#justchecking

You are probably not aware of the fact that you are doing this right now: checking. Whether you are here just checking if this blog entry has anything usefull to say or if my writting skills are any good, the fact is that you can’t help doing it. Not convinced yet? How many times have you cheked you email today? Your Facebook? Your Whatsapp? Did you notice the three spelling mistakes in this paragraph? Are you going to keep reading this post or draw a smiley face on your screen? Just checking.

Checking in ELT

Checking is only one of many teaching skills a competent teacher needs to develop to become, er… competent. So guess what? Like any other skill it takes a lot of practice. And patience. Even a few embarrassing moments in order to become fully developed. I’ve been there myself and I can almost swear on president Dilma’s grave that Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury and Penny Ur have had their embarrassing moments when asking their check questions too. And I am being serious here. Apart from the more obvious checking of resources and materials before each lesson starts (e.g. are there enough photocopies? Is the internet working? Am I showing too much cleavage?), checking in ELT is normally divided into these two categories:

  • Checking Instructions
  • Checking Concepts

Checking Instructions

My experience shows that very few teachers, whether novice or experienced (but without formal training e.g. CELTA, DELTA), are used to checking their instructions. Their general approach seems to be to give instructions for an activity and then pray for the best… Not rarely, chaos ensues. Despite the consensus among trainers that there needs to be some form of checking, the best way to do this is still a question of debate.

Option 1: Learners repeat the instructions

Some teachers/trainers I have worked with advocate having learners repeat the instructions back to the teacher in L2 (or even in L1). While this is a valid alternative, my experience shows it may not always be appropriate e.g. with lower levels or when the teacher doesn’t speak the learners’ L1. In addition, it’s also more time-consuming as learners normally take a (very) long time to repeat back the instructions and I often notice that most of them, especially South Americans, do not have the patience to wait for their colleagues to finish reporting back and just get on with their work whether they have understood the activity or not – meanwhile, the poor teacher usually has to listen to one or two students painstakingly trying to accomplish the teachers request.

Option 2: Instruction Checking Questions

How about ICQs, then? Well, they seem to split teachers and trainers into two groups: those who are keen on their use and those who consider they are WAY overused in teacher training courses e.g. CELTA, to the point where they become some sort of ‘cult’. I belong in the first group and, to those of you who take part in the second, what I have to say is that ‘overuse’ is good when you are learning something for the first time. My daughter Sofia is three years old and overuses plurals. And she gets them wrong most of the time to the point that it would have been embarrassing to an adult. And we even laugh about it (although I try my best not to). She also overuses questions (much more than my patience can stand at times!) – but that’s absolutely normal, just ask any parent… Teachers NEED to overuse ICQs – and asking silly questions such as the one at the end of the first paragraph of this post is just a part of it – so that, once they feel they have mastered this skill and are confident doing it, they can then stop doing it! Picasso had to become a master of realism before he could take painting apart. By the way, I’m not trying to encourage teachers to subvert teaching once they’ve mastered their ICQs – although that wouldn’t be a bad idea. In any case, ICQs can be especially useful if the instructions include:

  • necessarily tricky language in the instructions
  • things that it is critical that students do/don’t do (e.g. not look at each other’s worksheets during and information gap activity)
  • multiple stages
  • different roles for different students

Option 3: Demonstrations

Demonstrations seem to be the most underused option, even though a simple demonstration will almost always ensure that learners have a better understanding of what they are supposed to do than all other forms of checking can on their own. You could try doing the first couple of examples as a class or role play the activity with a strong learner. OK? Alright? Get my drift?

Checking Concepts

The ability to find out whether learners have understood new target language is especially important in inductive approaches to language teaching and most text books these days have incorporated ways to help learners arrive at an understanding of the rule(s) by looking at examples of language in context. So what are the implications for the teacher? It means that it is the teacher’s role to check if the learners have a clear understanding of the concepts they have been struggling to grasp on their own. There are many ways to do this, including asking Concept Checking Questions – the infamous CCQs. Creating them is not an easy task for the novice teacher (and even for more experienced ones!) and everything I have said earlier regarding developing a new skill also applies here. The big difference is, when it comes to learning about grammar – and having to answer questions about it – many learners find it difficult… or just dead boring! So how can teachers overcome this difficulty/obstacle? One way I found, which has been showing amazing results, is through the use of ‘internet memes’ to help learners understand difficult grammar concepts in a humorous and engaging way.

Internet memes and concept checking

I already mentioned in my earlier post (#shifthappens) how my meeting with Luiz Otávio inspired me to start this blog. We were having dinner after the ELT event where we were both speaking, when I expressed my desire to start writing ELT-related stuff for publication. He said he’d really liked my talk called From Internet Memes to Concept Checking and that, if I made it into an article, he would happily publish it on his blog ThinkELT.com. I got really excited with the idea of having my first article published on such a renowned blog, so I sat down and wrote it, and then sent it to him. As it turned out, what I’d planned to start only in 2014 (as one more thing in my list of New Year’s resolutions) came about a month earlier, as a premature baby who couldn’t wait to be born. On seeing that I’d started my blog (and written my first post), Luiz wrote me an email saying he’d really liked my article and that it deserved to go in my blog, for it would attract many visitors. I refused. What better way of saying thank you to the person who inspired me to start the thing in the first place than having people read it on his? So, are you going to click on the link below or are you going to leave a comment on this page? Just checking.

