There aren’t many things that I think should be comprehensively banned from EFL classrooms, but the use of closed CCQs (Concept-Checking Questions) for items of vocabulary is one! For those of you unfamiliar with CCQs, they seem to have come into the ELT mainstream via International House and the very early teacher training courses offered there, and have gone on to become part of what is now widely considered to be CELTA orthodoxy. The basic idea is that simply explaining what something means is insufficient and therefore teachers need to ask their students questions to check whether or not they’ve actually grasped the ‘concepts’ that have been laid out for them. CCQs tend to be closed yes / no questions and just to be clear, I’m not opposed to their use in all circumstances.
They make perfect sense on those (hopefully fairly rare) occasions that you’re dealing with a grammar structure that students may not have encountered before, and are doing your presentation, with the setting up of a context, and the model sentences that end up on the board. Imagine, if you will, that I’d asked a student to draw a quick cartoon of me now and had then drawn a little picture of me thirty years ago – hair much longer, cigarette in hand, sunglasses on, bottle of vodka on the go – and had asked the class what differences they could see, which either resulted in a student noting that I used to have long hair or me having to say it myself. I’d probably end up with sentences like these on the board:
I used to have really long hair.
I used to smoke a lot more.
I used to drink a lot more.
I used to go out five nights a week.
I used to play in a band.
Now, I’d hope the context made things clear, but just to check I might then ask “So do I have long hair now?” And get the answer “No!” “And in the past? When I was younger?” “Yes!” Job done. CCQs work well here because the form is clear from the examples and the underlying meaning of the structure can easily be checked with these two short yes / no questions.
Of course, none of this means I’d expect students to have now magically ‘got’ this structure or that they’d realistically start using it at every possible opportunity henceforth. They may start using it correctly in one or two sentences, possibly to say things that are true about themselves and that they’d been helped to say during the class. However, I’ve been at the job long enough to recognise that broader accurate usage will take time and will depend of further exposure and noticing, L1 influence, conscious recycling of things via teacher talking time, reading and listening texts, and so on.
However, when we come to vocabulary, CCQs become something of a curse. A typical example of their misuse can be illustrated by asking you to picture the following scene. It’s an Intermediate-level class and the students are reading a text. An arm goes up and someone asks what the word abandoned means. Wary of being seen as too ‘teacher-centred’ or of telling students what they could potentially tell him / her, and keen to encourage learners to deduce new items from context, the teacher launches into the CCQs. “Well, is this building abandoned?” One or two rather bemused-looking students manage a “No”. “But what about at night? Is it abandoned then?”. It’s at this point the class grinds to some kind of halt as students avoid eye contact, mutter shared translations between themselves or sneak a peek at a dictionary under the table.
Now this may sound like an extreme example, but I’ve seen similar occurrences time and time again. The first and most obvious thing to say here is that there’s little point trying to check whether or not students understand something if they’ve just asked you what it means! Even if you do want to use CCQs, there needs to have first been a ‘concept’ that is then checked. This means the first step is for the teacher to look at context in which the item in question appeared and explain the meaning from there. This might mean saying something like “An abandoned house is a house that’s been left empty and is no longer used. The owners have just left it – they’ve abandoned it – and it’s now slowly falling to pieces.”
Once you’ve done this, the kind of closed CCQs above become, at best, redundant and at worst, ridiculous. If students have understood your explanation, they’ll struggle to grasp why you’re asking if a building in which they’re currently studying is abandoned – even at night! The answer is so obviously no that it’s patronising to even bother asking. It requires almost nothing of the class and it adds almost nothing to students’ ability to use the word in any kind of meaningful context. Meanwhile, of course, any students who didn’t get your initial explanation, for whatever reason, are still none the wiser and will almost inevitably now resort to the aforementioned survival techniques of avoidance, translation or dictionary use!
When I was thinking about where I wanted to go with this blog post, I Googled CCQs to see what advice is out there on the web for novice teachers still getting to grips with everyday classroom procedures. One of the first sites I came across recommends using CCQs after you’ve defined a word such as banana. As it notes, “you may have talked about fruits, shapes, peel, the favourite food of chimpanzees, etc. but how do you know the students have understood? They may have completely misunderstood the meaning of banana and confused it with an apple.” It then goes on to suggest that if you have just taught the word banana, you can ask the following questions: Is a banana red? Are bananas hard or soft? Are bananas eaten by monkeys or tigers?
My immediate thought on reading this was that if you can’t clearly clarify to a low-level group what a banana is you probably shouldn’t be teaching. My next thought was that if you had managed to successfully convey the meaning, asking if bananas were red and eaten by tigers is such a singularly odd thing to do that teachers shouldn’t be surprised to find students simply gawping in bemusement. It’s yet another example of how singularly twisted dialogue in a second language can become!
Now, none of this is to say that there aren’t useful questions that can be asked in each of these situations. There obviously are. It’s just that they are most definitely not CCQs. In the second part of this post next week, I’ll look at some saner alternatives.