They Can Do It When You CCQ It
They Can Do It When You CCQ It
by Stephen Tarbuck
Concept Checking Questions (CCQs) are an important tool that teachers use to help their students understand new material. Over this academic year I have been experimenting with a method for generating grammar CCQs, and that has been for a couple of reasons: to help check my students' understanding of grammar; to have a systematic, time-saving approach to planning grammar lessons; and to help new teachers refine their understanding of their next grammar point.
This method is in no way original work, being adapted from the guide on how to write concept questions in Concept Questions and Time Lines (Workman, 2005). However, I would like to break down this method and share it in the hope that it will save other teachers time with planning their lessons and increase teacher confidence when preparing a grammar lesson.
The method has two steps: identify and limit; production and generation. I’ll explain the two steps and then provide an example based on one of the coursebooks I have been using this year.
Identify and limit
The first task is to identify the grammar point to be covered. This is not a particularly challenging step but it is crucial nonetheless. The grammar point might be provided by the syllabus or your own notes if you have something specific in mind for your student - but the key is to label the grammar and know what it is and what it is not.
Next, limit the language. You should find the grammar reference in the coursebook or find a good grammar reference book - I particularly recommend Teaching English Grammar - how to teach and what to teach (Scrivener, 2010). Then work on reducing this information down to key words. Many grammar guides go into more detail than you will need for your lesson, and so a key part of limiting the language is to decide what you need to incorporate in your teaching, and what you can safely leave out for the time being. Once you have done that, you will need to reduce the length of the grammar explanation, distilling it down to its core features, as you will see in the demonstration below.
Looking ahead in my coursebook, which is Gateway to the World B1+ (Spencer, 2021), I identify the next grammar point as modals of obligation and in the book's grammar reference there is a fairly extensive range of language to describe the uses.
The most pertinent grammar information is the following:
- We use have to to talk about rules, regulations and obligations. It often describes obligations imposed on us by other people and authorities.
- We use must to talk about rules, regulations and obligations. It often describes obligations that come internally, from ourselves.
This is too much language to be useful for CCQs and I need to limit it down to keywords, possibly between 3 to 5 words, depending on the complexity of the language point and the level of my students.
That would go something like this:
1. We use have to to talk about rules, regulations and obligations. It often describes obligations imposed on us by other people and authorities.
- Have to, obligations, external
2. We use must to talk about rules, regulations and obligations. It often describes obligations that come internally, from ourselves.
- Must, obligations, internal
Production and Generation
Next is to produce some example sentences that provide a clear context for the grammar point you want the students to engage with. These examples should present the grammar authentically and appropriately - so in this case sentences like “You must be joking” and “Astronauts have to learn how to walk in low gravity” are unhelpful - and if possible they should recycle some recent vocabulary as the students will find the presence of familiar lexis both reassuring and beneficial.
We recently looked at school-related vocabulary, so my example sentences will recycle language from that topic. They will also both come from the same context, to reduce the cognitive load I’m placing my students under.
- You have to wear a uniform, the school absolutely insists on a proper dress code.
- I must remember to pay attention in class, or I’m going to fall behind.
After this comes combining your example sentences and key words to generate CCQ’s.
First, use your keywords as prompts to create questions. These questions should include the keywords or something very similar, and shouldn’t be too long. It would also be useful - and will save you time - if they can be somewhat general so you can reuse them with other example sentences in different contexts that use the same grammar.
It’s also important to keep the questions simple and direct - they should not be more complex than the target language - and, just as dictionary definitions of a word do not use that word in the definition, your CCQs should not use the target grammar.
Putting all of that in action, we get the following:
KEY WORDS: Have to, obligations, external
EXAMPLE SENTENCE: You have to wear a uniform, the school absolutely insists on a proper dress code.
Going back to the key words, first I eliminate the grammar point, which is for my reference, then work on generating simple questions and the answers I would like to hear from the students.
- What is the obligation? (wear a uniform)
- Who makes the obligation? (the school)
- Is this an internal or external obligation? (external) (As a side note, if you haven’t pre-taught the lexis ‘internal’ and ‘external’, you can use body language to help convey the meaning here)
Doing this again, with the next key words and example sentence:
KEY WORDS: Must, obligations, external
EXAMPLE SENTENCE: I must remember to pay attention in class, or I’m going to fall behind.
Again, I eliminate the grammar point, then work on generating simple questions and the answers I would like to hear from the students.
- What is the obligation? (pay attention)
- Who makes the obligation? (me)
- Is this an internal or external obligation? (internal)
I now have some examples I can use in the class in any checking stages and some CCQs that I can reuse with other sentences connected to the same grammar point.
The method has two steps, each with the aim of producing usable CCQs based on any available grammar reference and helping the teacher to clarify their own understanding of the point before they enter the classroom, refining it so that the teacher feels ready to answer any questions that might emerge during the lesson.
I really recommend Concept Questions and Timelines (Workman, 2005) as it has some useful CCQ generating practice exercises as well as a more comprehensive breakdown of CCQs in general. I feel that this is a skill that many teachers could - and might want to - improve, and I hope this article is a useful starting point.
Scrivener, J, 2010, Teaching English Grammar, Macmillan ELT.
Stephen currently works at International House Bydgoszcz in Poland. He began teaching in 2015 and has taught around Europe. His current interests are task based teaching, dictation, and various methods of feedback.