(As excerpted from Module 3 of the
TEFL for Target Learner Groups Course)
A tag question (or question tag, as it’s often called) requires a “yes ” or “no ” response and is a statement such as, “Today is the twenty-first ” followed by the tag, “isn’t it? ”, which is the sentence verb made negative followed by a pronoun that correctly represents the subject. “Today is the twenty-first, isn’t it? ”)
Another example might be, “Today is not the twenty-first, is it? ” (with the sentence verb “s ” + not made negative by being reduced to just “s ”).
The differences in using (and making answers to) tag questions creates a very big problem for many, many foreign learners of English, but especially Asians. As you may have observed already, Thai and other Asian people answer a tag question solely in regard to the truth or falseness of the statement contained in the question, whereas English native speakers respond to the truth or falseness of the tag following the statement.
Thus, when the questioner and the respondent both think that Martha is not very bright, the question goes, “Martha is not very bright, is she? ”, to which we native speakers answer, “No ” (to the tag), but the Thais answer, “Yes ”, meaning the statement that Martha is not very bright is correct. See the difference?
To help Thai people learn to answer as we do, we need to give our students drilling practice in turning the tags into full questions, as in the following example:
“Shirley is pretty, isn’t she?”
Have the students say:
“Is Shirley not pretty?”
Then coach them to say:
“Yes, Shirley is pretty.”
“Yes, she is.”
Next, have them say:
“No, Shirley is not pretty.”
“No, she isn’t.”
“No, she’s not.”
Finally, change your question from “Is Shirley not pretty” to “Isn’t Shirley pretty”, and repeat all of the possible answers above. You will need to do this with several short tag questions (some containing, and some not containing a negative in the tag question statement), until the students become comfortable in all of the following ways:
Responding to the question tag, not the statement.
Giving short yes-or-no answers fluently.
Using personal pronouns accurately in referring to the question subject.
Once this task has been accomplished, you may wish to use part of the “pronunciation spelling system” taught in our course. In the present instance, the “high ”, or stress tone, of a word is shown in capital letters, as in “POSTman ”. a “middle ” tone (a syllable not stressed, but not really low either) is shown by small underlined letters, as in “upTOWN ” or “POSTman ”, as above; a “falling ” intonation (such as in the last syllable of the declarative sentence, “JOHN fell DOWn ”) is spelled with the first part of the word in capital letters, and the last part in small letters, as in “DOWn ”, above; a rising tone as in “go ” in the sentence, “May I gO? ” is spelled with small letters followed by capital letters; and a low tone is spelled without an underline, as “a ” in the sentence, “It's a GOat ”.
Utilizing this information, we can help our students increase both their listening comprehension and their communicative ability by contrasting whether the speaker of a tag question is just confirming information he or she already is fairly sure of; or whether there is some doubt about whether or not it is true, as shown in the following examples:
“Today is Monday, isn’t it?”
“toDAY is MONday, is’nt it? ”
(The falling tones show that the speaker is confident of being right.)
(Tones: middle + high, middle, falling, falling, falling)
If this same person is not sure that the information is correct, however, he or she will say:
“toDAY is monDAY, is’NT, iT?”
(The rising tones show that the speaker is not confident of being right.)
(Tones: rising, middle, rising, rising, rising)
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