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In the Classroom

Concept Checking Questions and Timelines (CCQs)


In a standard language focus lesson following a PPP (present, practise, produce) or similar format, the target language (structure or vocabulary) is normally presented in context, then isolated and analysed.

Analysis of the language consists of two sub-stages, often known as highlighting and concept checking.

Highlighting is taking the model sentence and showing, telling or eliciting what the problems are in terms of form, function, and phonology.

Concept checking is checking the understanding of difficult aspects of the target structure in terms of function and meaning. Concept checking is vital, since learners must fully understand the structure before any intensive practice of form and phonology is carried out.

Ways of checking understanding

Concept checking is normally achieved by the use of a set of questions designed to ensure comprehension of the target language, raise awareness of its problems, and to indicate to the teacher that the learners have fully understood.

The question “Do you understand?”, or the remark “OK?” do not achieve any of these aims, and are unlikely to receive a truthful answer from all the learners. Concept questions are one way of checking understanding, but are often used in combination with other methods, often visual, depending on the nature of the target language involved. Here are some other methods:

  • Timelines to establish tenses. Timelines are not a substitute for concept questions.

  • Truth lines to establish probability e.g. must be / could be / might be / can't be.

  • Reality lines to establish degree of reality or imagination e.g. conditional sentences

  • Clines to show grades or scales e.g. yellow-amber-orange, frequency adverbs

  • Pictures to distinguish between similar objects e.g. cup / mug, lane/ road / highway

  • Discrimination to check function and register e.g. Do I say “hey!” to my boss?

  • Negative checking e.g. Do I say “I were”?

  • Translation (where appropriate and possible).

  • Extensions to consolidate understanding. Homework often reveals lack of understanding, as do guided practice exercises.



What are concept questions?

They’re questions that are designed to check learners have understood the meaning of a piece of grammar, an item of vocabulary or functional expression. The word “concept” is used to signify the essential meaning of a piece of language.

Why use them?

Firstly, because they are efficient and effective way of checking learners have understood something. They are more effective, for example, than asking learners “Do you understand?” because a)learners may think they have understood something correctly but in reality they have not, and b) learners may be reluctant in the classroom setting to say out loud in front of their peers that they have not understood something since this may expose them to ridicule.

Secondly, because concept questions always work. The concept questions for an item will always be the same since the essential meaning of a piece of language does not change. There may be some examples when the meaning is partly dependent upon the context, but simple adaptation of the concept questions will take care of this. Once you know the concept questions for the use of a particular tense, for example, they will never change and will always work, whatever the example sentence.

Thirdly, because they are a tool for developing the language awareness of teachers. By learning to design and use concept questions, teachers learn to think closely about the meaning of items of language in a systematic and through way. In other words, they can be used to develop a teacher’s language awareness skills.


When do you ask them?

Concept questions can be used on two occasions.

The first is when a new piece of language is introduced and the teacher wants to check that all the learners have understood the meaning. They are therefore used during the “Checking understanding” stage of a lesson, or at any time a new piece of language is complex, or does not exist in the learners’ language, or is used in a different way, or is a false friend.

Secondly, they can be used as a correction technique, either to remind the learner of a concept they have forgotten, or to get the learner to think about the concept of a piece of language they are using. For example, if a learner says “I visit my aunt at 3 o’clock on Saturday”, you may want to check if the learner wants to talk about a regular habit (ie something the learner does every Saturday at this time) or whether the learner wants to talk about a define arrangement for this Saturday at 3 p.m. By asking the learner “Is this something you do every Saturday?” and “Is it a define arrangement?” we get the learner to think about the difference in meaning and the correct form that is needed.



How many concept questions do you ask?

It depends on the meaning of the item being checked, but usually it will be somewhere between one and five. If you find that you are asking a lot more questions than this, it probably indicates that you are asking some questions which are either superfluous or irrelevant.


How to write concept questions

Questions may be of different types:

Yes/no questions: “Is a bed-sit a room?”, “Are there other rooms in the house?”, “Can you sleep in it?”.

50/50 chance questions: “Is it a room or a building?”, “Is it cheap or expensive?”, “Do you buy it or pay money every week or month?”

Information questions: “Who lives in it?”, “How many people live in it?”

Discrimination questions:  “Do you only sleep in it?”, “Can you cook a meal in it?”, “Is it the same as a flat?”

Shared experience questions:  “Is there a bed-sit in this building?”

Life experience/culture questions:  “Have you ever lived in a bed-sit?”  “Are there bed-sits in your city/country?”

Remember that the answers “sometimes”, “it depends” and “I don't know” can tell you as much as “yes” or “no”.


How do you make them?

Look at the sentence below:

He used to play football.

Firstly you need to break down the meaning of this sentence into number of statements.

  1. He doesn’t play football now.

  2. He played football in the past.

  3. He played football many time in the past.

These three statements are a complete description of the meaning of “used to” (Past Habit) in the simple sentence. All that needs to be done now is to turn the statements into questions.

