I’ve recently caught myself asking a lot of CCQs (concept checking questions). Maybe I don’t use them more often than I did but I definitely focus my attention on the way I explain things and give instructions, and on how my explanations and instructions are accepted.
In the TEFL jargon, CCQs are the questions teachers ask to find out if their students understood a vocabulary item, for example. Apart from CCQs, there are also ICQs (instruction checking questions), which, as the concept implies, are the questions teachers ask to discover if their students know what to do.
The problem my students generally have is not a lack of understanding, though. I normally ask ICQs for a different reason and that is whenever I suspect that my students are not paying attention. This lack of concentration on their part then results in disturbing others, or even worse, in struggling to complete the task. I should stress that the kids I teach are quite smart and it’s not necessary to ask millions of ridiculous ICQs every time I assign a task, but as they can get terribly inattentive at times, a well-formed question actually serves as a means of drawing their attention back to the task.
The situation gets worse whenever I ask the kids to open their coursebooks and complete an exercise. No matter how engaged they were in the previous activity, it’s suddenly as if I told them to switch off. This simply drives me crazy and I often find it more effective to remain silent and just write the number of the page/exercise on the board and keep pointing to it until everybody is looking at me. But even if I make my students finally open the books on the corresponding page, they switch off again. There’s no point in repeating the instructions over and over again – some kids wouldn’t listen anyway. What helps is to ask one of the students to read the instructions, or even better – to ask an ICQ.
I believe ICQs are vital before listening exercises or any type of task where students are limited by time or where they don’t get another chance to try again. Students need to be 100% alert when the listening starts since they don’t have too much time to orient themselves whilst listening. Thus understanding the following instructions, for example, is important for completing the task successfully.
a) You’ll hear three speakers talking about their travelling experience. Match the opinions (a-f) to the speakers (1-3).
b) You’ll hear five short dialogues. Match the situations (1-7) to the dialogues (a-f). There are two situations you don’t need.
Now, what most students see is numbers and letters they are required to match in some way. The problem is that they normally keep chatting about random stuff (related to the previous activity) until I start playing the listening – the sound of the recording eventually stops the chatter – so they have no time to thoroughly process the information. This is the moment when I need to draw their attention to the task by asking an ICQ. I usually ask the least attentive/the weakest student because it provides more time for everybody to start concentrating again. I ask something along these lines:
a) T: There are three speakers and six opinions. What does it mean? What do you have to do now? – S: (Silence) I’ll use two opinions for each speaker. – T: Exactly. Thanks.
b) T: There are five dialogues and seven situations. What does it mean? What will you do? – (Student pondering for a while). S: I don’t need to use two of the situations.- T: Perfect. Thank you.
I really feel good about asking ICQs if they naturally emerge during the lesson. It rarely occurs to me to prepare them beforehand, but I believe it might be helpful, particularly for less experienced teachers. I actually find ICQs even more helpful than the instructions themselves; I’d say it’s more efficient to ask and elicit rather than tell people what to do. Also, the open-your-coursebook command is not exactly attractive and it is so frequent that sooner or later students start ignoring it. So, based on my experience, it makes a huge difference if you change instructions into a mental exercise and make students think right from the start. Finally, ICQs can be a sort of a natural switch from one phase of the lesson to another.