Steve Darn - ELT
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GME: Checking Understanding

(with Ian White)

In a standard language focus lesson following a PPP (present, practice, produce) or similar format, the target language (structure or vocabulary) is normally presented in context, then isolated and analysed. Analysis of the language consists of two sub-stages, often known as highlighting and concept checking.

Highlighting is taking the model sentence and showing, telling or eliciting what the problems are in terms of form, function, and phonology.

Concept checking is checking the understanding of difficult aspects of the target structure in terms of function and meaning. Concept checking is vital, since learners must fully understand the structure before any intensive practice of form and phonology is carried out.

Ways of checking understanding
Concept checking is normally achieved by the use of a set of questions designed to ensure comprehension of the target language, raise awareness of its problems, and to indicate to the teacher that the learners have fully understood.

The question 'Do you understand?', or the remark 'OK?' do not achieve any of these aims, and are unlikely to receive a truthful answers from all the learners. Concept questions are one way of checking understanding, but are often used in combination with other methods, often visual, depending on the nature of the target language involved. Here are some other methods:

  • Time lines to establish tenses. Time lines are not a substitute for concept questions.
  • Truth lines to establish probability e.g. must be / could be / might be / can't be.
  • Reality lines to establish degree of reality or imagination e.g. conditional sentences
  • Clines to show grades or scales e.g. yellow-amber-orange, frequency adverbs
  • Pictures to distinguish between similar objects e.g. cup / mug, lane / road / highway
  • Discrimination to check function and register e.g. Do I say 'hey!' to my boss?
  • Negative checking e.g. Do I say 'I were'?
  • Translation (where appropriate and possible).
  • Extensions to consolidate understanding. Homework often reveals lack of understanding, as do guided practice exercises.

Concept questions
Concept questions themselves are often difficult to construct since they involve clarifying function and meaning using simple language but not the target language itself.

Apart from their classroom value, thinking of good questions also helps inexperienced teachers to understand the complexities of form, function and meaning, and to practise grading their language. Some basic tips for good concept questions are:

  • Make sure the questions are simple and that no difficult language is required to answer the question. Yes/no questions, either/or questions and simple 'wh' questions are particularly effective
  • Don't use the new (target) grammar in your questions
  • Don't use unfamiliar vocabulary
  • Bring out basic concepts such as 'time' and 'tense' in your questions
  • Use as many questions as possible to check various aspects of the language and to cover as many learners as possible.

Some examples
These examples show how concept questions could be used to help differentiate between the main functions of the present simple and present continuous.

Target sentence: Look! They're painting the wall

Checking questions:
Is it happening now? Yes
Can you see it? Yes Yes
Is the painting finished? No
Are they painting now? Yes
Is this the past, present or future? Present

Target sentence: She's a shop assistant. She works in a shop

Checking questions:  
Has she got a job? Yes
Is she working now Don't know
Does she work there every day? Yes
Is this the past, present or future? Present, but also past and probably future.

This example shows how concept questions can be used to clarify the meaning of more complex structures:

Target sentence: If I won the lottery, I'd buy a new car

Checking questions  
Have I won the lottery? No
Am I going to win the lottery? Probably not
Am I going to buy a new car? Probably not
Has he got a lottery ticket? Maybe
Is this real, or imaginary? Imaginary

Learning to construct concept questions
One way of beginning to think about concept questions is to break the meaning of a word or structure into components. A vocabulary item might be diagramatically represented. Here is an example of the concepts included in the word 'bed-sit':

Questions may be of different types:

  • Yes/no questions. 'Is a bed-sit a room?', 'Are there other rooms in the house?', Can you sleep in it?'.
  • 50/50 chance questions. 'Is it a room or a building?', 'Is it cheap or expensive?' Do you buy it or pay money every week or month?'
  • Information questions. 'Who lives in it?', 'How many people live in it?'
  • Discrimination questions. 'Do you only sleep in it?', 'Can you cook a meal in it?', 'Is it the same as a flat?'
  • Shared experience questions. 'Is there a bed-sit in this building?'
  • Life experience/culture questions. 'Have you ever lived in a bed-sit?' 'Are their bed-sits in your city/country?'
  • Remember that the answers 'sometimes', 'it depends' and 'I don't know' can tell you as much as 'yes' or 'no'.

Another way of constructing concept questions is by writing a sentence containing all the elements of the concept, from which questions can be formed. This is a useful method when distinguishing between two functions of the same structure, particularly where those functions would be expressed by different forms or tenses in other languages. For example:

  • 'He's been eating garlic.'
    Concept: He isn't eating garlic now, and I didn't see him eating it, but I know he was eating garlic because I can smell it.
  • 'Harry's been working here for two years.'
    Concept: He started working here two years ago, he's still working here, and he'll probably continue working here.

The value of concept questions should not be underestimated, but many teachers either forget to use them or find them difficult to construct. Teachers are often satisfied that the learners 'seem to understand' on the basis of their performance in practice exercises. A few important points to remember are:

  • Concept questions are particularly valuable after the presentation and explanation of an item, and may be asked at any stage during a lesson. They are valuable after guided practice, particularly if the learners seem not to have grasped the target language fully, and at the end of a lesson, as a final check and review.
  • Time lines and other devices are not substitutes for concept questions. They are aids to explanation, but do not necessarily check understanding. Concept questions, however, may be used to elicit a time-line from the learners.
  • Concept questions are particularly valuable where a concept does not exist, or is different in the mother tongue (e.g. the perfect aspect, ways of expressing the future), and where a language item is culturally loaded as in the case of the word 'subway' which has very different meanings in British and American English. In such cases, concept questions often form part of the initial teaching process.
  • Concept questions are also useful for raising awareness of association and connotation, and for drawing attention to collocations and fixed expressions. They are also good listening practice for learners, and can even lead on to class activities such as guessing games in which the learners write their own questions.
  • The teacher does not have to concept check every new item. In many cases, function and meaning are clear because the language has been presented in a meaningful context.
  • When learners perform poorly in guided or less guided practice, it is often because they are not clear about the function or meaning of the target language. This may well be because the teacher has asked 'do you understand?' or 'is that clear' rather than good concept questions.

Further reading
Graham Workman, Concept Questions And Time Lines; Chadburn Publishing, 2006.

first published 08 June 2006