CCQ’s – in the TEFL jargon which we all use – are those questions which you need to ask right after you have taught something or are revising
- a lexical item
- a group of words
- a grammar point
- a functional exponent
Generations of my CELTA, TEFL and DELTA trainees have agonised over their CCQ’s and this is a short article to help them as I have not found much written on them in the standard methodology texts which I recommend.
The acronym stands for Concept Checking Questions. Personally, I prefer to talk about concept clarification without the word ‘question’ involved, as clarifying concepts does not necessarily involve asking questions but a host of the techniques and practices which are not limited to questions.
Another good comment often discussed with colleagues, is that we should not be limiting ourselves to concepts, but to the broader idea of checking understanding and checking learning. But more of that later.
Imagine you have just presented the following words using the techniques listed next to each one.
- thumb you put up and then pointed to your thumb
- pet you pointed to a magazine picture of a dog
- starving you rubbed your stomach and pointed to your mouth
Now, how can this be misunderstood you might ask? Well, in several ways and here are some: ‘thumb’ may be taken to mean ‘any finger‘ (or even “hitch-hike‘!), ‘pet’, the particular dog breed in your picture and ‘starving’ may be understood to mean ‘I have stomach-ache‘ or even ‘I’m feeling sick‘. Not all your students, I hasten to say, will have necessarily misunderstood, and, if so, not all in the same way! There are infinite possibilities for all sorts of levels and kinds of misunderstanding.
Some Bad Questions
What is the most popular way of making sure students have understood?
Yes, you have guessed it: ‘Do you understand?‘ ‘Have you understood ‘Is this clear?’ and all its possible permutations, down to “OK”?
And what is the usual answer we get to such questions? Of course, it is a ‘Yes’ in most cases! For one thing, most students either like their teachers and do not want to hurt their feelings by implying that their explanations were not clear.
Others fear their teachers and hesitate to commit themselves like this, and still others are afraid of the ridicule of their fellow students. Confronted with a publicly addressed question of this type, most people are unwilling to admit to lack of comprehension.
Think of yourself in a similar situation. You are attending a lecture or seminar and the speaker is making a point totally beyond your grasp. How many times have you boldly put up your hand and – faced by all your colleagues – honestly admitted to your lack of comprehension?
I, for one, very rarely. If someone else has the courage to do it, I’ll nod as well and murmur my agreement, but, like most people, I assume it was my fault. Naturally, I don’t want others to know I am not as clever as they are! In the language classroom, however, it is our business and our job to check this and should not rely on the boldness of one or two students.
And if I Translate?
Many teachers feel you can’t go wrong when you provide the mother tongue equivalent. The word or phrase, however, may involve an idea, a concept, a behaviour, or even a value which may be alien to our learners even in their own native language, either because they are too young, or their language does not express the notion in the same way, or for cultural reasons.
One of our trainees recently tried to teach the concept of a ‘celebrity interview’ to our refugee beginners from Afghanistan and even tried to find the words in Farsi through an oline dictionary. This met with little success as, apparently, there are no life style magazines which publish that sort of thing in their country, something which the authors of Headway Beginner did not perhaps anticipate.
Translation can sometimes provide the final check of understanding but if it is the only way of presenting language, perhaps valuable classroom language which also functions as input will be lost to the learners forever. Without calling on research findings, I have enough evidence of learners who have spent years in classrooms where this was the only method to know that for many of them communicating in English has not worked that well. But that’s a topic for a different article or post.
Concept Checking Questions (or CCQ’s)
Very often, teachers confuse concept questions with ‘comprehension questions’ – this is not a terrible mistake, it’s just a question of using the terminology of our field a little more accurately. All the Wh- questions you would ask to check the facts in a story heard or read, may help clarify concepts in language. In this post, I am talking about concepts in language not the facts of a text.
These questions which teachers will ask to find out how much their learners have understood. They are designed to demonstrate evidence of or lack of understanding and they are usually very simple and carefully staged. For example, to return to my original teaching examples you might ask the following:
- thumb – The teacher asks the class to show their thumbs. Then s/he points to any other finger (or toe!) and asks if that is a thumb
- pet – The teacher asks: Is a cat a pet? A dog? A cow? Where do we keep them? Can they live in the jungle? Do they hunt for their food? Who feeds them? Are they usually working animals? Which animals in this picture are pets?
- starving – The teacher may ask: Do I need to eat or drink? Do I need any medicine/pills? Have eaten some bad food? Am I hungry or sick? Am I just hungry or very very hungry? How long ago did I eat?
