questions when interacting with patients. Even though they usually already possess the information, these questions are asked only to evaluate the patient through their responses. While the doctor might ask the patient for something in particular, the patient would understand the content of the question but they might not understand the point of it since the doctor already knows the answer.[16]

Communicative performanceEdit

Display questions are more directive than authentic questions, and they promote greater ability in thinking by spurring students to have to back up their contribution. Utilising display questions that build on previous statements made by the students in a rephrased or simplified form facilitates the production of a more elaborate dialogue.[9] As output is an important part of language learning, pushed output is necessary in classrooms to engage the students and encourage them to talk in the language they are learning. There is a need to determine the effects of the question types on communicative classroom interaction and student output. Its effectiveness correlates to the authenticity in the second language classroom.[3]

Referential questions are often seen as a way to add meaningful usage of a language. Output from the students solicited from referential questions appear three times as much than other question types, especially so for beginner classes, even though beginner language students were expected to interact less due to the limited knowledge of the language.[17] When learners were asked referential questions, responses are found to be significantly longer and syntactically complex.[18] Non-verbal communication and the need to use a dictionary also increased when responding to referential questions. Learners themselves are found to be more interested in referential question activity and agree that it is more conducive in bringing higher quality and quantity output, and also motivated interaction.[3]

However, there are also studies that found no increase in learner response with referential questions. Where learners have little collective knowledge, bombarding students with questions is unlikely to garner increased output.[19]

There is some evidence that imply that display questions are not as injurious as many think.[9] Kachur & Prendergast (1997), cited in Boyd (2006), found that asking 70% of authentic questions resulted in a lack of student participation, while lowering the amount to 32% resulted in the students being more engaged. This is explained as due to the ethos of mutual respect that is further studied by Christoph & Nystrand (2001). It is stated that in a classroom with mutual respect, the teachers and students are not inclined to introduce new topics. Instead, they extend topical episodes by being invested in listening and responding to the utterances of others.

Cognitive effectsEdit

When pitted on an intellectual scale, display questions are deemed to be posed at low cognitive levels because such questions require only basic recollection of factual information, which is at the lowest level of the hierarchy. In contrast, referential questions, in calling for evaluation or judgement, are associated with the highest cognitive levels.[18]

Finding the correct answer to display questions involves higher-level cognitive thinking. Beyond eliciting known information (on the asker’s part) and recognizing the content of questions (on the askee’s part), answering display questions also involves active consideration and interpretation of the way the questions are organised as each display question is designed with a specific answer in mind.[20]

Questions that require lower cognitive levels to answer are seen as injurious, even though questioning holds a major role in classroom interaction. This type of question does not encourage participation nor does it stimulate student thinking. Studies by Barnes (1983), Fischer and Grant (1983) as cited by Blanchette (2007)[11] have found that instructors at the post-secondary level tend to ask questions of lower cognitive levels.

Pragmatics and discourseEdit

Nature of interactionEdit

Classroom interaction features heavily in communicative language teaching,[citation needed] as it provides an avenue for language learners to practice conversing in the target language without judgement. The type of questions used to steer interaction is critical as it determines the types of responses that will be garnered.

Forced vs NaturalEdit

In cases of classroom interaction where more display questions are used as opposed to referential questions, participation appears forced and unnatural.[6] This was found to be true regardless of whether the teacher doing the asking is experienced or otherwise.[21] The exclusive or excessive use of display questions generally leads to lower instances of classroom communication.[22]

Referential questions are seen as an effective method of increasing oral participation because it creates opportunities for students to voice their opinions.[8] The added bonus that there is no one specific answer encourages students to be less afraid of making mistakes and be more productive.

Type of feedbackEdit

Display and referential questions form part of a question-answer sequence consisting of an initiation, response, and follow-up (IRF).[23] A follow-up with an evaluative function, commenting on the response to a question, is a distinguishing element of classroom conversation, and the difference between sequences with evaluative follow-ups compared to those serving as acknowledgements has been regarded as a major difference between display and referential questions.[1]

An example of responding with an acknowledgement:

Speaker A: What time is it, Denise?
Speaker B: 2:30
Speaker A: Thank you, Denise

An example of responding with an evaluation:

Speaker A: What time is it, Denise?
Speaker B: 2:30
Speaker A: Very good, Denise

The IRF sequence is commonly found in classroom discourse, of which display questions are a distinguishing feature. Feedback is important to a learner, so a teacher's follow-up would normally evaluate the learner's response with words like right or yes, sometimes including a repetition of the response for others to hear. Feedback is also important when students provide technically-correct answers but they are not what the teacher is looking for. An absence of feedback from the teacher can also be an indication to the student that his or her answer is wrong. IRF sequences in everyday discourse seldom include evaluative follow-ups, and responses in casual conversations often carry relational functions such as showing agreement or expressing a particular emotion.[24][25]

There are opposing views on the use of IRF exchanges in the classroom setting. It has been seen as a poor and unproductive model for spoken interaction in the target language outside the classroom due to its failure in enabling students to learn the demands of everyday conversation.[25] Too often, follow-ups are carried out by teachers, leading to learners having to take on the role of passive respondents without getting sufficient experience in performing requests and using listener follow-ups. This can be improved by allowing students to participate in peer-to-peer interactions as platforms to generate appropriate listener responses.[26]

In contrast, typical IRF exchanges could still be useful in classroom situations where teachers assign the kind of interactional status that helps learners be actively involved in the interactions. Productive use of conversational responses in peer-to-peer speech practices could be eventually achieved if teachers provide exposure to and guidance on the use of follow-ups.[27]


