Steve Darn | ELT
(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:
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:
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
|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
|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
|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:
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:
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:
Graham Workman, Concept Questions And Time Lines; Chadburn Publishing, 2006.
first published 08 June 2006 http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/checking-understanding