Ask a rhetorical question in an ESL classroom, and you will likely either get a room full of blank stares, confused looks or honest answers to your question. Like figures of speech, rhetorical questions can trip up ESL students who do not understand their meaning as sarcastic statements or that they are sometimes used with humor. A few pointers can help ease ESL students into knowing about and using rhetorical questions.
Intro with Cartoon
Put a cartoon or comic up on the board or overhead that uses a rhetorical question. If you can’t find one, make up one of your own. Draw it using simple stick figures if you do not possess many artistic skills. One might be a picture of a teenager and his dad standing in the doorway to his room. The room is filthy: clothes everywhere, unmade bed. The dad may ask the teen, “So, you cleaned your room, eh?” Ask the students about the picture. What do they notice is different between what is written and what is in the picture? Is there anything funny about it?
Split students into pairs or small groups. Have them come up with their own short role play or skit where rhetorical questions are used. Write a list as a class of rhetorical questions on the board before splitting the students up. Some may include, “Do ‘ya think?” or “Can I make that any clearer?” Have students present their role plays or skits in front of the class.
When to Use Them
Explain situations where a student should probably not use rhetorical questions. Business students especially need to know that using rhetorical questions with their bosses may not be such a good idea. Rhetorical questions are often sarcastic, and they can harm relationships students are working to build. Sarcasm, when used indelicately, can be detrimental to a student’s social or professional life. Unless a student knows a person well, and knows that he has a good sense of humor, it is probably best not to use rhetorical questions in conversation.
In addition, using rhetorical questions in certain social situations may not be such a good idea. Answering a police officer who asks if you are in a hurry when she pulls you over for speeding may not be the best move, for example. An officer will likely not find it funny.
Finally, help your students realize that they are not necessarily being insulted if someone asks them a rhetorical question. Explain to your students that they can use rhetorical questions in their writing as well if they want to make a strong statement or argument. Rhetorical questions are powerful tools of the English language, but they must be used carefully and in the right situations.
CSL Cartoonstock: Rhetorical Question Cartoons and Comics