Display questions are mostly found in the classroom in the three-turn sequence of initiation-response-evaluation (IRE). In this sequence, the teacher asks a question in the first turn, following a reply from the students in the second turn. Upon going back to the teacher in the next turn, the teacher gives feedback on the adequacy of the students’ response. This sequence is considered structurally robust. Teachers can continuously go through interactional revision when continuing the conversation with a student using this sequence. This allows for methodical revision and negotiation between speakers. As the teacher analyses the student's replies and reformulates the following question, each question becomes a repair of the one before and thus becomes an interpretive resource based on the teacher's analysis and decisions derived from the prior exchange.[20]

Frequency of turnsEdit

The use of referential questions in classroom discourse promotes a significantly higher number of speaking turns as compared to the usage of display questions.[18]

It is often assumed that display questions are less engaging than referential questions. However, depending on the process of how the teacher uses the display questions, and what they achieve from those processes, display questions can become an effective teaching variable in lessons.[20]

Duration between turnsEdit

Responses to display questions have been found to be rather prompt in requiring only factual recall. Referential questions are known to elicit higher-order responses resulting from critical thinking.[8] Thus, there is typically a longer wait-time between turns where referential questions are involved.

However, responses to referential questions do not always take the form of complex utterances. The following example is a case in point:

Teacher: Can you swim?
Student: Yes, I can.[28]

In the same vein, display questions do not always garner immediate responses because the language learner may have the knowledge but lack the vocabulary to express it, thereby contributing to a longer-wait-time.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Mehan, Hugh (1979). "'What time is it, Denise?": Asking known information questions in classroom discourse". Theory into Practice. 18 (4): 285–294. doi:10.1080/00405847909542846. ISSN 0040-5841.
  2. ^ a b c Richards, Jack C.; Schmidt, Richard, eds. (2009). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. New York: Longman. p. 178. ISBN 978-1-4082-0460-3.
  3. ^ a b c Wright, Brenda M. (2016-12-31). "Display and referential questions: Effects on student responses". Nordic Journal of English Studies. 15 (4): 160–189–189. doi:10.35360/njes.388. ISSN 1654-6970.
  4. ^ a b Erlinda, Rita; Dewi, Sari Rahma (2014). "TEACHER'S QUESTIONS IN EFL CLASSROOM". Ta'dib. 17 (2): 177–188.
  5. ^ Farrell, Thomas S. C. (2018-09-06). Reflective Language Teaching: Practical Applications for TESOL Teachers. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781350021372.
  6. ^ a b Long, Michael H; Sato, Charlene J (1983). Classroom foreigner talk discourse: forms and functions of teachers' questions. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. OCLC 943433969.
  7. ^ Omari, Hamzah A. (2018-03-18). "Analysis of the Types of Classroom Questions Which Jordanian English Language Teachers Ask". Modern Applied Science. 12 (4): 1. doi:10.5539/mas.v12n4p1. ISSN 1913-1852.
  8. ^ a b c Bozorgian, Hossein; Fallah, Sakineh (2017). "EFL Learners' Speaking Development: Asking Referential Questions" (PDF). Jurnal Pendidikan Malaysia. 42.
  9. ^ a b c Boyd, Maureen; Rubin, Don (2006-06-01). "How Contingent Questioning Promotes Extended Student Talk: A Function of Display Questions". Journal of Literacy Research. 38 (2): 141–169. doi:10.1207/s15548430jlr3802_2. ISSN 1086-296X.
  10. ^ Farahian, Majid; Rezaee, Mehrdad (2012). "A Case Study of an EFL Teacher's Type of Questions: An Investigation into Classroom Interaction". Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 47: 161–167. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.06.631.
  11. ^ a b c Blanchette, Judith (2007-08-10). "Questions in the Online Learning Environment". International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education / Revue internationale du e-learning et la formation à distance. 16 (2): 37–57. ISSN 1916-6818.
  12. ^ a b Drew, Paul; Heritage, John (1992). Paul Drew; John Heritage (eds.). "Analyzing talk at work: an introduction". Talk at Work : Interaction in Institutional Settings. OCLC 848709102.
  13. ^ Strobelberger, Katrin (2012). Classroom Discourse in EFL Teaching: A Cross-cultural Perspective. Diplomica Verlag. ISBN 9783842873735.
  14. ^ Tkačuková, Tatiana (2010-12-30). "The power of questioning: A case study of courtroom discourse". Discourse and Interaction. 3 (2): 49. ISSN 1805-952X.
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  16. ^ Ribeiro, Branca Telles (1994-06-23). Coherence in Psychotic Discourse. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195362121.
  17. ^ Wintergerst, Ann C. (1994). Second-language classroom interaction : questions and answers in ESL classes. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0802029949. OCLC 802775538.
  18. ^ a b c Brock, Cynthia A. (March 1986). "The Effects of Referential Questions on ESL Classroom Discourse". TESOL Quarterly. 20 (1): 47–59. doi:10.2307/3586388. ISSN 0039-8322. JSTOR 3586388.
  19. ^ "Asking questions". TeachingEnglish | British Council | BBC. Retrieved 2019-04-11.
  20. ^ a b c Lee, Yo-An (2006-12-01). "Respecifying Display Questions: Interactional Resources for Language Teaching". TESOL Quarterly. 40 (4): 691–713. doi:10.2307/40264304. ISSN 0039-8322. JSTOR 40264304.
  21. ^ Pica, Teresa; Long, Michael (1986). "The linguistic and conversational performance of experienced and inexperienced teachers". Talking to learn: conversation in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. pp. 85–98.
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