In all of the above cases, the teacher has to make a decision whether or not to re-explain or to start from scratch, or to take remedial action of another type. These are decisions that depend very much on the aims of the lesson or activity and the purpose of the checking of understanding itself.
Checking understanding and checking the state of learning enables the teacher not only to assess whether the students have understood and/or can use the language she wanted to present, but also helps smooth out points of confusion either in terms of the learning material or the activities or tasks she engages her learners in. She also develops as a teacher by noticing what works or does not work in the classroom.
Should CCQ’s be used just for concepts in grammar and vocabulary?
Lack of understanding may involve all the parameters of what knowing a word, phrase, or pattern entails, and this includes form, meaning, function, tenor, pronunciation, collocation, syntax, spelling, word field etc.
And how do we create good CCQ’s?
Usually, the best approach is to follow these three simple steps:
Think of the underlying meanings/concepts
Break the meanings into short phrases (see example below)
Turn the phrases into a series of simple questions
By underlying meanings, I mean the concepts or notions hidden inside the words, phrases, or sentence patterns
An example with a single word:
– one of the fingers
– part of the hand
– not part of a foot
Some words need only a couple of questions, others more, especially if have an abstract meaning or if they carry some attitudinal overtones (connotations)
- – you didn’t tell me
- – It’s a done thing
- – It’s in the past
- – I am angry
- – it was your job to tell me
- – now it’s too late
- – I missed something because of this
- – I am protesting
- – I am being critical
- – My intonation shows I am upset
- – we are friends
- – we are peers
- – I can talk to you like this
As you notice, the phrases (or propositions) are not restricted to conceptual meaning but include feelings/attitudes, functions (speaker intentions), pronunciation/intonation, whether the phrase is socially acceptable/appropriate and more (e.g. discourse, although the example here did not cover this)
Think! Review the short phrases above and decide which is which: Form – Meaning – Function – Phonology – Social Appropriacy
These phrases can be turned into a few simple questions, e.g.
- How does Jane feel? (angry/upset)
- How do you know? (tone of voice/intonation)
- Was Jane told? Did she know? (no)
- What relationship can you guess? (friends/close)
- Whose job was it to tell Jane? (the friend’s)
- Is Jane advising or criticising? (criticising)
And, of course, if this sentence was from an already presented context, more questions, like, “what is it that Jane is mad about?” etc
Do you notice how the many propositional meanings can be combined and collapsed into just a few questions?
We must not make CCQ’s too cumbersome or tiresome!
So how do we write some good CCQ’s?
Good concept questions are not easy to write – they require a depth of analytical as well as intuitive understanding of what we are trying to check and not just what the grammar book says. Some of you may even have spotted the links to componential analysis which good CCQ design entails.
Good CCQ’s should
– be short and simply expressed
– be easy to answer in one or two words
– not contain vocabulary or structures more difficult than what we are trying to check
– not contain the target language pattern (though they may include the target word, esp if demonstrating it, e.g. Which of these two fingers is my thumb?)
– be varied, not just be simple Q & A’s; for example they can be a series of T/F statements (see below for ideas)
Should CCQ’s be just questions?
Although they are called questions, they don’t have to be. They can be true and false statements, they can be incomplete sentences, they can be questions with a binary choice to help learners or they can be non-verbal ways of checking – in fact, teachers can use any and all the methods they use for the presentation vocabulary or grammar in order to check its understanding, and this includes
- pictures (Which one shows the word?),
- time lines (Which time line fits this sentence?),
- physical activity like miming or demonstrating,
- and even asking for a translation in the mother tongue or
- asking the learners to say which translation is the most appropriate.
Finally, a very important point which escapes many trainees, is that concept clarification through questioning of this kind becomes easier when the target language appears in a context of use.
Abstract conceptualisations in contrived/ teacher designed sentences which are not shown embedded in a context of use are a headache to check and totally unmemorable and forgettable. So, even if you have contorted yourself into asking a series of very good questions, you should know that this new understanding may be very quickly forgotten if there is no meaningful association to attach it to.
So make your presentations memorable and embed language in real contexts of use. In this way, your target language will have more staying power and your CCQ’s may have a longer lasting effect.
In a further post, I would like to include some more ways of checking learning and understanding.
Language Analysis for Teaching – Is it the last thing you do? Very useful blog post written by Alexander Makarios, one of our CELTA tutors at CELT