Whose understanding are you really checking?

We know for a fact that no matter how clearly we present language in the classroom, we should always ask questions to check the learners have understood the important aspects of this language, e.g. meaning, use, and form, and perhaps further clarify potential confusion or misunderstanding, if we get evidence that they haven’t understood – or move on to something else if they have!

One of the most common ways to check the learners’ understanding effectively is through CCQs – short for Concept Checking Questions. Inexperienced teachers tend to find CCQs quite difficult to come up with; their judgement as to when a CCQ is good or not is shrouded by a cloud of uncertainty.

The reason for this may have to do with the fact that CCQs are closely connected to a teacher’s ability to analyse language for teaching. In fact, CCQs mirror a number of things:

  • a teacher’s knowledge of the language, and their own understanding of it
  • the background studying they’ve done on a specific structure, word, etc
  • how well they have prepared for the teaching of a specific structure
  • their ability to decode and simplify this inherent or acquired knowledge to help students understand.

Let’s look at two examples and put this hypothesis to the test.

Scenario 1:

A taecher introduces the passive voice to a group of pre-intermediate learners. The language is found in a coursebook text about great works of art. The marker sentence is ‘The Mona Lisa was painted by Da Vinci.’ So, after having presented the meaning, form, etc, the teacher proceeds to ask the CCQs they have prepared to check the learners’ understanding. One of the CCQs is:

Teacher: “Do we know who did the action?”

Students: “Yes!”

Teacher: “Do we need to know?”

Students: “Yes!”

Teacher: “Really? Do we need to know that Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa?”

Students: “Yes, it’s important!”

Teacher: “No, when we use the passive, we don’t need to know who did the action.”

The obvious consequence is utter confusion, to say the least. The reason is that the teacher thought (s)he knew the use of the passive voice without paying attention to the context. It is true that one of the uses of the passive voice is when the doer is unimportant/obvious. However, this is not the case for this specific marker sentence, in which the opposite is true: the passive is used here in order to place special emphasis on the agent of the action! The problem with the concept question selected is that the teacher was overconfident: they thought they knew the rules and did not bother to check.

Scenario 2:

Again, introducing the passive voice to a group of pre-intermediate students, the teacher contrasts the same sentence formed in the active and in the passive voice to present the differences in relation to form.

The marker sentences are:

  1. The Mona Lisa was painted by Da Vinci
  2. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.

After having presented the difference, the teacher asks the following questions to check the learners have understood:

Teacher: “So, what happens to the subject of an active voice sentence when we turn it into the passive?”

Students: *silence*

Teacher: “Is sentence 1 an agentless passive voice construction or not?”

Students: *silence*

In this case, the teacher was perfectly aware of the differences in form, the terminology to describe it, etc. They had done their background studying. The major problem though is that the metalanguage they used to check understanding was not accessible to the learners. In other words, the teacher had not been prepared appropriately to teach the language.


So, when we analyse language for teaching, we need to bear in mind that knowing the rules – or thinking that we know the rules – is not enough.

Analysing language for teaching purposes also involves being aware of the audience and how you can get through to them; our CCQs reflect not only our ability to check the learners’ understanding, but also our ability to anticipate confusion, our ability to empathise with the students, and our willingness to help them understand.

2 thoughts on “Whose understanding are you really checking?

  1. Many thanks for this post , Alexander!
    The problem is when we teachers think about deterministic rules void of context. Still I think coming up with effective CCQs is a bit challenging!

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