Revisiting ELT Mantras #1: Using CCQs and ICQs

Ok, so you need to read the text and answer the questions. These questions here. You need to answer these questions…Do you need to answer the questions?

confused signs rounded

(Black Dyke Mills 2 by Tim Green CC-BY-2.0)

This is something I recently heard a teacher on a pre-service training course say to a group of (mildly bewildered) students. Interestingly enough, the same teacher commented in the feedback discussion later that he felt like he was patronising students asking this question, but that he knew he ‘had to ask an ICQ’ (Instruction Check Question).

An online discussion recently threw up other gems for ‘CCQs’ (Concept Check Questions), including ‘Can you cancel a lake?’ (to check understanding of ‘lake’).

So what’s going wrong here? Surely the idea of checking students have understood your instructions or a new piece of language without asking ‘Do you understand?’ is a useful thing to do in the classroom? Why does it sometimes produce such absurd language? Is the skill of formulating good ICQs and CCQs such a difficult thing to master?

The simple answer is, of course … yes and no. Yes, checking understanding effectively is useful thing to do. Asking students if they understand is pointless, as they could just lie and say ‘yes’ (nobody wants to hold the lesson up and admit they don’t understand). Also, they might not want to offend the teacher (I don’t understand = ‘you’re not doing your job’).

However, relying solely on questions to do the job unnecessarily limits us. If we want to check learners have understood our instructions to an activity, we can elicit the first answer as an example (if it’s a written exercise), or demonstrate, or get stronger students to demonstrate. Or just go round quickly at the start and check students are doing it right. Questions are useful for ‘details’ e.g. Can you show your partner your answers? How many answers are possible?, but they rarely check the main point of the exercise.

Likewise, I think as teachers we’re conditioned into using ‘CCQs’ to check understanding of new language e.g. Was it difficult? Did you succeed? (for I managed to …). But it’s worth remembering that they’re not the only way to check. We can also:

  • Elicit examples e.g. for vehicle
  • Elicit antonyms e.g. deep – shallow
  • Use a scale – e.g. always, sometimes, never
  • Use translation – this can be particularly good for checking understanding of false friends e.g. ‘nervoso’ for angry, annoyed (i.e. not ‘nervous’)
  • Show me e.g. tiptoe
  • Ask learners to draw timelines

Over the last couple of years, I’ve stopped using the acronyms ICQ and CCQ, and the one thing I’ve found is that it’s dramatically reduced the number of Are you doing this exercise or running round the school in a chicken costume?-type questions. The point is, these are mostly techniques that we use all the time anyway. I’m not sure throwing in acronyms and insisting trainee teachers use a very limited type of technique does anyone any good.

Related posts

This is the first in a series of posts where I’m going to be re-examining some of the ELT ‘mantras’ we hear throughout our career. I’ve written a brief introduction to the series here.

Marisa Constaninides has some useful advice on checking understanding here.

Rachael Roberts also gives some useful tips on checking understanding here.

Michael Griffin’s similarly themed blog post on ICQs is also worth a look.

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Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

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