Back in 1978 the psychologist Melissa Bowerman observed her 13 month old daughter, who was starting to talk. (Psychologists do a lot of this. In fact, I sometimes wonder if that’s the main reason they have children.) Anyway, her daughter was observed pointing at a ball, and saying ‘ball.’ She knows the word ball, you might conclude.
But then, over the next few months, the child also used the word ‘ball’ to describe a balloon, an Easter egg and even a pebble. So what exactly had she learnt? Probably that ball was something (more or less) spherical. That’s certainly part of the meaning, but we’d probably also have to add:
- You play games with it, such as tennis or football
- It doesn’t break when you throw it
- It usually bounces
- It can be between around 3 cm to about 12 cm in diameter
All these points go to make up the meaning of the word ‘ball’.
Now obviously when we teach our students new words, they probably already have the concept of ‘ball’ from their first language. However, there are plenty of cases where the semantic boundaries are blurred. Not all languages divide up the world in the same way. For example, in Polish, the word ‘buty’ doesn’t just mean boots, it also means shoes. In English, we generally use just one verb ‘to put on’ when talking about clothes and accessories, but, according to Michael Swan,
‘Japanese speakers use one verb for garments on the upper body, another for those on the lower body, yet another for garments on extremities like feet and hands, another for articles that go on the head, and another still for jewellery like earrings or a watch.’
Even if there is a direct translation, and you or your students know what it is, the word might still not be used in exactly the same way, or might have a slightly different connotation.
This is why we need concept questions.
Concept questions are something which teachers often learn about in their initial training and then promptly discard once no-one is watching. It feels ridiculous, unnatural and patronising to be asking a series of questions to which we already know the answers. Certainly, concept questions can be overdone and, particularly if they’ve been badly devised, they can be completely ridiculous.
A famous example from an International House CELTA course:
‘He didn’t know if he was coming or going.’
Was he coming?
Was he going?
Did he know?
Done judiciously and thoughtfully, however, a good set of concept questions can produce light-bulbs turning on over students’ heads all over the class, with a minimum of fuss and without lengthy and over-complex explanations.
How to create concept questions
The first thing to consider is what exactly the word or phrase means. You will probably feel you know this, but it can often really be worth looking it up in a dictionary to get all the elements of meaning (as with ball above).
So, for example, the word ‘cosy’. The Longman Exams dictionary says:
‘’A place that is cosy is small, comfortable and warm: the living room was warm and cosy.’’
So key elements would be
- Used to describe rooms
I’d also say that we could use it to describe clothes (and then small wouldn’t be part of the meaning)
So then we can think about examples that will test understanding of these key elements. These can be short and simple questions, or we can use pictures, diagrams, mime- whatever’s appropriate.
For example, you might have two pictures. One of a small cottage front room, with a fire and the other of a draughty hall in a castle. Then you can ask, Which room is cosy?
If you are cosy, are you usually warm or cold?
If you are cosy, are you comfortable or uncomfortable?
You can also use negative checking, by asking a question where the answer should be ‘no’ and then asking a follow-up question to make sure they weren’t just guessing!
Is a castle cosy? No.
What kind of house might be cosy? A small, comfortable one.
What kind of shoes might be cosy? Slippers
Personalisation can also help
Which is the cosiest room in your house? Why?
And if you think students do have a fairly good idea, try asking for more information to check.
Give me an example of an item of clothing that could be cosy? (dressing gown, sweater) And one that couldn’t be? (bikini)
Using language which is more complicated than the language you are trying to check.
If you’re cosy are you snug and secure?
Checking the situation, not the language
John’s grandma knitted him a cosy sweater for Christmas.
-Did she knit him ear-warmers?
Going too far and dealing with meanings which just confuse the issue.
What do you put on a tea-pot to keep the tea warm? – A tea-cosy (see picture above)
Incidentally, some people believe that you should never use the target language in a concept question. As we have seen, this isn’t the case when dealing with vocabulary, though it may apply to grammatical structures…
It’s going to rain.
Is the weather going to be bad?
When to concept check
Although we refer to it as concept checking, it’s much more than just checking understanding; it’s actually at the heart of teaching. It’s about finding out what students do and don’t understand and helping them to ‘get’ the concept.
That said, you do need to use it fairly sparingly, and most of all wisely. Part of being a teacher (and the hardest thing to teach someone) is knowing just how much clarification students need, and giving it to them in just the right amounts, at just the right moments.