Questioning ‘givens’: those pesky concept questions

Published on 9th December, 2010 in Teaching Tips by Frances Watkins

Teachers use concept questions to check students have understood language items, whether grammatical, eg:
She’s going to visit her mother. (Question: Did she decide before? Answer: Yes) or lexical (Question: Do you feel excited before an exam? Answer: No.)

Learning teachers are often trained to construct these Yes / No concept questions on training courses. In my opinion these questions are sometimes problematic because:

a) they can be difficult to construct, depending on the language item.

b) they can appear unnatural in a lesson, especially where you generally ask students genuine questions

c) they do not always fulfill their purpose of honing in on meaning. 

I have often witnessed less experienced teachers pepper their teaching with bizarre or over-simplistic concept questions, eg for ‘disappointed’: Has he got a smile on his face? Is he crying? These questions do not really help students to understand the core meaning, to distinguish between ‘disappointed’ and ‘sad’.

The following are three other possible ways to check concept:

Personalise the target language, eg Can you remember what you got for your last birthday? (Student replies.) Were you disappointed? This concept question is meaningful, as there is a genuine information gap between teacher and student(s), rendering the dialogue more natural.

Give a mini starter situation which students respond to, where possible, eg for ‘honest’: If you were in the supermarket and saw a £20 note on the floor, what do you think an honest person would do?

Exploit the original context that the language item has arisen in. Often teachers invent a whole new context when there is actually a ready-made one, thereby needlessly distracting students. So, with ‘disappointed’, ask bigger text-related questions, eg Why was Rex disappointed when he saw the house? What do you think he expected? Adding the phrase ‘do you think’ makes this less of a mere linguistic display too.