  1. Does he play football now?              (No)

  2. Did he play football in the past?      (Yes)

  3. Did he play once or many time?      (Many times)

Notice that the answer we expect learners to give is written in the brackets. If, for example, the learners answer “Yes” to the first question, we know that that they have not understood correctly and clarification is needed.

There are also several other design features that need to be considered. Notice that the language used in the concept questions is simpler than the language being checked. The answers that the learners are required to give are short and simple. Furthermore, we do not use the item itself in the concept question. We do not, for example, ask “Did he use to play football?” since it is possible to answer “Yes” without understanding the meaning of “used to”. All the rules for the design and use of concept questions are summarized below.


The same procedure applies for checking the concept of vocabulary items and functional exponents, though with these you will need to take into account other features such as register, style and connotation. For example, for the following sentence:

“Could you open the door for me, please?”

The concept questions are:

  1. Is this and order or a request?      (Request)

  2. Am I being polite or impolite?       (Polite)

Concept questions are an excellent way of checking understanding and an extremely useful device for getting learners to think about language.



5 Rules for using CCQs when teaching English

Plan CCQs in advance

Preparation is a major contributor to success in all areas of life, especially when teaching. As an ESL teacher, it is very beneficial to take a look over the lesson before starting class and jot down a few CCQs that would help. This will encourage an organized and fun class while ensuring that the student gets the most out of their lesson and time.


Ask questions that are simple

By “simple” we don’t mean asking third-grade students kindergarten-level questions, even though they would love that! Instead, ask questions that are considered simple for their specific learning level. The CCQs should be drafted with the lesson level in mind and also the students’ level. Otherwise, much time may be wasted on explaining small details and meanings that are not applicable or appropriate to the level being taught. Tailor the CCQs as precisely as possible to the lesson and students’ needs.


Use several styles of CCQs

Another great rule for making CCQs is to use several styles of these questions. You may ask; yes/no questions, either/or questions, and simple ‘Wh’ questions to check the various aspects of the target language. Each type of question elicits a different kind of response. Some responses will have short or yes/no answers, while other questions will create dialogue and extended responses from the student. Whichever style of CCQs you choose, make sure to direct CCQs to specific students, not always to the whole class, the same students, or the best students; cover as many students as possible.


Consider vocabulary usage

This could be a biggie and cause confusion over the simplest topics. Do not add unfamiliar vocabulary or new language to CCQs; it just muddies the attempt to gauge understanding of the concepts at hand. Reflect on how you may have felt learning at a younger age. Even if English was your first language, it might’ve been difficult to grasp many new concepts if the teacher used unfamiliar or difficult vocabulary words. Many times, our students may be feeling the same. Using language they’ve already learned or been introduced to will help them follow along easier and feel confident that they’re making progress in each lesson.


Use media and mix it up

Here’s the fun part! Students love visual examples and gestures that keep them interested in the lesson. You can include pictures, realia, miming, synonyms, antonyms, the whiteboard, and time and tense in CCQs. Using these different forms of media and English tenses will make content checking more fun and interactive. These materials may also distract the student from realizing they are being “pop quizzed,” and THAT, my friend, is a great teaching day for both teacher and student.



How to draw timelines


What are timelines?

They are lines and drawings that provide a visual representation of different verb forms, showing when things happen or are happening in the present, past or future.

How to draw them?

The basic drawing is a horizontal and a vertical line.

The horizontal line represents time while the vertical line represents now, the present moment.  Everything to the left of this vertical represents the Past, while everything to the right represents the Future.


There are certain conversations for representing actions on timelines.

A cross is used to show a single, complete action:

                                                  “I saw a good film last week.”




The value of concept questions should not be underestimated, but many teachers either forget to use them or find them difficult to construct. Teachers are often satisfied that the learners ”seem to understand” on the basis of their performance in practice exercises. A few important points to remember are:

  • Concept questions are particularly valuable after the presentation and explanation of an item, and may be asked at any stage during a lesson. They are valuable after guided practice, particularly if the learners seem not to have grasped the target language fully, and at the end of a lesson, as a final check and review.

  • Timelines and other devices are not substitutes for concept questions. They are aids to explanation, but do not necessarily check understanding. Concept questions, however, may be used to elicit a timeline from the learners.

  • Concept questions are particularly valuable where a concept does not exist, or is different in the mother tongue (e.g. the perfect aspect, ways of expressing the future), and where a language item is culturally loaded as in the case of the word “subway”which has very different meanings in British and American English. In such cases, concept questions often form part of the initial teaching process.

  • Concept questions are also useful for raising awareness of association and connotation, and for drawing attention to collocations and fixed expressions. They are also good listening practice for learners, and can even lead on to class activities such as guessing games in which the learners write their own questions.

  • The teacher does not have to concept check every new item. In many cases, function and meaning are clear because the language has been presented in a meaningful context.

  • When learners perform poorly in guided or less guided practice, it is often because they are not clear about the function or meaning of the target language. This may well be because the teacher has asked 'do you understand?' or “is that clear” rather than good concept questions.




  1. Workman, G. Concept Questions and Timelines, (Chadburn Publishing, 2005);



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