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English Detective #32, Learning to Ask the Right Questions: Feb. 11, 2014
February 11, 2014

English Detective #32, Learning to Ask the Right Questions: Feb. 11, 2014


The current investigation (Introducing this issue):

This newsletter links to three talks (two quite short—under 10 minutes) on the importance of asking the right questions. Stuart Firestein says that the real work of science is not explaining the universe but asking good questions, seeking the answers, and asking even better questions as a result. He argues that our current education system often destroys student interest in science. We need to excite them instead, and encourage them to look for answers to what is still unknown, rather than just studying what’s already been discovered.

Ramsey Musallam is a high school chemistry teacher with a similar concern. He believes that student curiosity and questions are a teacher’s most important tools. Questions are “the seeds of learning.” He gives examples from his classroom, as well as from what he learned from a surgeon who saved his life. (The surgeon’s skill and confidence came from asking questions about the surgery, improving it through trial and error, and reflection—thinking about what he had learned and how to do it better.)

Neurologist Peter Doolittle talks about the limits of our working memory. To hold something in our minds for more than seconds, we need to “do something with it”—think about it or talk about it, and make connections with what we already know. He says “We are meaning-making machines… We try to make meaning out of everything that happens to us.”

Take a look at the vocabulary below, to see if the explanations might help you with these talks. The links to the talks themselves are immediately below the vocabulary discussion. There are also links to a page practicing words (including ‘extract,’ and ‘reflection’) that come from Latin verbs.

After President Obama’s State of the Union address a couple of weeks ago I began thinking that such speeches might be a good source for both reading and academic vocabulary practice. John F. Kennedy’s first State of the Union address in 1961 proved very useful.

I found his views on the world situation thought-provoking. They help explain several of his more controversial decisions: how he handled the Cuban missile crisis, why he sent military advisers to Vietnam, and why he started the Peace Corps.

Use the link below to read extensive selections from that speech, as well as practice AWL vocabulary by filling in a few gaps in the speech. It’s a good way to focus on his language—and thinking!

I hope you enjoy thinking about questions and practicing any words that are new to you!



Your First Clue: Vocabulary Emphasized in this Issue


Review vocabulary: accumulate, apparent, duration, extract, ignorant, plus, scenario, scheme, straightforward, sum

A few notes about the vocabulary:


To accumulate is to gather or bring together a large amount of something over time.

Apparent comes from the verb ‘appear’—-evident or easy to see; something that appears to be a certain way. We have several proverbs saying that appearances can be wrong or deceiving: “All that glitters is not gold” – “don’t believe everything you see.”

Duration- the length of time something lasts. “Duration’ can also be used to mean ‘the time remaining,’ as in “Please turn off your cell phones for the duration of the class, as it is very important that you all hear what Dr. Brown has to tell us.”

To extract is to pull out of or remove from {we extract coal, minerals, and oil, from the earth]; an extract—a concentrated liquid made from an herb.

Ignorant means not knowing something. (It is often used in a critical or insulting way: “What an ignorant fool!”)

Plus means ‘and’ or ‘in addition.’ (This is the ‘plus sign’: +.) 2+2=4 is spoken as “two plus two equals four.”

A scenario is a description of a possible event—the way something might work out. It can also be s summary (outline) of a story, play, or movie, with information about the plot, characters, scenes, etc.

A scheme is a plan or design. Sometimes it’s a plan to take advantage of people or cheat them. To scheme is almost always to plot against someone or plan to harm or cheat them, and the adjective ‘scheming’ is always bad.

Straightforward means direct— clear speech or clear planning with no hidden agenda.

A sum is the total when things are added up. In 2+2=4, the sum is 4. To ‘sum up’ means to summarize. It means to finish with a short review of the most important points of a talk or an essay.

Getting the whole story: reading/listening practice:


Click here for Firestein’s talk on the pursuit of ignorance.

Here’s the chemistry teacher’s talk.

Click here for the explanation of working memory.

Follow the Clues (Vocabulary Practice):


Click here for some examples and practice with words from Latin verbs of motion.

Here is the Kennedy speech gapfill.

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Coming in the next issue: Mental health: some opinions about research and treatments.

In case you missed these: Earlier issues of English Detective have articles on a number of topics, plus practice with all 570 words from the Academic Word List. You can check them out with the link to the back issues page below (or find what words were practiced each issue here.

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