Concept Checking Revisited

This is the first (hopefully) in a series of posts going Back to Basics, re-examining techniques and ideas introduced on teacher training courses.

Concept checking questionsMany teachers are introduced to the idea of concept checking in their initial teacher training courses, try it out for a bit, and then forget about it. Sound familiar?

What is concept checking?
The British Council Teaching English website defines concept checking simply as

finding out if a learner has understood a new item.

With concrete items, this could be as simple as asking a learner to point to an object in the room. With more abstract ideas, this could be targeted questions to explore the parameters of meaning.

Why is it useful?
Concept checking can help the teacher to see beyond doubt that the student has understood. Asking the class ‘do you understand?’ is not so useful as it doesn’t demonstrate the learners’ understanding.

What can it be used for?
The most obvious use for concept checking questions is vocabulary. They can also be useful for grammatical structures and ideas.

Concept Checking Vocabulary
Let’s look at a lexical item in context:

Last Easter, we took the overnight ferry from Palermo to Naples.

Ustica Island, Sicily  © Jonathan Ingham

Ustica Island, Sicily
© Jonathan Ingham

Possible concept checking questions

  • Is a ferry small or large?  large
  • Is a ferry fast or slow?  slow
  • Is a ferry for people or industry?  people and industry
  • Can you take your car on a ferry?  yes
  • Where else can you go by ferry from Palermo?  Genova, Citavecchia, Tunisia, Ustica
  • Which boat is a ferry? (Showing flashcard)  learners point
  • Have you ever been on a ferry? Where did you go?  students’ own answers.

Concept Checking Grammar
Let’s look at a grammatical structure in context:

By December, Sophie will have been living in Paris for 3 years. (It is now June 2014).

Possible concept checking questions

  • Does Sophie live in Paris now?  Yes
  • Has she always lived in Paris?  No
  • When did she move to Paris?  2 1/2 years ago or December 2011.
  • Will she be in Paris in December?  Yes
  • So is this sentence talking about the past, the present or the future?  The past, the present and the future.

This could be followed up with a timeline:timeline

How can you write a good concept checking questions?

1. First, take a good monolingual dictionary to check the core meaning of the lexical item, or a good grammar reference book to check the meaning of the structure.

2. Write down the core meaning.

3. Turn these sentences into simple questions.

E.g.  I visited a charming old village full of quaint houses.

1. Definition

2. Core meaning
It is interesting… It is attractive… It is unusual… It is old-fashioned.

3. Concept checking questions
Are the houses interesting or boring?  interesting
Are they attractive or ugly?  attractive
Are they normal or strange?  strange
Are they old-fashioned or modern?  old-fashioned

Different types of concept checking questions.

Display questions and referential questions

Display questions are those which the teacher already knows the answer to and is simply asking to check the core meaning. There is a clear right or wrong answer.
Referential questions are real questions, they are more open and the students can respond more freely and personally.

E.g. We went to a really bustling market full of life.

Display question   Are there a lot of people or very few people in a bustling area?

Referential question   Where is a bustling area in your city?

It is good to use a variety of question types, it is more logical perhaps to begin with display questions then move on to referential questions.

Display questions can be:

  • Closed questions  E.g. Is a test-tube big or small?
  • Open questions  E.g. What can you buy in a newsagent’s?
  • Trick questions  E.g. So, when you are made redundant, you did something wrong at work, right?
  • Sentence finishers   E.g. A screwdriver is used for…

Common pitfalls  

  • Checking the context rather than the concept.   E.g. ‘He didn’t know the answer to the exam question so he made something up‘.   CCQ – ‘Did he pass the exam?’ (This does not check the meaning of the phrasal verb ‘make up’).
  • Using language more difficult than the item being checked.    E.g. ‘When Bill arrived, we were having lunch’.   CCQ – ‘Had we already started lunch when Bill arrived?  (If teaching the past continuous, the students are unlikely to have much awareness of the past perfect).
  • Using the target language in the CCQ.   E.g. He hasn’t finished his homework yet.  CCQ – ‘Has he already finished?’ (Checking the present perfect with the present perfect).
  • Using CCQs unnecessarily.  E.g.  Teacher shows the class a picture of an eagle in flight and asks a CCQ – ‘Can an eagle fly?’ (Bemused look from students!)

In summary:
Good concept checking questions should:

  • Relate to a model sentence in some sort of context.
  • Be thought out carefully at the planning stage to ensure the core meaning is being checked.
  • Be easy to answer – yes/no, one-word answers.
  • Be surrounded by language which is easy to understand.

With thanks to my own teacher trainers at IH Palermo for first introducing me to CCQs and my Delta trainers at IH London for helping me revisit them myself.

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25 Responses to Concept Checking Revisited

  1. Pingback: Concept Checking Revisited | TeachingEnglish | ...

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  4. Reblogged this on The Cambridge CELTA Blog and commented:
    Great post revisiting those pesky Concept Checking Questions you all worry about 🙂

    Read on!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. oppy says:

    waoh !have learnt so much and i apply these tips in teaching mathematics.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Gloria says:

    Great post of real help! Thank u do much por sharing


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  10. Very useful. I wrote a similar post a while ago and yours nicely supplements it, and looks at some things I did not look at. I added the link to your post under mine so the readers there can find it:


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  12. Clare says:

    I find that sometimes trainee teachers try so hard to write concept questions that they become absurd, e.g. “Do you find a wardrobe in a jungle?”, “So if you are a runner up and you finish second, do you finish first?” etc.


    • jonnyingham says:

      They certainly do. I sometimes wish I’d kept a book of the bizarre concept checking questions I’ve seen in lesson plans and observed in lessons. ‘Do birds go shopping?’ was one of my favourites!


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  14. cjgal says:

    Reblogged this on ESL Teacher support and commented:
    This is a great post on formative assessments that can be done in the classroom that check a students actual understanding of a concept and not just context. I can tend to get into a rut when it comes to context checks in class, and this has many many sound suggestions.


  15. LouYv Celta says:

    Fabulous post with our CELTA trainees really benefiting from it and our CELTA trainers loving it too! It’s definitely doing the rounds on Facebook down here in Gran Canaria. Thanks Jonny!


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  17. hartle says:

    Very useful post which I’ve shared with my trainee teachers. Thank you very much 🙂


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  20. Pingback: How to write CCQs (concept checking questions) | Sandy Millin

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