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Concourse 2

Checking questions


You may like to follow the guide to asking good questions (new tab) before tackling this area but no assumption is made that you have done so in what follows.

There are two sorts of checking questions which all teachers need to use frequently:

  1. Instruction-checking questions (also known as ICQs)
    These are asked to make sure that the learners know what they are supposed to be doing and to alert them to the key meaning(s) of the instruction.
  2. Concept-checking questions (also known as CCQs)
    These are asked for two reasons:
    1. to lead the learner to understanding a concept (which may be how a tense is used, the meaning of a word or some of its other characteristics and so on).
    2. to help the teacher (and the learners) decide whether they have grasped a concept adequately before moving on or extending the learners' knowledge and skills.

Both sorts of questions are what are called display questions insofar as the questioner knows the answer and the person being asked knows that the questioner knows the answer.

We will take each type separately but note when there is some overlap.


Instruction-checking questions

We ask instruction-setting questions for very simple reasons:

Simple Rule #1:

The more complicated the instruction is, the more carefully it needs to be checked.

If your instruction is, for example:
    Please start now.
then is hardly needs checking because you can see whether or not people are doing as you ask.

If, on the other hand, your instruction is:

Now work in pairs to match the 7 underlined words in the text to the 8 definitions at the bottom of the page.  There is one definition that you don't need.  You have five minutes to do this.

then there is rather a lot to check.

think Task: Click here when you have decided what needs checking.
write Task:
Finally, write down your instruction-checking questions for this instruction:
Read the story and match the pictures to what happened so the pictures are in the same order as the text.
Do this in pairs and then compare what you have to the pair on your right.

Click here when you have thought of the questions.

It goes without saying that simple rule #3 is

The clearer and better expressed your instructions are in the first place, the less time it takes do check they have been understood.

A rider to that is, however, that no matter how clear you think you have been, your instructions still need to be checked.


Concept-checking questions

Concept-checking questions are more difficult to construct and need a little more thought than simple instruction-checking questions.



Concept-checking questions are important for three reasons:

  1. Because they are efficient and targeted.  In day-to-day life, we often ask if someone has understood and expect to get a clear answer but classrooms are slightly different.  Simple asking something like:
        Do you understand?
    won't work well for two reasons:
    1. The learner may honestly believe she has understood and answer Yes when, in fact, she has not really grasped the point at all
    2. The learner may be reluctant for personal and/or cultural reasons publicly to admit ignorance or lack of understanding.  This is a face-saving issue.
  2. Concept-checking questions are infinitely reusable because, once formed, they can be used every time your encounter the same concept to check.  For example, if you want to check whether a learner has understood:
        She is going to be here later
    you can ask something like:
        Is she here now?
        When is she coming?
        Is the speaker sure she is coming?

    and those questions will work for a range of other sentences (although they'll need a little amendment) such as:
        Mary is going to have a holiday in France
        I am going to see my mother
        I think it's going to rain

    and so on.
  3. Designing concept-checking questions requires that you, the teacher, fully understands the concept you are teaching and that means being clear in your own head what the form actually means in English.  As soon as you try to construct a concept-checking question it will be instantly clear to you whether you have understood what you are teaching or not.


This is how you construct good concept-checking questions.
It's a two-stage process.


Understand the concept you are teaching

This should go without saying but unless you have a very good understanding of the concept that lies behind the language or skill that you are teaching, you can't help others to understand it at all.  Worse, you may end up giving people the wrong idea about something and that, in a teacher, is unforgiveable.
Here are some examples of what is meant.


Tense forms

No two languages are completely parallel in terms of how they conceptualise and chop up time and how speakers encode their view of time and the events that happen in it.
Some languages are quite close to English, but some are very different indeed.
In teaching terms, then, tense forms require very careful and continual concept checking.
There is a guide on this site to using time lines, linked below, to which you should refer for advice about presenting the concepts.
Here, however, we are concerned with how you check whether the presentation has been successful.

