On the over-use of concept-checking questions: part 2

I recently wrote a post outlining why I’m not a fan of using concept-checking questions – CCQs – when dealing with vocabulary and if you’ve not read it, it may make sense to go there first before continuing. I ran through several reasons I find the continuing use of CCQs problematic when applied to vocabulary, but in case you were half asleep at the back of the room, here’s a quick summary:

  • Rather than first giving an explanation and (where relevant) an example or two, teachers sometimes ask CCQs as soon as an item has come up in a reading or listening text. This often seems to stem from a desire to avoid teacher talking time and to be what is perceived as ‘student-centred’, but there’s little point trying to check whether or not students understand an item they’ve just asked about – and even if you believe CCQs might be effective with a particular item, there needs to have first been a ‘concept’ that is then checked.
  • It might well be argued that the above is simply an example of poorly-timed CCQs. However, when asked after an explanation has been given, CCQs seem oddly redundant and run the risk of being patronizing. Imagine you’ve just explained that if you feel disappointed, you feel unhappy because something you hoped for or expected didn’t happen . . . or because something wasn’t as good as you expected. You’d maybe even written on the board I was really disappointed when I found out I hadn’t got the job. To then ask something like Did you expect something good? (Yes) and Did you get it? (No) seems to be laboring the obvious somewhat!
  • The fundamental problem with CCQs when applied to vocabulary is that they only serve as a simplistic check of very basic ‘concepts’ or meanings, and yet meaning is actually the easiest part of what students need to know about new items to convey. Meaning can be conveyed through translating, telling a short story to paraphrase and explain, using visuals, acting, pointing to the thing in question, etc. Far more problematic for learners is the way the item is used: the common collocations, the co-text that may frequently be used in discourse that the item appears in, the colligations – the grammatical patterns that attach themselves to the word, etc. CCQs do nothing to explore these areas.
  • Finally, the continuing use of CCQs and their dissemination through courses such as the CELTA reflect a worrying tendency to view lexical sets or items of vocabulary as things that must be handed to students via the same kind of PPP (Present-Practise-Produce) approach as structural grammar. The assumption is that we are presenting these items once, that we have to check the meaning – or ‘concept’ – of each and every item is checked and we then need to see some kind of active production of the items to convince us that ‘learning’ has taken place.

Now, it’s easy to knock, and judging from many of the responses to the first post that I read on Facebook, there are plenty of people out there for whom CCQs are still a key part of their practice when it comes to dealing with vocabulary and who reacted to the (tongue in cheek!) idea of a ‘ban’ on them with a mixture of horror and anger! Given this, it’s only fair of me to lay out how I think we could better deal with vocabulary, both as it comes up incidentally and as it appears in actual exercises. The first thing to say is that I’m NOT saying we should do away with questions altogether! Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just that I believe there are questions we can ask that are far more engaging, focused and productive than closed CCQs.

Let’s go back to the two examples I cited in the first post: in the first, 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. Now, at this level, I’d personally see this as something not worth spending a massive amount of time on. I’d simply explain it in the context it was encountered in and say, for example, an abandoned building is one that has been left and is no longer used. I might then write an abandoned building on the board and possibly ask what else we might describe as abandoned and add / reject student suggestions accordingly. We might then end up with something like this on the board: an abandoned building / car / baby / pet.

Now, I wouldn’t then assume that this meant everyone in the class had somehow learned this time and I certainly wouldn’t expect productive use yet. Instead, I’d see the students’ knowledge of the word as both provisional and developing, and I’d expect the word to appear again at a later date in their reading, in class material, in my own teacher talk, etc. I might also make a conscious effort to recycle the word through a revision activity in a subsequent lesson. So maybe I’d put students in pairs and have them attempt to elicit words from each other, and abandoned would be one. Or I might give 15 sentences with gaps in them and ask students in pairs to add as many missing words as they can, so they’d see something like this: The fire started in an old a……………. warehouse that hadn’t been in use for years. After that, they may then discuss which 3 words from the exercise they most wanted to remember. In other words, I’d  assume – and ensure, as far as possible – repeat encounters.

Of course, you might decide that a word like abandoned is worth exploring in a bit depth and deserves more than just a brief explanation and a look at a couple of extra collocates. In this case, well-crafted questions can help you get at the more interesting of usage such as better examples, co-text, and so on. At the same time, they also ensure that meaning is being checked in a far more involving way than closed CCQs. You could, for instance, explain what an abandoned building is, add another collocate or two and then ask why a building (or a car . . . or a child) might be abandoned. Just stop and think of possible answers to these stories. They might involve having to flee a country or economic collapse, a disastrous journey where an old motor decided to die in the middle of nowhere or a teenage mother too terrified to have admitted being pregnant to her parents. One things’ for sure: such questions allow far more space for students; they ensure the new items are connected to real-world events and also to previously taught grammar and lexis; they allow the possibility of genuine stories emerging in response; and on top of all that, they give the teacher the chance to teach new (connected) language that students are edging towards, but don’t yet know.

Finally, let’s look at the banana situation mentioned in the first post: you’re in a low-level class and the word banana comes up. Now, at this level, I’d expect that it comes up because it’s in an exercise. If that’s the case, let the exercise do the work here. Point to the picture in the book the word should be matched to. Or get a picture of one on your phone. Or translate it into L1. Or ask for a translation from the group. Or explain that it’s a fruit, it’s yellow, you peel it, and eat it. It’s soft. And sweet. Mime peeling and eating one. Then move on.

Not every item has to be checked or expanded on. Not every item has to be practised. You may, as noted above, want to come back to the word during some revision. You may simply ask who likes bananas – and if someone doesn’t, ask what’s not to like? The task itself may require students to ask each other which fruits / foods they (don’t) like so there may be time later on to check how well the class have grasped the new word.

It’s sometimes claimed that asking questions keeps the learners engaged during the clarification stage of lessons. To assume this means that all questions engage – and engage equally – is to think insufficiently about the possible answers that questions open up, and the possible benefits of such openings. And to insist that CCQs are worthy of continued inclusion in training sessions on vocabulary is not only to fail to do this, but also to limit the time available for exploring the wealth of other questions that could transform the learning experience.

Ban CCQs from now on!

Next week I may well do a third and final part looking at more specific examples, so if you have any CCQs you often use with items of vocabulary that you’d like further thoughts on, please do outline them in the comments section below.

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4 Responses

  1. Ameenah Hajeej says:

    As I teach monolingual classes, whenever I want to check concept understanding, I just ask students for equivalents in their first language, then I elicit some examples from them. At this point, learners may use the words in the same way in their mother tongue, I take this opportunity to clarify differences in use in English and their first language.

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Ameenah –
      Thanks for taking the time to read the post and to comment. As you’ll have seen, we feel using translation to quickly check the basic meaning is very sensible. Then, where appropriate, go on to spend a bit more time looking at the way the word / item is often used, give some whole-sentence examples, point out differences in the collocations and grammatical patterns the word may be used with in English compared to L1, etc. I still think, though, it’s better to give students one or two examples before asking them to add to the examples. It’s optimistic to expect them to come up with good examples for items they’ve only just met.

  2. Fatima says:

    Thanks for your useful post
    I want to know how can I teach the word [disappointed] to children?
    Thanks a million

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Through a little story maybe? I HAD TO TAKE A TEST LAST WEEK, I WANTED TO PASS, BUT I DID REALLY BADLY. I FAILED – AND I WAS REALLY DISAPPOINTED. Show a disappointed face. Then give a translation. Then maybe ask “Any other times you might be disappointed?”

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