What about your concept questions? The famous CCQ’s

Big question mark

Photo by Benjamin Reay via Compfight

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 

  • 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.

An Example

Imagine you have just presented the following words using the techniques listed next to each one.

  1. thumb you  put up and then pointed to your thumb
  2. pet you pointed to a magazine picture of a dog
  3. 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:

  1. Think of the underlying meanings/concepts
  2. Break the meanings into short phrases (see example below)
  3. 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)

An example with a pattern

 ‘You should have told me!’

    • – 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:   FormMeaningFunctionPhonologySocial Appropriacy 

These phrases can be turned into a few simple questions, e.g.

  1. How does Jane feel?                            (angry/upset)
  2. How do you know?                               (tone of voice/intonation)
  3. Was Jane told? Did she know?              (no)
  4. What relationship can you guess?         (friends/close)
  5. Whose job was it to tell Jane?             (the friend’s)
  6. 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.Creative Commons License Horia Varlan via Compfight

Good CCQ’s should

  • be short and simple

  • – 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,
  • opposites,
  • synonyms,
  • definitions,
  •  examples,
  • explanations,
  • and even asking for a translation in the mother tongue or
  • asking the learners to say which translation is the most appropriate.

A Caution

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.

Do you need further professional development?
Check out one of our CELTA, Delta or our shorter courses


37 replies

  1. Hi Marisa,

    Great summary! CCQs are easy enough to understand, but it takes a lot of practice to be able to do this on the fly. Your points about “Do you understand?” and translations are spot on, as well.

    • Thanks, John!

      I remember my first teacher – I was seven – who translated the word “arm” using High Greek.

      It took me a while to understand that arm didn’t mean “a short vowel” – which, I must say was a word I knew but whose meaning I didn’t understand either !!!!



  2. This is a really good article and I really appreciate you sharing. I believe CCQ’s are essential when you’re teaching .As you said, students invariably answer “yes” to the question “Is everything clear? and “no” to the question ” Do you need me to repeat anything?” , that’s why we should make an effort so as not to forget them when teaching.

  3. Thanks Marisa for this. I will certainly be passing it on to my trainees next time I’m teaching on a diploma course! I particularly like the three stage process you arrive at to get the CC questions. I’ve sometimes found this hard, and my trainees too!

    Personally I think any past modal or conditional is the best “suited” for the concept check question (e.g. Was I mad? Did you tell me? etc)

    Have just been flicking through Jim Scrivener’s new book Teaching English Grammar. For every grammar point there he lists a series of concept check questions – useful! Thought I’d pass it on.

    • Thanks, Lindsay and thanks for book tip; haven’t seen that one yet but sounds really worth having a look at, although I do also think that teachers in training need to go through the process of working it out for themselves rather than finding everything ready.

  4. Thank you for sharing those savvy teaching tips. Checking student comprehension remains a challenge at all levels and with all ages.

    Yesterday, for example, I described a shocking event as “jaw-dropping” to an advanced oral skills class of graduate students. Two students immediately asked what “jaw-dropping” meant. Sometimes, especially with higher level students, it’s easy forget the problems presented by using American idioms and academic vocabulary. Your article is a gentle reminder for this experienced instructor to check comprehension more often.

  5. Thanks a lot Marisa, even for people who have completed teaching courses these reminders are really valuable.
    I also believe that if one carefully prepares CCQs before every lesson, then it gets easy to ask the appropriate ones on the spot.
    As for Jim Scrivener’s grammar book, I totally agree with you!

  6. I would also suggest elaborating and personalizing the vocabulary as much as possible within the concept check – i.e. as you did with thumb –

    Do you have a pet? (yes- what kind – did you always have pets when you were a child?) (no, why not – not even a fish?) Would you like to have one now?

    Starving – how do you feel when you’re starving – do you get dizzy (act faint) or do you get in a bad mood (frown) – do you ever skip meals? What do you usually eat when you’re starving and you’re in the city?

  7. Just want to say that I think Karenne’s ideas above are great as part of a follow up to concept check questions – they help develop a dialogic style of learning and rapport in class.

  8. Karenne and Lindsay,

    Thanks for elaborating on this. Personalising and building associative networks is part of the sequence of vocabulary acquisition, you are absolutely right and can be part of checking, too!

    Adding cognitive and affective depth, as it were, if I may use a bit of jargon again!



  9. Hi Marisa,

    Like everyone else I know of CCQ, completely agree on the importance of them, but forget about them one too many times. Despite thorough planning I especally have difficulty in asking concept questions when I teach something I hadn’t planned, be it vocabulary from a spontaneous comment or a question from one of the students. I believe those moments are the hardest at which to remember to ask concept questions.

