Do you understand what is meant by ‘concept checking’?

  • Yes?
  • No?

If you said yes, how do I know that you really understand what I want you to understand? The answer is that I don’t.

If you ask a student ‘do you understand?’, a ‘yes’ response is virtually meaningless.  This is because someone may answer ‘yes’ for a number of reasons:

  • I don’t want people to think I am ignorant.
  • I’m shy and if I just give any answer, maybe the teacher will leave me alone and pick on someone else.
  • I think I understand (luckily you do!)
  • I think I understand (actually, you don’t!)

At heart we all know ‘do you understand?’ is a bad question, but I suspect that we all fall into the trap of using it from time to time. I certainly do! In this article, we will look at ways to check whether our students really understand the concepts we are hoping they will learn.

As teachers, we are probably familiar with the idea of Concept Checking Questions (CCQs). In short, concept checking means checking the learner’s understanding of difficult aspects of the target vocabulary or structure we are teaching, in terms of form, function and meaning.   

We know we should use CCQs frequently and habitually, but we often don’t. They can sometimes seem a bit false and repetitive, and we may feel they slow the lesson down too much. In this article, we will begin with the construction of CCQs and suggest some useful questions that can easily be adapted to different aspects of teaching English. We will then go on to suggest some additional activities to check and evaluate how well our students are understanding the concepts we are hoping for them to learn. Concept checking isn’t only about asking questions!

Concept Checking Questions

At the end of this article, you will find a free download full of instruction and concept checking questions you can easily adapt to most areas of English teaching. It could be used as an aide-memoire or as a stimulus to generate more question ideas. It might be worth pinning it to your desk. But first, let’s look at a few examples of CCQs in context before we think in more detail about how to compose our own Concept Checking Questions.

Examples:

The question at the start of this article was ‘Do you understand what is meant by concept checking?’ In order to make the answer more meaningful, the question would have to be rephrased so that your answer was more illuminating. In fact, there are several questions that might be useful:

  • What is a concept? It is an idea, often quite abstract.
  • What is a concept in the context of English Language teaching? It is the form, meaning or function of a particular structure or item of vocabulary.
  • What does checking mean in this context? It means finding out if the students can really understand and use the target structure or vocabulary accurately.

These three CCQs and their answers give us much more information than the generic question, ‘do you understand?’.

Okay, let’s say we are teaching the past progressive/continuous form, and the concept we want the students to understand is ‘an interrupted activity that occurred in the past’. Write on the board and say out loud, “I was eating my dinner when the telephone rang.”

Possible CCQs

  • Did I start eating before the telephone rang? Yes.
  • Had I finished eating when the telephone rang? No.
  • Did I continue eating after the telephone rang? Maybe/probably yes.
  • Am I eating now? No.
  • Is the phone ringing now? No.
  • Did these things happen in the present or the past? The past.
  • What did I do when the telephone started to ring? You (probably) answered/picked up the phone.
  • When did the telephone ring? While you were eating.

Notice that none of the questions are written in the target language (in this case, the past continuous/progressive). Only the final answer is in the target language. With lower-level students, it shouldn’t be necessary to answer in the target language if they can demonstrate an understanding of the concept. Also, notice that the answers required for each question are always clear and simple, but become a little more complex towards the end. It is useful to begin with yes/no or fifty/fifty questions and answers and progress to questions that require slightly more thought and complexity to answer.

Let’s look at a more complex concept for B1 level students.

Imagine we are teaching the second conditional for imagined or unlikely situations. Write the following sentence on the board and say it aloud. “If I won the lottery, I would travel around the world.” You might also draw some quick line drawings to illustrate the idea. Possible concept checking questions would be as follows.

  • Have I won the lottery? No
  • Am I going to win the lottery? Probably not.
  • Am I really going to travel around the world? Probably not.
  • Have I got a lottery ticket? Maybe/We don’t know.
  • Is this a real, or imaginary situation? It’s an imaginary situation.
  • What does imaginary mean? It means something you see in your mind, but it isn’t real.
  • Would I like to travel around the world? Yes, you probably would like to.

