The Questions We Ask

Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley explore questions about vocabulary that give you more feedback from your learners.

Perhaps the most common kind of question that many teachers learn to ask during initial training is Concept-Checking Questions (CCQs). The basic idea is that after explaining what something means, teachers need to ask questions to check that students have understood. CCQs tend to be closed yes / no questions and they work perfectly well when you’re dealing with grammar structures that students may not have met before. You do your presentation, with the setting up of a context, and maybe with some model sentences that end up on the board. For instance, if you’re doing a presentation of used to, you may show a couple of old photos and end up writing I used to have really long hair.

To check you’ve made things clear, you could ask “So do I have long hair now?” And get the answer “No!” “And in the past? When I was younger?” “Yes!” Job done. CCQs work well here because the underlying meaning of the structure can be easily checked with these two short yes / no questions.

However, when it comes to vocabulary, CCQs are more problematic. Imagine you’re in an Upper-Intermediate class and students are reading a text. Someone asks what the word abandoned means. Worried about being seen as too ‘teacher-centred’, and keen to encourage learners to work out new items from context, the teacher launches into their CCQs. “Well, is this building abandoned?” One or two rather confused-looking students manage a “No”. “But what about at night? Is it abandoned then?”. It’s at this point the class basically stops as students avoid eye contact, share translations or look at dictionaries under the table.

This may sound like an extreme example, but such instances aren’t uncommon. The most obvious thing to say is that there’s little point trying to check whether students understand something if they’ve just asked you what it means! Even if you do want to use CCQs, there needs to first be a ‘concept’ that is then checked. This means the first step is to look at the context in which the item in question appears and explain the meaning from there. This might mean saying something like: “An abandoned house is a house that’s been left empty and is no longer used. The owners have just left it – they’ve abandoned it – and it’s now slowly falling to pieces.”

However, once you’ve done this, the kind of closed CCQs above become, at best, redundant and at worst, ridiculous. If students have understood your explanation, the answers are so obvious that it’s patronising to even ask! They require almost nothing of the class and add almost nothing to students’ ability to use the new words. Meanwhile, of course, any students who didn’t get your initial explanation are still confused and will almost inevitably resort to avoidance, translation or dictionary use!

To be clear, I’m not saying that there aren’t useful questions that can be asked about vocabulary. There obviously are. It’s just that they are not CCQs! The basic problem with CCQs when applied to vocabulary is that they only serve as a simplistic check of very basic ‘concepts’ or meanings – and yet meaning is actually one of the easiest things students need to know about new items. Meaning can be conveyed through translating, telling a short story to paraphrase and explain, using visuals, acting, pointing to the thing in question, etc. Far harder for learners is the way items are used: common collocations, co-text that may be used in discourse the item appears in, the grammar that goes with the word, etc. Closed CCQs cannot explore these areas.

To consider how to do things better, let’s return to the question about abandoned. At Upper-Intermediate level, I wouldn’t see this word as something worth spending that much time on. I’d simply explain it in the context it was encountered in and say, for example, an abandoned building is one that has been left and is no longer used. I might then write an abandoned building on the board and possibly ask what else we might describe as abandoned and add / reject student suggestions accordingly. We might then end up with something like this on the board: an abandoned building / car / baby / pet.

Now, I wouldn’t then assume that this meant everyone had somehow learned this item – and I wouldn’t expect productive use yet. Instead, I’d see the students’ knowledge of the word as both provisional and developing, and I’d expect the word to appear again at a later date in their reading, in class material, in my own teacher talk, etc.

Of course, you might decide that a word like abandoned is worth exploring in more depth. In this case, well-crafted questions can help you explore aspects of usage and can also ensure that meaning is being checked in a far more involving way than with closed CCQs. You could, for instance, explain what an abandoned building is, add another collocate or two and then ask why a building (or a car . . . or a child) might be abandoned.

Just stop and think of possible answers. They might involve having to flee a country, economic collapse, or a disastrous journey where an old car dies in the middle of nowhere. Such questions allow far more space for students; they ensure new items are connected to real-world events – and to previously taught grammar and lexis; they allow the possibility of real stories emerging; and on top of all that, they give the teacher the chance to teach new (connected) language that students are edging towards, but don’t yet know.

Click the link to watch Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley’s full webinar The Questions We Ask. 

Author: Hugh Dellar

Hugh Dellar grew up on the south coast of England and in South London and graduated in English Literature from Goldsmith’s College, part of the University of London, in 1991. Like many native speakers, he then drifted into language teaching, only really becoming serious about it during a four-year stint in Indonesia in the mid-90s.

He returned to London to do his DELTA and then an MA TESOL and moved soon afterwards into coursebook writing. He worked initially with Michael Lewis and Jimmie Hill, the two men behind The Lexical Approach, a book that influenced him enormously.

In his (far too limited) free time, he continues to play in a band, The Beatpack; he writes for a music magazine and DJs occasionally; he reads voraciously and enjoys cooking!

Hugh Dellar and his writing partner Andrew Walkley are also the authors of Teaching Lexically and the coursebook series Outcomes.

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