The cult of ICQs

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
January 2010

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 
May 2010

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?
Students: One!
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?
Students: Read.
Teacher: What are you going to read?
Students: Story.
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?
Students: No.
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?
Students: 3.
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.

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18 comments

  1. Justin

    Another way to think of “tools, not rules,” is simply “doing things for a REASON.”

    Checking instructions is important. Sometimes essential.

    That is, when there’s a genuine worry that students may misunderstand, and that misunderstanding would be problematic. (not easy to correct by monitoring and helping)

    A theory I’ve been playing with is that ICQs are one of the easiest concepts on many teacher training courses, and therefore one of the first things trainees latch onto. And sometimes, they latch on hard.

    A question for somebody (anybody) around the Korean ministry of education- Are teachers in Korea currently encouraged to check instruction comprehension with questions after all instructions? (I have seen this on a ministry of education evaluation form, but am not sure that it’s general.)

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments. Your point about ICQs being “easy” got me thinking. They are presumably easy to do but also easy to agree with and not such a challenge to beliefs. So, a teacher can take a training course and convince themselves that they have learned after adding ICQs to their tool kit.

      Your question about checking ALL instructions is a really interesting one and that might explain some of the things that I have seen!

      Thanks for the comments!

  2. Ben Naismith

    Great post and I completely agree with Justin – it really is about rationale. ICQs are definitely a tool, so be careful where/how you wield them!

    Also, thanks a lot for the blog mention – I was wondering why I was getting referrals from your site all of a sudden.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks so much for the comments Ben!
      I was thrilled when I saw your post (and cracking up from that classic first line).
      I decided to stay away from your blog for a week until I write up what I have been thinking about “Aims on the board.” It seems that we have a lot of interests in common! Cheers!

  3. Autumn

    Completely see what you are saying here. As a trainer of new teachers though, I advise my students on a “more is better than less” policy until they can figure out how to use CCQs. As new teachers they also need time to a truly get a grasp of their students’ levels so that they can get a feel for when CCQs are essential and when they are overkill. Sometimes modeling is enough. Sometimes speaking slowly and simple is enough. Sometimes you just need 1 CCQ. Sometimes you need 3. In the end, I believe that using CCQs is really about feeling out what your students need to fully understand what to do. This is something I explore with my participants during feedback sessions on practice teaching, so that by the end of the course they can (sometimes!) weed out the primo CCQs from the overkill CCQs. (This is TesolatRennertNYC, btw!)

    • mikecorea

      Thanks so much for the comments and exchange Autumn! It is great to connect here on and on twitter. I think that our thoughts on this are actually quite similar. As as sometime (onetime?) trainer on SIT BP courses in Korea I have many participants go (what i consider at least!) overboard with CCQs and almost give the impression that CCQs are the most important thing to be learned on such a course. I am painting with a very broad brush but to my mind it seems that CCQs can give the impression of being quite student centered but while actually being teacher fronted and controlled.

      Also I think it can problematic when teachers don’t distinguish between instruction checking questions and CCQs (for meaning/usage). Of course there are similarities and crossover but I feel that making a distinction helps make for better questions.

      I really like your point about using CCQs to feel out what Ss need to know in order to fully understand what to do!
      Thanks again for the comments!
      (And sorry for the delay in responding. I was under the impression that I already had but wordpress told me differently)

      • Autumn

        Ha! No problem! I find that new teachers/participants on a TESOL course latch on (with the strength of 10,000 men) to the one concept that they “fully” (from their perception believe they fully) grasp, and unfortunately, that tends to be LCQs/ICQS (at my school we call them ‘language checking questions’ and ‘instruction checking questions’ because of the age old CCQ/CCQ confusion).

        To further cement this love affair, It is one of the main things that they discover on their own through feedback! “Oh my gosh! The students couldn’t do the practice activity after I presented my target language/they couldn’t do the activity after my instructions! I didn’t ask ICQS or LCQs! This hinders learning!” They have a big revelation about it in almost every course and fully own this discovery. This causes the importance of ‘checking understanding’ to move to the forefront of their minds while planning and teaching. At least, this is how I interpret my participants’ gung ho attitude about CCQs.

        However, having had the lovely opportunity to talk with my past participants after they have become English teachers at my language school (I am talking about native speaker participants now). They often remark to me about how the need for ICQs and LCQs disappears the longer they have class with the same students. They also comment on different students needing different checking questions which I find very cool that they are noticing that. So, despite the initial wildfire of checking questions bombarding the poor students during the first months of teaching, I do believe that with experience, some teachers figure out the balance! Hopefully!

      • mikecorea

        Thanks so much for the comments and for sharing your thoughts, Autumn. Much appreciated!

        I also find it great that former participants are noticing how different students need different checking questions and finding a balance. Perhaps my perception was really skewed from seeing bombardment after bombardment here in Korea…with mostly experienced teachers learning some new tools.

        I also appreciated your idea that ICQs/CCQs can be something that can easily be latched onto. Good point!

        Thanks for the exchange! 🙂

  4. Josette

    Tomorrow I plan to do a session (lesson) on the difference between CCQs and ICQs, with a stronger focus on CCQs. Next week (I only have this session once a week), I want to help them practice giving instructions (ICQs). When I do these sessions I’ll be keeping the points you raised in mind:

    “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.”

    Thinking back on previous semesters, I note that even though I realized these were tools, I’m not sure I was convincing. I foresee a good round of dramatized ICQ action coming up in next week’s lesson. My goal is for them to notice the inappropriacy of that many questions, so that they can see the “tool” value. And in doing this, I also think they’ll be able to see a clearer distinction between CCQs and ICQs, which are always suffer from a differentiation issue like you mentioned.

    Thanks for giving me the space to brainstorm 🙂 I have more thinking/organizing to do but I feel excited about my new mission.

    • mikecorea

      Hi! Thanks so much for the comments.!
      I know it has been about a year but I wonder if you remember anything about how things went with ICQs and CCQs with your participants?
      I won’t add it to the list of blog posts I have nudged you to write! Don’t worry.
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.
      (I have no idea how I managed to not respond to your comments! )

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  10. Adi Rajan

    The ICQ that really makes me cringe is “So what do you have to do?” Poor Charlies. They are compelled to listen to a litany of instructions and then regurgitate them perfectly. It’s like a task before the task.

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