Designing Good Concept Checking Questions – CCQ’s

CCQ’s in the TEFL jargon which we all love to use are those questions which you need to ask right after you have taught something, be it a grammar point of a functional exponent, and they are also the questions you need to ask right after you have explained an activity to your class which you think may need clarification.

Generations of my CELTA, TEFL and DELTA trainees have agonized 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.

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.

What is the most popular way of making sure students have understood?

Yes, you have guessed it : ‘Do you understand?‘  or ‘Have you understood?‘ or ‘Is this clear?’ and all its possible permutations, down to “OK”?

Photo by Benjamin Reay via Compfight

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 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.

Concept Checking Questions (or CCQ’s)

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 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.

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 propositions
  2. List these propositions
  3. Turn the propositions into a series of simple questions

By underlying propositions, I mean the concepts or notions within words, phrases, sentence patterns

An example of a lexical item


– one of the fingers
– part of the hand
– not part of a foot

An example of a pattern

You should have told me!

– you didn’t tell me
– 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

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.

And finally, good concept questions, especially for patterns of language, should never include the pattern we are trying to check!!!

Can you think why?

Note – this post first appeared on my TEFL Matters blog in 2010. Click on the link if you would like to read the comments posted there.

Published by Marisa Constantinides

I train TEFL teachers at CELT in Athens Greece and online - our main courses are Cambridge CELTA and Delta. I interact with educators from all over the world through social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and through blogging

3 thoughts on “Designing Good Concept Checking Questions – CCQ’s

  1. It’s quite easy to fall into the questionnaire trap when checking for vocabulary comprehension. If the the class is A1 or similar, beginner’s language and gesturing (sometimes even drawing) is better. This is because some of the verbs and structures used for the questions may or may not have been previously introduced as target language, thus rendering the CCQ stage moot.

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