Here’s a blog post about task checking.

26 Jul

Now are you going to read this blog post or lick the screen?

If you’re anything like me, I doubt you bothered to deign this question with an answer.  And yet, this is exactly the type of task check/instruction check question (ICQ) that I often hear when observing teachers.  Some of my other all-time favourites include:

Are you going to listen alone or in pairs?

Now I want you to tell your partner about your weekend.  Are you going to speak?

Please listen and fill in the gaps.  Where are you going to write your answers?

And of course, the classic:

Do you understand?

The list goes on…

So why does this happen?  Most of the teachers I observe are intelligent, capable educators with good people skills, and yet they often admittedly have serious issues when checking tasks.  Having spoken to many new and experienced teachers, it seems that they frequently feel that they have only two options:

1) Ask obvious ICQs, feel silly, patronize the students

2) Don’t ask ICQs, hope for the best

Everyone I’ve spoken to also seems to agree that making sure students understand the instructions is important, especially at lower levels where there is more chance of a communication breakdown.  So I thought maybe I’d look at a few viable options that have worked for me, to help clarify my own thoughts on the topic, and maybe help out anyone else having similar issues.

When is instruction checking appropriate?

First it is important to recognize that obsessive instruction checking is a real teaching disorder.  Luckily there is a simple remedy: remember that your students are intelligent adults.  If something is patently obvious even without spoken instructions, there is no need to check it!  After all, it is the language the learners have trouble with, not simple concepts like what to do with a gap-fill or which skill involves using a pencil.

On the other hand, some tasks are more complicated and might require an ICQ if they include

  • multiple stages
  • different roles for different students
  • 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 paper during and info gap activity)

Regularly, it is possible to anticipate when ICQs are likely to be needed during the planning stage, assuming you’re into planning activities beforehand.  And of course, if after giving instructions a sea of puzzled faces are staring up at you, it might not be a bad idea either!

What are some alternatives to ICQs?

Naturally, ICQs should not be thought of as the only, or even the most effective way to make sure learners understand a task.  In fact, the majority of the time, I feel the following typical ways of checking understanding are just as valid and often more comfortable for the teacher and learners:

1)   Do the first question/activity/example as a class

2)   Get students to demonstrate the activity (possibly with teacher guidance)

3)   Elicit the instructions from the students

After all, if the learners can show you or tell you what they need to do, chances are they understand!  Also, don’t worry if not everyone understands absolutely everything – it might just be that they weren’t paying attention.  Usually a little monitoring after setting the task can take care of the rest.

One more thought…

Sometimes it does seem to me that a more hard-line approach to checking everything is preached on teacher training courses.  While it may work for some, it also appears that many other teachers are turned off from the practice of ICQs altogether.  Maybe with a bit more reflection about when and where to ask ICQs in the first place, more teachers could find a comfortable balance between the linguistic needs of the students as language learners and the affective needs of the students (and teacher!) as people.

Do you know what I mean? Ok? Is that clear?  Innit?  Get my drift? Know what I’m sayin?  Right?

15 Responses to “Here’s a blog post about task checking.”

  1. Ben Naismith July 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    P.S. If anyone reading this knows a simple way to edit the font size of a few words and can explain it to a complete HTML novice, please let me know.

  2. grahamcoke July 27, 2011 at 12:38 am #

    Thanks, Ben. This post was like a take-out workshop. No pressure, but know your audience will be tapping their fingertips together and grinning for the next one.

  3. JCordero July 27, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

    Quite useful Ben. Sometimes you can see on the students face that do-you-really-think-I’m-an-idiot? kind of expression. Particularly when they have been studying for a while and have already found a significant number of people who…

    In my opinion, the problem is that we often forget that CCQ’s are tools to be used for an end and not a mere formality that has to be thrown in the lesson to please the norm.

    Thanks for the post. Keep them coming.

    • Ben Naismith July 28, 2011 at 7:58 am #

      Thanks Jon. You definitely see it a lot on celta courses when the trainee suddlenly realizes they haven’t checked their instructions and throws in a gratuitous ICQ just to check that box.

  4. anaxili July 28, 2011 at 10:40 am #

    Even though CCQ’s are often perceived as one of those daunting steps we must figure out how to do when we’re first starting to teach, I think the alternatives you give are a nice way to get yourself familiar with them. Especially, your idea about eliciting the instructions from the students can be quite useful. Lately I’ve noticed that this can even help improving an activity with a spin Ss think the activity has.

    Say, I plan a running dictation or something, give the handouts and ask the students what we are going to do. Sometimes my students come up with great ideas (last time they decided that they would do a quickfire-turn taking round that turned out to be quite a fun way to tackle a somewhat boring topic for them).

    Thanks for this post! Keep ’em coming 😀

    • Ben Naismith July 28, 2011 at 11:37 am #

      Hi Ana, I like it – the more student engagement and ownership the better if you ask me. I think we might be using different terminology here though. For me, CCQ’s are Concept Check Questions used to ensure students understood the meaning of a certain structure, e.g grammar or lexis, whereas ICQ’s or task check questions are used to make sure students understood what they are expected to do in the task.

      • anaxili July 28, 2011 at 11:44 am #

        Oops! You’re right. My bad 🙂

      • JCordero July 28, 2011 at 4:18 pm #


  5. Stephen Greene February 27, 2012 at 4:30 am #

    You are absolutely spot in with some of the cringeworthy ICQs that exist. I was once observing a class where a student asked the blatatly obvious ICQs before the teacher which suggested she did it a lot.

    I think one of the problems for most teachers (and it especially applies to CELTA courses, although there are other problems there as well) is that when we are teaching students who are new to us we need to check more. After a couple of classes they know what we want and our style of teaching and so often start doing the exercises even before we have instructed them what to do, nevermine waiting for the instructions to be checked.

    Great post, and I especially liked your first line!

    • Ben Naismith February 27, 2012 at 6:48 am #

      Thanks for the comment Stephen. ‘Cringe-worthy’ is definitely the word! You’re also right that students do quickly get used to the teacher’s ways and quickly pick up on how things work. In fact, after years of language learning, they often have much better language awareness and intuition about classroom management than the teachers starting out. I love when savvy students ask the teacher for clarification of shoddy instructions…

  6. Ben Naismith February 27, 2012 at 7:16 am #

    Quick update – if anyone is interested in a great rant about ICQs, check out @michaelgriffin and his blog at


  7. Phyllis June 19, 2012 at 11:53 am #

    What you mentioned rings true.There is a time and place.
    Having been teaching a number of years successfuly(references and happy satisfied students) It was suggested I do a CELTA course.(I had a very old Preparity Cert.)
    Often I was told in FB get your scripted CCQs andICCQs on your lesson plan. You didn’t use enough CCQs and ICQs. I felt I was condesending when using my scripted CCQs and ICQs ,you could read the look on students’ faces.It is an action point in 4 weeks of a CELTA COURSE.PLEASE USE……
    Well back in the real world and common sense.
    Will check your blog more often Thanks

    • Ben Naismith June 19, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

      Hi Phyllis,

      Thanks for checking out the blog. Glad you could relate to the post. I think your experience confirms that we need to adjust how we train people to use ICQs and CCQs – since they can be such a useful and beneficial part of a teacher’s repertoire, the last thing we should be doing is turning teachers off by pushing them too hard to overuse them or to use them in unnatural situations.


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