While both the concept checking questions themselves and the target answers are short and simple, you should encourage students to answer in full sentences where possible as this will usually make the concept clearer. Notice that while the first four questions are mainly checking understanding of the form, the final questions are highlighting the lexical concept.

Creating your own CCQs

Step One

Research the concept you are intending to teach. The concept might be primarily grammatical or lexical or a mixture of both. Look in your ‘go-to’ grammar books or dictionaries or look online. Try to look at several sources to get different perspectives. Make sure you are clear in your own mind about the function and/or meaning you want to convey.

Step Two

Write a few sentences which exemplify the concept you are teaching. Keep those sentences as short as possible. Read through them. Check they make sense and that your students would understand them.

Step Three

Write two or three questions for each of the sentences you have written in step two. Ask yourself if the answers to those questions really highlight the concept you want your students to recognise. Be honest with yourself about those answers!

Step Four

If you are confident that the questions you have composed succeed in highlighting the concept you are teaching, use them in the classroom. If they do indeed work well, keep a record of them to use or adapt for other classes or revision.

Here are some general tips for writing CCQs. The best CCQs:

  • Are as short as possible.
  • Should clearly underline the target concept and only the target concept.
  • Are usually written in the present simple or past simple.
  • Don’t contain the actual target language.
  • Only use language the students are already familiar with.
  • Can be reused and/or adapted to check the same concept at other levels.

Concept Checking Activities

Point, touch or draw

These kinds of activities are particularly useful for younger students to check vocabulary.  For example: “touch your nose,” or “point to your ear,” or “draw a mouth on this face.”

Pictures/Illustrations

You can use pictures and illustrations to further highlight the concept you are teaching. Ask students to describe aspects of the picture which emphasise the concept and ask them more CCQs as they proceed. When you are confident that they understand the concept, you could ask the students to draw similar illustrations in their books or on the board and perhaps even encourage them to formulate their own concept checking questions to test their classmates with.

Timelines

Timelines are a particular form of illustration that are very useful for demonstrating tenses. Simple stick drawings along the timeline show clearly what happened and when. Once you have demonstrated the concept you want the students to learn, you could ask your students to draw timelines to illustrate situations or stories you tell or dictate to them, to further emphasise the point.  Timelines, as the name suggests, tend to focus on time relationships.  However, other aspects of tense, such as duration and completion/non-completion can also be indicated by the use of wavy lines for continuous/progressive forms and lines with either arrows or block endings to distinguish between perfect and imperfect forms.

Drama/Acting Out

Miming actions and activities is an excellent way to demonstrate a lot of concepts. As the teacher, you might begin the activity but then get the students to mime things for the rest of the class to guess.

Use drama and acting out as a way of physicalising the activities you might do with pictures. Perhaps begin by asking your students in groups – or possibly as a whole class – to create a three-dimensional tableau representing one of the pictures you have looked at. Each student plays the part of somebody in the original picture. You can then get them to animate the scene, moving and stopping according to your instructions. (This is particularly useful for making timelines more dynamic). You can ask further CCQs as you go along. “What is happening now? What will happen next? What happened before that? What was Sam doing when Alex opened the window? Who is nearest the door? Who is next to a chair?”

The tableaux activity described above can be further extended by adding dialogue and creating mini sketches. You could ask your students to create their own scenes from scratch using keywords and phrases which reinforce the concept you are exploring.

In addition to the ideas mentioned above, there are plenty of dialogue activities, roleplays, vocabulary games, writing and listening activities that can be adapted to deepen the students’ understanding of the forms and functions you are teaching. For more advanced students writing translations and discussing similarities and differences between the English form and equivalents in their own language can also be useful.

CCQs aid Lesson Planning

While concept checking normally begins with the sometimes-laborious process of composing very specific questions, it can naturally flow into more dynamic, student-centred activities. The CCQs can be used to solidify the aims and objectives of the lesson and provide a framework for the lesson plan itself.

Below is a free download full of instruction and concept checking questions you can easily adapt to most areas of English teaching.

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