The Internet TESL Journal

A Holistic Classroom Activity - The Class Survey

Roger Nunn
nunn [at]
Kochi University (Kochi, Japan)


A so-called "post-communicative" view of language teaching, is said to be more eclectic. Language teaching is seen as an adaptive process rather than as the application of an ideal method or approach. In contexts that seem to require or favour the learning of actual abilities to use a language, it is useful for a teacher to develop a repertoire of holistic activities within which a variety of approaches may be adopted. A teacher's repertoire often includes activities such as simulated conversations in pairs and small groups, speech making or story telling. All of these holistic activities act as a framework for the adoption of different approaches and roles, ranging from strictly and centrally controlled teacher-fronted interaction to devolved interaction in which students structure their own discourse. This brief paper will consider the classroom survey as another useful regular framework activity to be added to a teacher's repertoire.

Multiple Aims

A class survey responds to several aims. Firstly it provides practice in free but purposeful interaction with both the teacher and with other students, encouraging socialization and active participation in a lesson. The ability to initiate and structure short conversations is also central. The survey can also provide practice of a more structured nature in important language such as the language of direct and indirect questions and in important skills such as report writing. A more general educational aim is to provide students with personal experience in using a simple form of a common academic tool.


A survey activity can be adapted to almost any level of language and allows both teachers and students to adopt a variety of different classroom roles. Lower level groups may need a lot of guidance, but more advanced groups can design their own surveys with only minimal guidance. It is possible to design a survey activity as a supplementary activity for almost any unit of a language course on almost any topic. Given the effort and organization involved, it makes sense to develop the survey as a regular activity which might be used about once every five or six lessons.

Potential Difficulties

Surveys require students to socialise and circulate freely around the classroom - not recommended in a class that is difficult to control. Considerable management is needed to get students to cooperate sufficiently to make a survey worthwhile. It also requires a lot of time, at least one hour, so it has to prove itself before it becomes a regular activity.

What the Teacher Does

During a survey the teacher frequently changes roles. The teacher sets up the activity from the front of the class, takes part in the class-circulation activity just like a student, assists students to plan their reports, provides examples to imitate and orchestrates a reporting back stage. Students also adopt a variety of roles. There are countless variations of the survey formula, but a possible step by step approach in four stages is provided below.

Stage 1

The teacher introduces the task and helps students prepare. At this stage the teacher is probably controlling all student actions from the front of the class. Some kind of sheet like the one provided below is recommended to provide a focus for preparation. The teacher can then demonstrate possible survey questions to students in the whole-class session and get students to demonstrate their questions in interaction with the teacher. There is also a pre-survey option of drilling the language that is likely to be needed or providing language support handouts. (See "Asking Questions" below.) It is assumed that the vocabulary of the topic itself has been introduced elsewhere as it is probably the topic of a unit which has been studied during previous lessons. Going into a survey "cold" is not recommended. Varying combinations of reading texts, listening exercises, teacher-led introductions or discussion, pair/group exercises will normally already have established a topic.

Example Survey Sheet - usable for any survey topic
Topic Food -- Healthy Eating
General Question

(What do you want to find out about in your survey?)

How healthy are the eating habits of this class?
Specific Questions

(What are the exact questions you will ask people?)

Could you tell me how often you eat green vegetables?

(a. Every day - b. a few days a week - c. once a week - d. less than once a week)

Could you tell me when you last ate green vegetables?

What did you eat yesterday?

Student 1
Student 2
Student 3
Student 4
Student 5
Student 6
Student 7
Student 8
Student 9
Student 10

Stage 2

Students and teacher circulate freely round the class doing the survey, providing a rare opportunity for one-to-one interaction of a more equal nature between the teacher and a lot of students. In this way the teacher will also become aware of any problems. More controlled formulas for student movement can also be set up with difficult classes. While conversations are relatively spontaneous, a survey also requires repetition practice of the same structures (the same questions are repeated in each conversation) in a more natural context than a traditional drill activity. They also often tend to require follow-up questions and questions asking for clarification if the survey is to be done well.

Stage 3

Students return to their seats to prepare their report. The teacher can demonstrate by giving a report from his/her own survey and can then assist students in preparing their report notes.

Stage 4

Several students report back to the whole class. The teacher can intervene here to correct language or suggest improvements to the report. An optional fifth stage is to ask students to write up their reports as homework.

Class Survey Report Sheet - Example
- report your aim and your actual questions

Give your own position

I wanted to know how healthy my class's eating habits were. I asked ten students how often they ate green vegetables and when they last ate green vegetables. I then asked them to tell me what they ate yesterday. I myself sometimes eat green vegetables but not every day.
- General patterns and the most striking findings
Almost all the students (9) told me that they eat green vegetables every day, but only three of them had eaten any today for breakfast or for lunch. (4 had not even had breakfast claiming the teacher got angry if they were late for class.) Only half the class ate green vegetables yesterday. Three could not remember exactly when they last ate green vegetables.
- answer to the general question

Did anything surprise you or stand out?

According to my survey my class's eating habits are quite healthy but not as healthy as they seem to think. Only half of them ate green vegetables yesterday and four of them had no breakfast this morning including me.


A survey is an adaptable activity which can provide a holistic framework for practising different kinds of enabling skills and for practising immediately applicable language both formally and informally. The approach is "eclectic" but not unprincipled as each stage has its own pedagogical purposes and outcomes. By adopting different roles for different purposes during different stages of the survey, the teacher can cater for different levels of ability and learning styles within the same class and can adapt to his/her situation by adjusting the balance between controlled and devolved learning.

Appendix -- Language Support - Asking Questions in a Survey

During your surveys, it will be important for you to ask questions. Try to learn the three different kinds mentioned below. Notice the different grammar and when to use each kind.
Type one: Polite Questions. You could use this kind of question to start your survey, or to ask a "delicate" or personal question.
Examples from a survey on part-time jobs:
Would you mind telling me how much you earn in your part-time job?
Could you tell me what you have to do?
Could you explain a bit more please?
Type two: "Normal" (neutral) questions. (Use this kind for your second or third questions when you just need information.)
How many hours a week do you work?
How did you find this job?
Type three: Short questions: (Use these to avoid repeating the whole question, which sounds unnatural.)
Sample Conversation.

Useful Grammar.

Normal Questions. Check the word order.
1 2 3 4 5
WH word Helping verb Person or


Suitable form of main verb objects,


adverbial, etc.

Where do you work?
Why don't you change jobs?
How much do you earn?

Polite (indirect) Questions. Notice the different word order.
Polite phrase Wh word person/


Main verb etc.,
Could you tell me how much you earn?
Could I ask you how many hours you work per week?
I'm not sure where you work.

Reported Questions:
After your survey, you will have to make a report for the class. Notice the differences between the question and the report of the question in these examples.

Question - Would you mind telling me how much you earn?
Report - During my survey, I asked 10 people how much they earned. Only two
of them refused to tell me...

Question - How many hours a week do you work?
Report - Then I asked them how many hours they worked per week.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VII, No. 4, April 2001