Learners Question Formation Research Paper

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Education, Students, Language, Study, Theory, Hong Kong, English, Operator

Pages: 7

Words: 1925

Published: 2020/12/29

Learners Question Formation

What are the challenges faced by first language students in Hong Kong face during the formation of wh-questions?
Do the students follow the Processability Hypothesis?
Researchers continue to discuss the degree of errors transferred by first language acquisition (L1) to second language learners (L2). Chokshi and Fernandez (2005) agree that a learner’s first language is amongst the major origins of error in language acquisition.


This research study paper attempts to shed light on the processability hypothesis theory focusing on the challenges faced by first language students in Hong Kong while using wh-questions. Despite there being other research conducted on the processability hypothesis topic, none of the researches have covered the challenges associated with wh-question especially among the Hong Kong Students. The paper also aims at determining the developmental sequences of strategically procedural skills among Hong Kong students.


Wh-questions include questions starting with wh, namely whom, who, when, what, why, where, how, which (Al-Mekhlafi, 2013). Abu Jarad (2008) agrees with Al-Mekhlafi that wh-questions request particular information and situations surrounding events and actions. The creation of wh-questions basically pursues several principles (Keith, Vestri, and Smith-Palinkas, 2008);
The wh-term or the who-term and its headword (for instance how easy, what girl) put in the first position of the sentence.

The phrase should have an operator, such as do, be or have

The subject (mostly inverted with an operator wh-subject ^ verb)
Cook and Seidlhofer (2010) posit that people ask questions while engaging in conversations, with a single query after every forty words. Dyson (2008) adds that academic texts and news also use questions. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the question formation structure to maintain English fluency and accuracy. Many studies have explored the formation of wh-questions amongst L1 and L2 students (Keith et al.; Vestri, and Smith-Palinkas, 2008; Mansouri, 2007; Lo and Pong, 2005). Yip and Mathew (2000) revealed that the environment of a learner affected his/her language transfer. An example of an English sentence constructed by a Cantonese-speaking learner would be; the dog why stays in the kennel? And this is for creating what. The wh-term misplacement occurs because the wh-questionings are in-situ amongst Cantonese learners. Chinese learners had the same errors while forming their questions. A study conducted by Purpura (2004) on Chinese required participants to modify several Chinese questions swiftly to English. The study showed two main types of errors; a) confusion between ‘be’ and ‘do’ and b) lack of inversion. These errors are likely to be created by the different syntax between Chinese and English (Hawkins, 2001). Question formation in the Chinese language does not require inversion of subject-operator, unlike in English where there is inversion of an operator and a correct predictor, including an inversion of the operator and the subject (wh-phrase ^ operator ^ subject ^ predicator) (Pienemann, Branigan, and Kawaguchi, 2005; Doughty and Long, 2003).
The poor performance of Hong Kong learners in their Certificate of Education Examination (secondary five learners’ public exam) showed their weaknesses in wh-questioning. Prior to the 2007 changes, candidates had to ask questions based on several prompts, such as “activities you perform with your parents” and “places you have travelled to.” Comments made concerning poor interrogative mechanisms in yearly exam reports showed the degree of issues posed by the learners (Hong Kong Examination Authority, 2002).


Participants included two classes with Secondary 3 students. Each class had 30 and 27 learners respectively. All the learners used Chinese as their first language and had attended English classes for 8 years.

Data Collection

Data was gathered from the discussions in meetings held by teachers. The information was stored in audiotapes for prospective analysis. Learners’ data was gathered using tests performed prior to and after lessons. Facts were also gathered using interviews in which 10 students of low, medium, and high English capacity from the two classes were selected. This process was aimed at gauging learning complexities and improvement systematically prior to and after the study lesson.
The students tackled similar pre-test and post-test questions to simplify the analysis process. Fifty students took part in the oral section and 45 students in the written section of the pre-exam. Thirty six and 25 students took part in oral and written sections of the post-exam respectively. The printed exam comprised of wh-question formation regarding the given answers amongst other questions.
The interview involved two students with diverse English skills from the two preferred classes. The students received four Cantonese situations and had to change them into English using the Processability Hypothesis. The study used the grounded theory by VanPatten and Williams (2007) to group together the qualitative data gathered through interviews under separate categories to respond to study questions.