For example, you are concerned to make the conceptual difference between:
    I will be on holiday in France in June this year
    I am going to have a holiday in France in June this year
because you know that learners often use the will form because they think of it as 'the future tense' in English (an assumption, incidentally, which is quite correct), and do not use going to to refer to present intentions concerning the future.
The first thing you need to get clear, then is the fact that the going to structure refers to the present because it is about an intention the speaker has NOW but the will form refers to the future because it refers only to events which lie there.
You have put both the example sentences on the board (or projected them).

think Task:
Think for a moment how you would form questions to make this concepts clear.
Click here when you have thought of the questions.

Here's another example:

think Task:
You want to make it clear why.
John had come home and went to bed
is wrong but:
John had felt ill all day so he went to bed
is correct.
Click here when you have thought of the questions.


Another area of the language in which concepts are often very difficult to grasp for learners is modality and the use of and meaning of modal auxiliary verbs.
There are also many guides in the section in the in-service area of the site that cover the concepts and realisations of modality.  That area, too, is linked below and will help you to plan your teaching of modality concepts.

You are concerned to establish the difference between these two example sentences:
    John could have been there
    John couldn't have been there
This seems simple but it isn't because:

  1. When we use the verb could in the past it refers to possibility (i.e., the speaker's understanding of the likelihood of something being true).
    When we use the verb in the present, however, it often refers to ability.  So, for example:
        I could swim well when I was a child
    refers to ability only, but:
        I could ask a question
    means either that:
        I was able / allowed to ask a question
        I may ask a question in the future
    Here, we are concerned with the past-tense use.
  2. The expression couldn't have is not just the negative of could have because it implies a very different level of likelihood.
        John could have been there
    implies that the speaker is not at all sure whether John was there or not.  It is low-level certainty, therefore.  However,
        John couldn't have been there
    strongly implies that the speaker is quite sure that John was not there (because it seems impossible).  In other words, it is the opposite of
        John must have been there.
  3. Even in the past form, there is some ambiguity so, for example:
        John could have left his car at my house
    means either:
        I am not sure whether John left his car at my house or not
    which expresses my doubt about the truth of something, or
        I offered to let John leave his car at my house but he didn't
    which is not to do with my perception of the truth of something but to giving someone permission to do something.
write Task:
You have put the two example sentences above on the board.
What concept-check questions would you ask to make the difference clear?
Click here when you have thought of the questions.


We are going to take reading skills as our example but the same consideration would also apply to listening skills because they are both receptive skills.
Here, we are not concerned with the concepts which lie behind structures but with the explicit understanding of what the skills involve in English.
As our example we will take this instruction:

Read through John's biography quickly and find out:
    When John was born
    Where he was born
    How old was he when he left school
    When he died
You only have four minutes to do this.

write Task:
Decide what sort of reading this task demands.
When you have written your concept-checking questions, click here.


Many words and some structures have more than one meaning or communicative function and it's important to focus concept-checking questions on the context and function you want your learners to grasp.
That means editing what you know down to what is manageable.

Here's an example, using five lexemes as part of the targets for a lesson.
They are:
    nurse (n. and vb.)
    specialist (n.)
    operate (vb.)
    operation (n.)
    recover( vb.)

All the words appear in a text about someone's recent experience of being very ill and the general meaning is probably clear from context and co-text.

think Task:
Think for a moment about what it is important to know about these words and how you would focus your learners on the meanings and word grammar you want them to grasp using concept-checking questions (rather than just telling people things).
Click here when you have thought of the questions.

It comes with practice

Using good checking questions is not as difficult as learning to play the cello but, like that skill, it comes with practice and gets easier.
If you are at the beginning of your career, then you would be well advised to write out your check questions with your lesson plan.  The plus side to that is that you can refine them based on the experience of using them and then use them again and again for the same or similar concepts.
Pretty soon, concept- and instruction-checking questions become second nature and you'll wonder what the fuss was about.

There's no test on this because you did enough of those as we went along, didn't you?

Related guides
using time lines the essential guide to how to use these to make the concepts of tense forms clear
the modality index this link takes you to the in-service section that deals with concepts of modality
asking good questions this is a more general guide to asking good questions in the classroom.  It is not as easy as you may think
checking learning for a related guide to making sure what you teach is what is learned
noticing for the in-service guide to a key teaching idea
Bloom's taxonomy this is a way of looking at questions and tasks to measure how difficult they are in terms of cognitive challenge