An Open-Ended Question is a question which cannot be answered with a simple Yes or No answer and one which requires more thought.
It is the opposite of a Closed Question. And like a door, an open question could lead anywhere, a closed question stops everything.
Open-Ended vs Closed Questions
In teaching, an open-ended question will elicit a more complex and longer answer. For example, you might be talking about a movie with your class. You could ask them:
Did you enjoy Skyfall?
And a student might reply with a Yes or a No which, in terms of allowing them to practice their English, is not very helpful. On the other hand, if you ask them an open-ended question they need to construct a fuller and more complex reply:
What did you enjoy about the Skyfall?
To which a student might reply:
I enjoyed the fight scenes.
I enjoyed the cars!
Sometimes shy students can find open-ended questions quite daunting so you may want to lead into them with closed questions. Get the student used to speaking and thinking about the subject and giving one-word answers and then use an open-ended question to allow them to speak more freely.
T: Where did you go on holiday this Summer?
T: Nice. Did you go to an island or Athens?
T: And what did you do there?
S: We visited the Acropolis.
T: Anything else?
S: We went shopping.
In other words, feel free to use closed questions to introduce the subject but leave room for an open-ended question so the student can actually say something substantial if they wish and use English more.
Open-Ended questions are a useful tool in the practice of concept checking (see below) when you make sure your students have understood something well. And as a teacher you should be aware at all times whether you’re asking open-ended or closed questions and be ready to switch between them as the situation demands. A first step here is simply knowing the difference and using different types of questions in class.
One important use of open ended questions is in concept checking.
Suppose you give your students a text to read. You then ask them a closed question like this:
Did you understand the text?
Did you like the main character?
You may get a few students answering, “Yes”, but can you be sure they understood the text? By giving a one word answer the student has a 50/50 chance of getting it correct whether they’ve understood the question or text or not!
Instead, if you ask them an open ended question you will soon see if they’ve understood:
How would you have faced the problem?
What happened in the end?
And so on. Here students must have understood the text in order to give an answer.
For more on this, see the main article, Concept Checking Questions in English Language Teaching.
Teacher Talking Time in TEFL/TESOL – another use of open-ended questions is in reducing teacher talking time.