Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

As every CELTA trainee knows, a CCQ is a Concept Checking Question. What they often don’t know is how to approach writing them. They can be the bane of trainees’ lives and they took me a long time to get my head around. Don’t worry if it takes you time as well. Here’s my advice for how to go about it.

Step 1: Research the language

Vocabulary

Choose a marker sentence containing the vocabulary in context.

Look up the word/phrase in a good Learner’s Dictionary, for example:

Even better, look it up in two or three and compare the definitions. Write them all down. You’ll need these later.

Make sure you are checking the same meaning as the one you are teaching. For example, ‘ages’ in the sentence ‘It took me ages.’ is not the same as in the sentence ‘The Iron and Stone Ages were a long time ago.’

Grammar

Identify two or three ‘marker sentences’ from the context which make the use of the grammar clear.

Use the language information in the course book you are using to learn about the grammar point at the appropriate level for your students. There may also be extra information at the end of the course book unit, in the final sections of the course book, and/or in the teacher’s book or work book. Use the information you find to write the meaning or use of the grammar point in your own words. Aim not to use the grammar points in your explanation. For example, if you are explaining the present perfect don’t use the present perfect in your explanation. 

If you want to beef up your understanding or the course book is confusing you, use a grammar book designed for teachers. I recommend Teaching English Grammar by Jim Scrivener (Amazon, BEBC) and Grammar for English Language Teachers by Martin Parrott (Amazon). Both of these will tell you about problems students might have with the grammar point, and suggest some ideas for CCQs. A new book aimed at helping new teachers with grammar is Learning to Teach Grammar by Simon Haines (Amazon, Delta, BEBC) – I haven’t used the book, but the previews look like it would be incredibly useful. [All Amazon links are affiliate links in this paragraph.]

As with vocabulary, be careful to research the exact area of the grammar which you are teaching to the students. For example, present continuous for actions in progress and for future arrangements are two different areas of meaning which need two different explanations (and therefore CCQs) when you first start teaching grammar.

Step 2: Boil it down

Take your definitions of the vocabulary item or your explanation of the grammar. Reduce it to two to four key words or concepts that you express in as few words as possible. Occasionally you need more than four, but this is very unusual. Here are some examples.

Vocabulary

It took me ages to understand CCQs.

I eventually understood CCQs.

  • Oxford definition: at the end of a period of time or a series of events
  • Cambridge definition: in the end, especially after a long time or a lot of effort, problems, etc.
  • Macmillan definition: at the end of a process or period of time in which many things happen
  • My reduction: at the end, after a long time

finally understood CCQs.

Grammar

I’m going to meet my mum tonight.

  • Talking about the future
  • Plan
  • Decided before I speak
  • In my head, not my diary

Further boiled down to: future, plan, decided before, in my head

I’m meeting my mum later.

  • Talking about the future
  • Plan
  • Decided before I speak
  • In my diary (probably)

Further boiled down to: future, plan, decided before, in my diary

I’ll meet you later.

  • Talking about the future
  • Plan
  • Decided now (as I speak)

Further boiled down to: future, plan, decided now

If you’re struggling with this process when describing tenses, it can help to change the verb to another tense and think about the difference between the new and the old sentence. As you can see in the examples above, there are subtle differences which hold most of the time (often enough for you to help students understand them!) 

Step 3: Make your questions

Look at the keywords you have created. Turn them into questions (sometimes easier said than done!)

The easiest questions to create are yes/no questions, but I don’t believe that the learners necessarily process the language if they only answer yes or no. I prefer questions which get the students to repeat the keywords I have identified to summarize that area of language. The best CCQs:

  • Are as short as possible. Don’t be polite or bury the question in unnecessary fluff: get to the point.
  • Are in the present simple or past simple.
  • Don’t contain the target language! (So no present perfect in your question about the present perfect.)
  • Use only language below the level of the students.
  • Require thought to answer.
  • Can be endlessly reused every time you check the meaning of that grammar point or vocabulary area.
  • Can clearly show the difference between similar grammar points in an unequivocal way with only slight variations (see below).
  • Are in a logical order starting from the biggest part of the meaning and moving to the most specific. Consider it like a flowchart, with each CCQ taking you on a different path, leading to a different tense/word choice (Read the examples below, then read that bullet point again if it didn’t make sense on your first pass!)

Here are examples taken from the key words above. Always keep your target language in a marker sentence to make the questions clearer.

Vocabulary

Decide if the word can be shown with a picture or an item of realia, or demonstrated through mime. If so, stop here. However, you might want to use one or two CCQs to supplement the picture or the mime to clarify the boundaries of the meaning e.g. the difference between ‘chair’ and ‘armchair’.

