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Getting Smarter through Language

How to Answer and Elaborate on Open-Ended Questions Effectively (Page 1)
(B-Level, Intermediate Writing Skill)

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Page 1 (this page). About Open-Ended Questions and Answers

Page 2. Techniques to answer and elaborate on questions

About Open-Ended Questions and Answers

Yes-No questions are questions you can answer with a “yes” or a “no.” On the other hand, open-ended questions require more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer.

Your answer to an open-ended question can be a simple statement (or a simple answer) addressing the question. However, you can also provide details to make your answer clear and thorough.


You frequently come across open-ended questions in spoken language (for example, when someone asks you “What do you think about this book?” or “Why didn’t you go to the party yesterday?”) You also often find them on tests and exams or in exercises.

Open-ended answers on a test are like writing a “mini essay” where you show everything you have learned about a topic. In this course, we will explore strategies for elaborating on answers to open-ended questions so that your answer is clear and thorough. You can also apply these strategies when answering such questions orally.

General Use

Well designed open-ended questions require learners to think critically and creatively so that they can demonstrate what they have learned and how well they can apply it to new situations. They are often used in courses (e.g., in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences), where students are expected to use higher-order thinking skills to analyze, synthesize, and interpret information.

In the Language Classroom

Instructors ask a lot of open-ended questions in language courses because they want you to develop and practice written and spoken skills. Even very simple open-ended questions gives you the opportunity to practice; however, very short answers will not get you very far. Below is an example of how you can elaborate on a very short answer.

Example of a short answer without and with elaboration

A very brief answer to an oral open-ended question will not give you the opportunity to practice or use what you are learning.

Teacher:“What are your plans for the summer?”

Student:”I may be going to Chicago.”

Instead of such a bland answer, you can elaborate on it.

Teacher:“What are your plans for the summer?”

Student:”I want to go Chicago, but I might not be able to. I’m working on a difficult project at work. If the project is done next month, I’ll be able to use some vacation time and go to Chicago to visit my family. But my manager may need me to work through the summer if we can’t finish the project on time. How about you? Do you have plans for the summer?”

How to Answer Questions

Understand the Question and the Content

Of course, you cannot answer a question well unless you understand what is being asked and know the content you need in order to answer it.

A well built question has a “question prompt,” or the part of the question that lets you know what you need to say about the topic. It also uses keywords and verbs that tell you what you need to do to answer the question.

Understanding questions

Question prompts have words or expressions such as

  • What
  • Which
  • How
  • When
  • “Why” or “what main reasons”
  • What is the process
  • What are the steps involved in
  • What is the purpose of
  • What main reasons

Question prompts are often combined with verbs such as

  • analyze
  • compare
  • contrast
  • interpret
  • explain
  • discuss

You end up with complex questions (combined with verbs) such as

  • What are the main differences between A and B?
  • How can you interpret _____?
  • What main factors explain the _____?
  • Compare and contrast A and B.
  • Explain the process involved in _____.
  • List and explain the main causes of _____.

Note that the last three items on the above list are called “directives” or “directive prompts" They are not phrased as questions, but you are expected to respond to them. The techniques you will learn in this lesson apply to directive prompts.

It is important to pay close attention to the question so you know what you need to address in your answer. You can then draw on what you know or what you have learned to answer it.

Important note about “directives” or “directive prompts”

About “Directives” or “Directive Prompts”

Comprehension and test materials often include items that are not phrased as questions. These are called “directives” or “directive prompts.” Although they are not phrased as questions, it is understood that you are asked to provide information about the topic. To respond to and elaborate on directive prompts, you can use the same techniques that you will learn in this course.

Here are some examples of directive prompts:

1. The scientific method is a systematic approach to investigating natural phenomena involving developing and testing hypotheses. Explain the process of hypothesis testing in the scientific method.

2. In The World According to Garp, John Irving explores several themes. Discuss one major theme in the novel.

3. Food deserts are areas where access to affordable and nutritious food is limited or nonexistent. Discuss the causes and effects of food deserts and potential solutions to address this issue.

4. Although technology has transformed how we learn, it is not always used effectively in language learning. Compare effective and ineffective uses of technology in language classroom.

Such directive prompts often have several “indirect questions” in them. For example, item 1 could be phrases as, “What is the purpose of hypothesis testing? What are the steps involved in it? How do you interpret its results?” and so on. As you can see, using directive prompts is a way to include several questions into a single prompt. You should interpret such prompts as if they were a series of questions.

Up Next: Answering Questions and Elaborating Effectively

Continue the lesson to learn techniques you can use to answer questions and elaborate on your answers effectively.

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