Internet Memes and Concept Checking on ThinkELT.com by Luiz Otávio Barros.

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4 thoughts on “#justchecking

  1. Hi Marcelo, great to see the blog coming along. Keep up the good work!

    Re checking instructions, I completely agree that’s it’s rarely done enough, and when it is, it’s not always appropriately done. When I’m observing (and I’m sure the same is true for you), I often hear the ‘Are-you-doing-this-exercise-or-an-impression-of-a-monkey-on-roller-skates’ type question often thrown in at the last minute. It’s like an alarm goes off in the teacher’s mind where they think ‘oh! I have to ask an ICQ!’. Or even worse, we hear the dreaded:

    What do you have to do?

    … followed my the ensuing uncomfortable silence as the students think ‘we know what to, we just can’t explain it in English, that’s your job. Can’t we just get on with it?’

    I’d like to add a couple of other suggestions here though, if I may. 90% of the time, I think the most appropriate and effective way of checking what you want students to do is just to elicit the first answer, or do the first one together. Also, I think this is ironically what a lot of teachers do anyway, but they just don’t realise they’re checking instructions and feel they have to ask a follow-up question.

    Additionally, I think a good old walk round once the students have started to check they’re doing the right thing is good, too. Again, because it’s not gimmicky, a lot of teachers might feel they’re not ‘using the right technique’ when they do this.

    As for concept checking, I think we’re lucky in monolingual environments to be able to make use of translation – not just with single-word items, but also things like how to form the passive, checking understanding of false cognates (e.g. How do you say ‘nervoso’ in English?). What do you think?

    • Hi Damian. First of all, thank you for your comments! They show we are in the same wavelength. By the way, my top three Are-you-doing-this-exercise-or-an-impression-of-a-monkey-on-roller-skates type questions are, and I have them written in a special notebook of mine:

      1) “Are you going to work in pairs or do the Macarena in front of the class?”
      2) “Are you going to fill in the gaps or tattoo the answers on your body?”
      3) “Are you going to use the words from the box or from the Bible?”

      As I said, from a trainer’s viewpoint you can look at such things from two different angles. The more obvious alternative would be to write a sarcastic comment on their lesson feedback sheet and then suggest different ways the teacher could have checked their instructions more effectively. However, from a more developmental stance, the fact that the ‘alarm’ you mentioned goes off in the teachers’ heads is a sign of progress and I interpret it much more as a positive example of “reflection-in-action” (defended by Paulo Freire and many others), though in its rudimentary stages of development).

      Bearing in mind that I’m talking about novice teachers here, either during or just after initial teacher training courses e.g. CELTA, my interpretation tends to be that there are so many things they are trying to concentrate on at the same time (e.g. getting the students’ attention, remembering what the actual instructions were, being assertive whilst trying to establish rapport, projecting their voice, grading their language – and in case of non-native teachers, maintaining accuracy in their own use of language –, making the wording as short and concise as possible, watching their positioning, and so on…) that the advent of the ‘alarm’ going off is a very positive thing: “oh, gosh! I remembered to do everything but forgot to demonstrate the activity and some students have already started the exercise, how can I show to the observer that I know I should check students’ understanding of my instructions?”, then bang: “OK, guys! What do you have to do?”

      It’s very common that the teachers themselves had planned much better ICQs or written something like ‘demonstrate the activity with a strong student’ in their lesson plans, because that’s what we normally encourage them to do: plan! The process is similar to what happens to learners in the classroom when say a pre-intermediate learner has to produce longer stretches of language during an oral exam. As their teacher, I know they know the grammar rules and can correct themselves, but the ability of self-monitoring and self-correction can only appear once they have mastered all the other factors that come into play at the moment of speaking. And this is true of any other skill in life. I can play a song in the guitar and I can sing the words of the song as long as I do ONLY ONE of these two things at a given moment. Put the two together, and dang! I forget the lyrics or to change the chords at the right time. How much more time it will take for me to put the two together and make it sound nice will depend on the amount of practice I dedicate to it and on my perseverance on trying to get it right. Developing a skill IS hard and both teachers and trainers need to bear that in mind. By the time they get to DELTA level, though, things change as we expect teachers to have already developed some degree of skill in this area.

      Re your point about teachers not thinking “a good walk around” is a good checking strategy, I again think we as trainers are partly to blame. We usually give it a different name: monitoring; and, not rarely, instructions which are not followed by one of the techniques mentioned on this post are considered ‘faulty’ and the monitoring which happens to make sure learners understand the teachers’ instructions is considered as ‘repair’. The debate goes on…

  2. Super cool, marujo! Last Monday one of my peers observed my lesson and we talked about ICQs and CCQs. It’s really important to use them and, of course, we save a lot of time by doing it 🙂
    Now, the memes stuff… That was really cool! I used memes three or four times in my flipcharts to check instructions this semester, but the way you use them is great! Such a lovely sharing, marujo 😀 Keep up the great job! We need it hehe!

    • I’m glad you liked it, Cândice! My students also love it when ‘memes’ suddenly pop up during the lesson and I find using them for concept checking grammar is great fun. They help with retention of new target structures by making them memorable. But it’s only one of many other possible uses of ‘memes’ in the classroom.There is a hidden potential behind the ‘internet memes’ phenomenon yet to be exploited for language learning purposes. You mentioned another i.e. checking instructions. How did you do this?

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