    It’s like John said…practice, practice, practice! Thanks for sharing this and reminding me of it! 🙂

    • Hi Cecilia,

      I haven’t yet seen the Scrivener book which sounds like a great tool.

      I usually recommend two sources for doublechecking intuitions about concepts of different grammatical structures and vocabulary:

      1/ Teaching Tenses by Rosemary Aitken

      2/ The Words you need and More Words You Need, two fantastic resources for advanced users and teachers

      I find these are of great help to both native and non-native speaker teachers.

      A further book I recommend is “Function in English“, great for doublechecking intuitions about functional aspects of meaning

      The bad news is that two of these books (2 and 3)are out of print but you may still find them a second hand copy online. The original one, “The Words you Need” costs 131 GBP on Amazon.co.uk!!! The second one is really cheap.


  10. Hi Marisa,

    Thank you so much for those references. I will take a look and see if I can find them in my school’s library – I might get lucky. Because if it takes me 60 days to get a copy of “Teaching Unplugged” here, I can’t imagine the hassle of finding those out of print books 😉

  11. Hi Marisa
    A lovely post. How do you feel when you’re pretty sure all but one of the students get it, but one doesn’t? In the past, I have felt my embarrassment rising as I try to explain/demonstrate/etc. The learner wishes s/he were anywhere except at the centre of ten or more pairs of eyes impatiently waiting for the penny to drop. If this happens now, I let him/her know that I realise they don’t understand, and that I will do my best to resolve it more privately (e.g. when the others are interacting or writing). Fewer red faces all round.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, David. I find that, more often than not, when students fail to understand, it’s something to do with the teacher, so, I agree, if despite all your CCQ’s and efforts a student still does not get it, a private word is best.


  12. Hi Marisa

    This a is a great post and so apt a description on how messages can be misinterpreted. Strangely enough and most often, even adults fail to understand that a message or an instruction is clear in his / her own head but may impart a not so clear message to the receiver.


  13. Hi Marisa,

    thanks for this post. I agree with your question as to whether CCQs have to be only questions since by using images, time lines and miming or gestures we cater for the different learning styles that our students may have. Have you any more thoughts on this subject? Also how can we make checking understanding more student centred and therefore more communicative?

  14. Ask if they understand and students often smile and nod or just stay silent. I’ll have to admit that I’m guilty of asking them if they understand as well. I’ll have to catch myself next time and use some of the tips you’ve suggested.

  15. Hi Marisa

    I’m interested in the history of the ccq, mainly the three-point approach as you nicely present it. I wonder would you know who first presented it, and on which courses (CELTA?) it features prominently. Would you be able to help me pls?
    Tony Penston

    • Hi Tony,

      I really don’t have much to report by way of how CCQs were developed in the profession in general.

      For me, the idea came from my studies in Applied Linguistics and by studying propositional analysis and transformational generative grammar models. The idea came through componential analysis in semantics, really, and I slowly began to develop my training materials since then.

      I first started using them in the early 90’s, on various courses, introductions to TEFL, RSA Diploma courses and later, CELTA and DELTA – these training materials, you understand, have gone through several transformations, as is usual.

      When you posed the question, I had a quick look around and found an article on the British Council – BBC website which, to my horror is very much like mine, only better…

      And it was published in 2006, so it looks a bit like I copied it!!!

      But as I remembered writing my own article somewhat earlier, I looked at the Wayback Machine and, to my relief, I found proof that my article had been published in September 2003 or a bit before!!!

      Here is the link to my original article – it was called “What have they Understood?” and looked at more than one ways of checking understanding

      So, phew! Hey, I wasn’t copying anyone when I wrote it!!!

      Hope this helps


  16. Thank you for explaining this. I am trying to include some CELTA info in a project for a graduate class in Bilingual Education. A friend of mine who teaches English in Singapore has mentioned this to me, and I wanted to learn more so I could include it with my final project. Your article was very helpful…and it will help me with my students who are not ELLs as well.

  17. Hi Marisa
    Checking through some stuff and I’ve just seen I never thanked you for your reply to my question. Better late than never I trust. Thank you indeed, so.

  18. Hi Marisa,

    Thanks for such helpful information. I am currently taking an ICELT course and these questions have given me a lot to think about and they can be a little hard to make. Your simple approach has been really enlightening!

  19. “She also develops as a teacher by noticing what works or does not work in the classroom.”
    Good reason why we should use CCQs, Marisa

  20. Hi Marisa, thank you so much for this brilliant article. I agree that CCQ is a rather challenging area to master as a TEFL teacher!

    May I ask what do you think the best method is to concept check musical instruments? To concept check the word ‘trumpet’ for example, my idea is to show students 3 images of musical instruments and ask them to pick out the trumpet.

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