The three example words I’ve selected can’t be easily shown using any of these methods, though a timeline or gesture or series of words (don’t understand, don’t understand, don’t understand, understand!) might help to emphasise the idea of a long time. That means it’s important to have CCQs in case a student is confused about how to use the word.

It took me ages to understand CCQs.

  • How long did I need? A long time or a short time? A long time.
  • (optional) Is ‘ages’ more formal or more informal? More informal.

I eventually understood CCQs after reading this blogpost.

  • Did I understand at the start or the end? At the end.
  • How long did I need? A long time or a short time? A long time.

I feel like I finally understand CCQs.

  • How long did I need? A long time or a short time? A long time.
  • Was it easy or difficult for me to understand? (Probably) difficult.

Notice that the order of the questions reflects the order of the concepts in the dictionary definitions. This can be a useful guideline – it works most of the time.

Grammar

I’m going to meet my mum tonight.

  • Is it about the past, present, or future? The future.
  • Is it a plan or an idea? A plan.
  • Did I decide now (when I’m speaking) or before? Before.
  • Is it in my head or in my diary? In my head.

I’m meeting my mum later.

  • Is it about the past, present, or future? The future.
  • Is it a plan or an idea? A plan.
  • Did I decide now (when I’m speaking) or before? Before.
  • Is it in my head or in my diary? In my diary.

I’ll meet you later.

  • Is it about the past, present, or future? The future.
  • Is it a plan or an idea? A plan.
  • Did I decide now (when I’m speaking) or before? Now.

Step 4: Use them when you’re planning

One of my least favourite phrases on a lesson plan from somebody who is new to teaching: “Ask CCQs”. Please please please tell me exactly what you’ll ask and what answers you expect to hear from the students. This is far easier and more efficient than trying to think of them on the spot in the lesson – I still write exact CCQs on my plans now.

Complete any controlled practice exercises yourself which you plan to give the students. For each answer, use the key words you wrote in Step 2 to help you decide why that is the correct answer.

Step 5: Use them in the lesson

You can use CCQs to check if students understand the marker sentences. Make sure that the context the sentence is from is very clear. Don’t use isolated, decontextualised sentences as this will make it harder for the students to answer the questions correctly.

You can also use CCQs to help students decide if they have the correct answers in controlled practice exercises when they are choosing between different words or tenses. Having very short, clear keywords makes this efficient. CCQs which require the students to repeat the key words can reinforce the meaning for the students. This is where including reasons with the controlled practice answers in your planning will make things more efficient in the lesson, and make more learning happen.

In summary

  1. Research the language.
  2. Boil it down.
  3. Write your questions.
  4. Use them when you’re planning.
  5. Use them in your lesson.

Trainers, what other CCQ advice do you give?

Teachers, what other problems do you have with CCQs?

Useful links

Jonny Ingham‘s Back to Basics series includes a guide to concept checking both grammar and vocabulary. 

Here’s a fun introduction to CCQs.

Fergus Fadden has a webinar explaining how to create and use CCQs.

Useful links for CELTA is a collection of hundreds of resources to help you during your course.

Comments on: "How to write CCQs (concept checking questions)" (6)

  1. Judith Hudson said:

    Sandy, this is really useful for English language teachers. You may want to rejig the answers for your CCQs to the ‘going to future’ and ‘present continuous future’ so that they align with your analysis – in your head, in your diary have got mixed up. It’s also OK to take this reply off when you’ve rejigged the answers..

    Like

    • Thanks for pointing it out. Corrected now. And I won’t remove the comment – it’s important to see that we all make mistakes and need help correcting them!

      Like

  2. Clare McGrath said:

    Thanks for inviting me to add these things here, Sandy.

    These are the slides from a webinar I did for English Australia in 2019, about making meaning clearer verbally and visually, using CCQs and timelines and tasks, for vocab items and for structures.

    https://www.englishaustralia.com.au/documents/item/610

    The recordings will help make some of the slides clearer, eg the one about bananas and the one about ‘shredded’, the latter being an example of the importance of context. Enjoy.

    There are 2 recordings, as the facilitator had a blip with their connections, so near the end of the first once you hear me talking about this problem you can skip to the second recording, unless you want to hear an example of a presenter coping with this!

    Like

  3. Zuzana Tilson said:

    Dear Sandy

    I always read your blogs. While all of them have been useful in my profession as a teacher, this one is the cherry on the cake. Thank you!

    Kind regards

    Zuzana

    Like

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