Checking Understanding – Part 1, Instruction Checking Questions (ICQs)

In our everyday life outside the classroom, when we want to check if we have been understood, the most straightforward thing to do is simply ask ’Do you understand?’, or ‘Do you know what I mean?’. For the most part, people will tell us that they did or they didn’t. If they say they did, we are generally satisfied and move on to the next part of the conversation, and if they say they didn’t, we would usually try to re-explain and then ask again if they are clear. However, in the ESL classroom, and on CELTAs, you will most likely be discouraged from asking these questions.

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Why is ‘Do you understand?’ often not a very helpful question?

1. I don’t want to look stupid

Imagine you are a student and the teacher has just asked the class if they understand. Everybody else answers with a clear ‘Yes!’. You are still a little confused. How might you feel about saying ‘No I don’t understand’ in front of everyone? For a lot of people, and in a lot of cultures, publicly admitting you didn’t understand or couldn’t follow something is very uncomfortable. For this reason, it may be that students don’t tell us they didn’t understand to avoid feeling stupid or avoid drawing attention to themselves. Meanwhile, the teacher thinks ‘Hurray! I’m doing great!’.

2. I think I understand.

Sometimes, especially if students have learnt a particular structure before, or think the activity you are instructing is one they have done before, they may feel that they do understand it. But do they? And how do you know? Maybe they do, but you as a teacher are not convinced and so you waste time re-clarifying something. Or maybe they say they do and then subsequently you discover that they didn’t and have to backtrack.

So…it can be helpful to have techniques in the classroom that help us to quickly and effectively check students’ understanding.

Understanding of what?

There are two basic areas in which we may want to check students’ understanding.

  1. Their understanding of our instructions.
  2. Their understanding of language e.g. words, grammatical structures, functional chunks.

In this post, we’re going to concentrate on the first point – checking understanding of instructions.

Instruction Checking Questions (ICQs)

If you have done a CELTA, there is no doubt you will have already come across ICQs, and if you are going to do a CELTA, you will certainly meet them!

We have already discussed the need to avoid simply asking ‘Do you understand?’, and ICQs provide one alternative to this.

Let’s look at some examples of ICQs and when and how we might choose to use them.

                         task

What students might misunderstand / what they might do that you don’t want them to do

               ICQ

Students look at a series of sentences about their partner and guess if the statements are true or false. They put a T or an F in the first column next to each statement according to their guess. You then want them to have a conversation with their partner and put a T or F in the second column with the actual information they receive. Afterwards they will see who guessed most accurately; them or their partner. Students may immediately start talking to their partner rather than guessing first.

Students may put their answers in the wrong column.

Students may give one or two-word answers, but the teacher wants to encourage fluency in the activity.

What do you do first – ask your partner or guess about your partner?

 

Where do I write my guess? (gesture to handout)

Do you give a one word answer, or give your partner more information?

When the teacher asks the ICQs it does three things; firstly, it provides the teacher with clear feedback, as if students answer incorrectly or not at all, they know things are not clear and can re-clarify; and if the students answer correctly, they can feel confident that the students have mostly got it. Secondly; if I am a student who didn’t quite understand, but I don’t want to say so, just listening to the ICQs and the answers provided by the teacher and / or other students is likely to clear up a lot of my confusion without my having to make everyone else aware of it. Thirdly, the teacher may have given clear instructions, but a student or students weren’t listening – ICQs mean the teacher can prevent this being too much of a problem.

Of course, ideally, we should be giving clear, concise instructions and making sure we use other appropriate techniques such as demonstrating, instructing before giving out handouts etc., but even then, there are things which quite often we can predict as potentially problematic. So, we can see that if the teacher anticipates potential problems with an activity they will be better able to design good ICQs. Look at the table below. What potential problems can you identify for each of the tasks? When you have identified the issues, think about what ICQ you would ask to check understanding / avoid these issues.

                        task

What students might misunderstand / what they might do that you don’t want them to do

                 ICQ

Individually, students should make notes under headings about a past holiday, in preparation for a speaking activity.    
Students work in pairs. Each student has a picture of a street scene, but there are several differences between student A’s and student B’s. They should describe their pictures to each other to discover the differences.    

Now look at my completed table and see if you agree or have anything to add.

                            task

What students might misunderstand / what they might do that you don’t want them to do

                 ICQ

Individually, students should make notes under headings about a past holiday, in preparation for a speaking activity. Student write full sentences or a paragraph, rather than notes, and then read their sentences aloud in the speaking task. Do you write full sentences or just the key words?
Students work in pairs. Each student has a picture of a street scene, but there are several differences between student A’s and student B’s. They should describe their pictures to each other to discover the differences. Students show their picture to their partner. Can you show your picture to your partner?

As you can see, once you have the potential problem – you simply change a statement about it into a question.

What are some common potential problems?

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Here are some examples of things that are often good things to ask ICQs about (including those from the tables above):

  • Students are asked to make notescheck you don’t want them to write full sentences.
  • You want students to do an information gap activitycheck they don’t show their papers to their partner otherwise, you no longer have an information gap!
  • It’s a gist reading taskset a time limit and check that they don’t need to understand every word, otherwise they will not be reading for gist.
  • When students are going to do a mingle activitycheck how many people they should try to talk to.
  • There is more than one exercise on a pagecheck that they should only do the one you want them to.
  • You want to regroup students by giving them each a number and putting the same numbers togetheronce you have given them all a number, check they can remember / were listening and know their number e.g. ‘Put your hand up if you are a number 1’ etc.
  • Students have to listen and tick the questions they hearcheck that they don’t yet have to answer the questions.

What makes good ICQs? Do I have to ask them?

You don’t have to instruction check everything in your lesson; use your judgement to decide if something is likely to cause confusion.

Remember that ICQs are not there as a guessing game – don’t ask ICQs about parts of instructions you have not given yet.

They should be short, clear and unambiguous.

What NOT to check

Don’t check the obvious! If you tell students to ‘stand up’ and then immediately ask ‘Do I want you to sit down?’, or tell students “You have 5 minutes. How long do you have?’, you will add confusion rather than clarity, and your students will likely look at you like you are crazy! People sometimes feel like asking ICQs is patronising, or only useful for young learners: this is not true, as long as the questions you ask are actually helpful and check something that probably needs checking. Remember, this isn’t about you doing something simply because you think it is a requirement or a box to tick: good ICQs, wisely used are useful tools, that we as teachers can use to set up an activity as effectively and efficiently as possible, so that students can get on and do it and benefit from it. 

7 Replies to “Checking Understanding – Part 1, Instruction Checking Questions (ICQs)”

  1. Thanks Katie!

    This is ace. Love the ICQ suggestions you give for different task types.

    We’re now referring all trainees to your page. Thanks and hope all is well in your exotic travels (she looks on and sighs with longing🙄).

    Take is easy,

    Geraldine (aka Kaplan Dublin) xxx

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Not till I started my CELTA course,had I any idea of what ICQs were or how efficent they can be once they are properly used.
    At first I thought that ICQs were a waste of time and that I would be patronizing my students by using ICQs.
    Well, that all has changed. Now as a Celtee, I feel very comfortable using ICQs in class and can with no doubt see the benefits of it.
    My TTT has been greatly reduced as I don´t have to keep on re-explaining instructions and activities have the flow they are supposed to.

    1. Really interesting comment Eduardo! I think initially, a lot of people feel like this – and it isn’t until they are more confident with ICQs and are perhaps a bit better at deciding when and how to use them that the benefits make themselves known. Sounds like you are doing a great job of using them to good effect 🙂

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