These results were collected from willing participants who took oral and written tests to allow successful completion of the study. Table one shows the ratio of correct answers obtained in both written and oral pre-test. Table two shows the ratio of correct answers for students who followed the Processability theory.
The results were slightly lower in the oral test, especially in the phrase “when did Mrs. Chang go” as the correct wh-term, operator, and predictor, and word structure stood at 56.2%, 41.2%, 51%, and 63%. The situation accrued to the next phrase “What did Mr. Wong do” where the outcome for wh-term, operator, and predictor, and word structure was 50%, 70%, 78%, and 42% respectively. The subjects who gave the correct response regarding the wh-term, operator, and predictor, and word structure slightly improved in the phrase “whose pen is this?” represented by 90%, 59%, 53%, and 73% respectively. The same improvement was seen in the phrase “How long did he suffer?” whose results were 87%, 76%, 45%, and 56% respectively. In the phrase “who left the book here?” the outcome was 68%, 45%, 62%, and 64% respectively. Lastly, the phrase “How many places have you traveled” generated 79%, 32%, 56%, and 63% correct results in appropriate wh-term, operator, and predictor, and word structure respectively.
TABLE 2: Pre-test outcomes for Written and Oral Tests in Correct Answers Ratio


The study was aimed at identifying the problems faced by First Language students in Hong Kong face when studying wh-questions. The study also aimed at identifying whether Hong Kong students follow the Processability Hypothesis.

Research Question One: What challenges to First Language students in Hong Kong face when studying wh-questions?

The study used both learners and teachers to observe studying challenges that the learners faced. Teachers reported that students did not struggle while tackling the questions. Their report resonated with Keßler (2007) who identify challenged faced by students in three areas;

Wrong order of words, probably because of first language transfer, such as “Why you don’t go?”

Wrong structure of verbs, such as “who are you hate?”
The teachers had accurate views of learning challenged by students as confirmed by the pre-tests that showed challenges experienced by learners during wh-questioning. The students used wrong operators, incorrect word arrangements, wrong types of predicators, and misplaced operators. Table 1 shows how the students tackled the questions. Some learners failed to understand difficult question phrases that integrate the wh-word as the modifier or determiner in the given questioning phrases. The students had understood easy question expressions, such as what and when.
The pre-test outcomes showed wh-phrase misplacement issues amongst students with low English ability (possibly a result of first language transfer of wh-in-situ). This outcome was also highlighted by Yip and Matthews (2000) in their study using young bilingual students. Examples consist of:

This clothes is who?

Miss Wong go where?
Learners’ interviews confirmed first language transfer. The interviewee revealed that they had studied the wh-questions in primary school. The stage aimed at selecting wh-phrases by filling in blank spaces. The main challenged involved the word arrangement with students attributing this issue to the dissimilar structures in Chinese and English. The study disclosed most Hong Kong learners’ misunderstanding of verb phrase organization in English, such as what is Miss Chang go? Some learners excluded the operator, such as when Miss Jang go? [The correct sentence would be “where did Miss Chang go?”] Or who eating in the dinning hall? [the correct sentence is “who is eating in the dinning hall”]. These findings resonate with Lee (2009) study that identified the lack of familiarity with “Dos” and “Bes.”

Research Question 2: Do Hong Kong students follow the Processability Hypothesis?

The selected students could not form questions uses the Processability hypothesis. They were unable to transfer grammatical information between and within phrases in their sentences. The students lack any knowledge regarding subject-verb-agreement. Some of them wrote “Little Rita go to school” instead of “Little Rita goes to school” that is in a third person singular as posited by the processability Theory. Pienemann and Keßler (2007) agree with the language production paradigm by Yip and Matthews (2000) that argued that the language learner should develop processes that handle the storage and comparison of grammatical data. This helps the speaker to understand grammatically correct sentences only. For instance, in the sentence “Little Rita go home,” the word little Rita indicates a “third person singular”, but the verb does not. Any proficient speaker would identify the error after assembling the verb and noun phrases to create a sentence (Ellis and Barkuizen, 2005).
In the Processability Theory, the unification point relates to the processability hierarchy reflecting the time itinerary of real time processing (Di Biase and Kawaguchi, 2002). On the contrary, the first Processability theory did not possess any formula, category formula, noun phrase system, verb phrase system, sentence system, or subordinate clause formula (Pienemann, 1998). Based on the current Processability Theory, Hong Kong students must develop along the hierarchy because they cannot construct sentences without verbs and nouns.
The phrases “Liu escorted his friend” and “the teacher wrote on the black board” are lexically driven grammars. Lexically driven grammars use the lexicon to store grammatical data (Bresnan, 2001; VanPatten and Williams, 2007). For example, the lexical entry for “escorted” is a past tense, this listing the main verb argument as an ‘agent.’ Many psycholinguistic pragmatic facts support the lexically compelled temperament of sentences formation. Pickering, Branigan, and Mc lean (2002) demonstrated lexically compelled grammar in their study to help readers understand how lexically compelled grammar is formed. Finally, the study has responded to the two research questions raised at the beginning by performing a student using Hong Kong learners.


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