So this is a bit of a rant. I have been saving this up for a while. Let me start with some stories.
100% True story
My co-trainer gave what I thought were very good instructions to the room full of future teacher trainers. He spoke at a steady pace and paused at times to let the info sink in. He modeled. He didn’t use any superfluous language and clearly articulated what he wanted them to do in the activity. He split the instructions into smaller bits of information and he gave the participants a chance to process what he was saying. I think he even drew a little picture on the board.
I don’t really remember the instructions or even the activity at it was already more than 2 years ago. I will, however, probably remember the response for a long time. There were 24 participants in the room, neatly arranged in 6 groups of 4 people. After my co-trainer gave the instructions 23/24 got right to work and seemed to dive right into the task that he had given them.
1 participant didn’t. She looked around at her group members and said in what I interpreted as a tone mixed with confusion, surprise, and judgment, “CCQs?” I took it to mean that the instructions were not complete in some way because the trainer had not capped off his instructions with a list of questions aimed to ascertain that he was fully understood by the participants. For me, the proof that they had understood was that 23 out of 24 people got right down to business. I suspect that 24/24 would have followed the instructions if the person in question wasn’t hung up on the lack of questions.
Slightly exaggerated story
The experienced Korean public school teacher was delivering a 40 minute reading skills lesson for practice teaching students in a training course. She had been teaching for over 10 years but was not so experienced teaching English in English (often not-so-affectionately known as TEE in Korea…which is perhaps another rant for another day) and was not so experienced teaching anything but what we would probably call teacher-centered Grammar/Translation classes.
There were 6 middle school students in her lesson and was she trying to set up a reading task. The task involved reading a short text and transferring some information from the text to a worksheet that she had created (think: skimming and scanning). Let’s listen in:
Teacher: Ok. I am going to give you this piece of paper. One piece of paper per student. How many pieces of paper per student?
Teacher: Yes, good. So I am going to give you one piece of paper and you are going to read the story. What are you going to do?
Teacher: What are you going to read?
Teacher: Yes. You are going to read the story. Please read the story and answer questions 1 through 5? Are you going to answer question 6?
Teacher: Which questions are you going to answer.
Students: 1….(students have trouble saying “1 through 5”)
Teacher: Yes. Good please answer 1 through 5. You have 3 minutes. How many minutes do you have?
Teacher: Ok please read the story and answer questions 1 through 5.
This is what I call “ICQ overload.” I want to remind you that this is only just a slight exaggeration. She took well over the three minutes of the planned reading time to deliver and check and double check the life out of the reading task.
I hope it is clear by now that I am talking about ICQs (instruction checking questions). These are sometimes called CCQs, as we saw from the course participant in the first story. I find this unnecessarily confusing because CCQs can mean either comprehension checking questions or concept checking questions. In An A-Z of ELT Scott Thornbury writes that “comprehension questions are often used in conjunction with reading or listening texts…In theory, the purpose of comprehension questions is to check learners’ understanding of a text, either spoken or written.” For concept questions he writes, “A concept question is a question designed to check or to guide learner’s understanding of a new word or grammar item.” So, simply, comprehension questions are for checking that learners understood texts (written or spoken) and concept questions are to check if and help learners understand words or grammar. When put like this, I think it becomes easy to distinguish between comprehension checking questions and concept checking questions.
In terms of distinguishing between ICQs and concept checking questions, I found this page quite helpful. Also, here is some extremely useful advice on forming concept checking questions from Marisa Constantinides.
Thinking about the above stories and other similar ones made me think that there might be a problem with how ICQs are being introduced, drilled, practiced and indoctrinated, in training courses in Korea. (I don’t want to speak about other contexts because I really have no idea.)
Why are ICQs so easily and happily taken away from training courses?
I suppose that part of it is because they seem easy to use. I also think that here in Korea they are a nice way for the teacher to use English in a way that can be planned. I also think that they give the impression of being “student centered” because students are responding to the teachers questions.
My thought is that ICQs are great but, like everything, they can be overused to the point of being problematic. I think they are one of the many tools available for teachers giving instructions (other good examples include the things my co-trainer did in the first story above).
A trainer friend of mine turned me on to the phrase “Tools, not rules” and I think that really accurately captures my thoughts on a lot of things related to teaching and training, including ICQs. I sincerely wonder if most training courses
a) make trainees think that there are in fact rules about such things
b) don’t do a good enough making sure that trainees are aware of the differences between tools and not rules.
c) something else that I am missing.
I would love to hear your thoughts on “ICQ overload.” I am particularly interested in examples from other contexts. I am also interested in others’ perspectives on the differences between tools and rules and how these distinctions can be made more clear.
Thanks for “listening” to the rant!
As I was putting the finishing touches on this post I found the following great advice on ICQs from ELTstew. Seriously, click it. The first line is, “Now are you going to read this blog post or lick the screen?” Here is some more advice on giving instructions.