Teaching techniques: Concept questions

teaching

What are concept questions?

Concept questions (also referred to as concept checking questions or CCQs) are questions designed to check learners’ understanding of a language item.

How do we make concept questions?

To formulate effective questions, we need to keep in mind several key points:

  1. Concept questions need to cover every aspect of the meaning of the language item.

    For example:

    “You don’t have to do your homework”.
    Is it necessary to do your homework? (no)

    This question checks one aspect of the meaning, but is not enough to cover every aspect, and doesn’t address the possible (and common) confusion with “mustn’t”. We need to add at least one more question to overcome this:

    “You don’t have to do your homework”.
    Is it necessary to do your homework? (no)
    Can you do your homework if you want to? (yes)

    Here’s another example:

    “an oven”
    Can you cook food in it? (yes)

    This question covers perhaps the most important aspect of the meaning of “an oven”, but doesn’t distinguish between “an oven” and “a microwave”, “a saucepan”, or anything else that you could conceivably cook food in. We would need to add some more questions to eliminate these other possibilities.

  2. Concept checking questions shouldn’t use the target language.

    For example, to check understanding of past progressive used to interrupt another action in the past:

    “I was eating dinner when you called”.
    Was I eating dinner before you called?

    The question attempts to address one of the aspects of the meaning (the action started before you called) but it uses the very same language of which we are trying to check the understanding.

    So we need to formulate our questions in another way:

    “I was eating dinner when you called”.
    Did I start eating my dinner before you called? (yes)
    Did I stop eating my dinner when you called? (maybe)

    Verb forms like this lend themselves very well to having their understanding checked with timelines. If you are referring to a timeline on the board with the short “past simple” action already marked, you could reformulate your questions like this:

    When did I start eating dinner?
    When did I stop eating dinner?

  3. Concept questions should check the understanding of the language item, not of the situation.

    For example, when checking understanding of mustn’t:

    “You mustn’t walk on the grass”.
    Why mustn’t I walk on the grass?

    This question, quite apart from using the target language itself (see point 2), is checking understanding of the situation – the reasons why it is forbidden to walk on the grass – and not the meaning of mustn’t. Instead, we need to ask:

    Is it ok if I walk on the grass? (no)
    Can I decide? (no)

  4. The questions shouldn’t use language which is overly complicated or long-winded, or more complicated than the target language.

    For example:

    “I had my nails done yesterday”.
    Did I enlist the services of a beautician and put myself in his charge to undergo a manicure, or did I perform this beauty treatment myself?

    This is, of course, an exaggerated example. The type of question, however, is a good one – it asks for a simple choice between two possibilities, and this brings us to point 5:

  5. Concept questions should, where possible, require a simple yes or no, or a choice between two possibilities.

    If you add shades of meaning, nuance and the possibility of debate to the answers, the likelihood of a successful check of understanding are reduced.

    So, with the “nails” example, we can ask the same question like this:

    “I had my nails done yesterday”.
    Who did my nails? (the beautician)

    Or, if you like:

    Who did my nails? The beautician or me? (the beautician)

    You could even go further, and present the choice between two possibilities by contrasting the target language with the alternative:

    “I had my nails done yesterday”.
    Who did my nails? (the beautician)
    “I did my nails last weekend”.
    Who did my nails? (me)

    Here are a few more examples:

    “She’s just come back from India”.
    Did she go to India? (yes)
    Did she go a long or short time ago? (a short time ago)

    “If only I’d arrived yesterday”.
    Did I arrive yesterday? (no)
    Do I feel good or bad? (bad)

    “He’s over the moon”.
    Is he happy or sad? (happy)
    Is he a little happy or very happy? (very happy)

15 comments

  1. Andrea Goldman

    There seems to be this myth that concept checking questions must never contain the target language and yet perpetuators of this myth usually go on to give examples of concept checking questions that do contain the target language: e.g.
    ‘snow’: Is snow cold? Does it snow in your country? ‘wardrobe’ Do you keep clothes in a wardrobe?’ Would a better rule be that you usually do not use target GRAMMAR in concept checking questions? HELP!

    • esl base

      A good point, yes. Using the target language is very often necessary when concept checking vocabulary. Your new definition of the rule is a good one for concept checking grammar items.

  2. Amy

    Thank you! This information was very helpful in my understanding to ask SIMPLE concept questions relating to the topic/situation.

  3. Elena Nigmand Angelova

    Isn’t it more about why we need to ask the concept Qs? And then decide on what we should try and what we should try not to do?
    I was also taught concept Qs are very OK with various types of elicitations. Any ideas when?

  4. jack

    I am confused now…… You give a good description of using concept questions….. very helpful…… but then Andrea completely debunks your article……. with a very valid point….. and you instantly agree with her……
    Also, ‘yes/no’ answers from students? Surely a full sentence answer is better…. and gives the student chance to repeat the target language……
    I am not trying to make you people unhappy…… or be arrogant….. I could be wrong…… Be lucky!!

    • Eslbase

      Hi Jack

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that Andrea’s point was very valid, but I’m not sure I agree that it completely debunks the article.

      Her point was about using the target language when concept checking vocabulary, as opposed to concept checking grammar. She added some very useful precision to my point about not using the target language, pointing out that when concept checking VOCABULARY, it can sometimes be okay (and even helpful) to use the taget language in the question.

      Hope that helps.

  5. Parisa

    hey there.
    thanx for ur helpfull points.
    What about the passive voice. How can we check this?
    It’s the most difficult part of teaching grammar I think.

  6. Anna

    Anyone know a good concept checking question for this? He takes after his father?

    • Robby Pharona

      Supposing the subject’s name is Jack, the following questions pertains: “Is similar to his father?”

      If you were to dig for further understanding, “Whom do you take after?”

      I disagree that you should always be seeking yes/no answers in CCQs. A student has a 50% chance of success from the beginning. Terrible idea.

  7. jay

    hello any idea on how to elicit the usage from students and the description of the usage in a lesson plan

  8. Ruth Greene

    Do you think CCQ can be used in other subjects? For example, where foreign learners are in a mainstream school and the teacher is not sure if they have understood some concept in physics, maths, English Lit etc?

    • Eslbase_558

      I don’t see why not!

  9. Paloma

    Are these “good” concept questions to check understanding of Passive voice?

    “What is important in this sentence the person or the action?”
    “Do I know who did the action’?
    “Do I need to know?”

    Thanks

    • Eslbase

      Hi Paloma

      I think it would depend a little on the particular passive sentence and the reason for using passive voice instead of active voice. But, generally speaking, your questions are good, and would work for a large number of passive sentences.

  10. Andrew Goddard

    There is, I think, an obvious flaw in the whole idea of very simplistic concept check questions of this nature, which is this: They run contrary to the whole idea of teaching using the communicative method (given that they are binary questions that require one word answers).

    I also believe that many users may find them patronizing, particularly if the lesson is in a one-to-one context.

    In the context of a one-to-one lesson, it’s better, I think, to invite a student to talk about the target language as a means of seeing whether they have understood. For example, with the oven:

    “What types of food can you cook in an oven?” “Are there some foods (e..g pizza) that can only be cooked in an oven?” “What was the last thing that you cooked in an oven?” If they start talking about peas then it’s likely that they’ve not understood

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