Eliciting and Checking Understanding in Teaching


Eliciting (elicitation) is term which describes a range of techniques which enable the teacher to get learners to provide information rather than giving it to them.

Eliciting - methodology article

Commonly, eliciting is used to ask learners to come up with vocabulary and language forms and rules, and to brainstorm a topic at the start of a skills lesson. The definition of the term in the Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, ‘Techniques or procedures which a teacher uses to get learners to actively produce speech or writing’, suggests that there may be wider applications.

Principles and advantages
Eliciting is based on several premises:

  • Collectively, students have a great deal of knowledge, both of the language and of the real world. This knowledge needs to be activated and used constructively
  • The teaching of new knowledge is often based on what the learners already know
  • Questioning assists in self-discovery, which makes information more memorable.

Eliciting helps to develop a learner-centred classroom and a stimulating environment, while making learning memorable by linking new and old information. Eliciting is not limited to language and global knowledge. The teacher can elicit ideas, feelings, meaning, situations, associations and memories. For the teacher, eliciting is a powerful diagnostic tool, providing key information about what the learners know or don’t know, and therefore a starting point for lesson planning. Eliciting also encourages teachers to be flexible and to move on rather than dwell on information which is already known.

Tools for eliciting
Language and ideas cannot be elicited without some input from the teacher, and eliciting is certainly not an excuse for not presenting language in a clear context. Students also need prompts, associations and reminders in order to jog their memories.

  • Often, the teacher provides stimulus using visuals or the board. When working on the simple present for daily routines, for example, a picture or drawing of a house and a clock combined with mime can be used to elicit both the names of household items and common verbs:

T: Six o’clock. Where is she?
S: Bed
T: Yes, she’s in bed, sleeping. Seven-thirty, every day?
S: Get up
T: Good, she gets up at seven-thirty. Eight o’clock, every day?
S: Eat. Breakfast
T: Well done. Listen: She has breakfast at eight o’clock

  • The teacher may also model new structures or lexis before it is introduced as the target language:

T: Do you like coffee?
S: Yes (I do).
T: Do you like tea?
S: Yes I do
T: Do you like milk?
S: No (I don’t)
T: What’s the question? Ask me.

  • A situational dialogue, example sentences or a listening/reading text may provide the context from which the target language is elicited. In this case, the teacher is asking the learners to notice how a particular function is expressed, and eliciting is combined with concept questions. In a text or dialogue about the future:

T: Is he talking about the past, present or future?
S: Future
T: Does he know / is he sure about the future?
S: No
T: Right. It’s a prediction. What verb does he use?
S: Will
T: Good. Can you give me an example?

  • Eliciting ideas and background information also requires input. This may come from a teacher’s anecdote or story, a text, pictures, or a video, and involves the sharing of knowledge between teacher and learners. Information is often elicited onto a mind-map on the board, but it is important that all the students have a record of collective knowledge, and may find one of the many kinds of graphic organiser useful. Reading lessons often begin with a photo or headline from the text which serves a dual purpose in providing a stimulus for eliciting and a prompt for predicting content. KWL charts are ideal records of what students already Know, what they Want to know, and what they have Learnt by the end of the lesson, and point to the conclusion that eliciting can take place at any stage of a lesson and often indicates what should happen next.

Cultural considerations
While eliciting clearly contributes to student involvement, it does not always produce the desired or expected results. Questions such as ‘Who can tell me something about….?’ may be greeted with stony silence. Students are wrongly labelled as lacking knowledge or being too shy when there are often cultural reasons for their reticence.

In many cultures, students are not encouraged to volunteer information or ask questions while in others the teacher is seen as the sole provider of knowledge. The problem is reinforced by the fact that many units in course materials begin with open elicitation questions which create the possibility of making grammatical or pronunciation errors and therefore losing face in front of classmates.

In cultures where the group is more important than the individual it is unacceptable to stand out either as a success or as a failure. Even with constant encouragement, it is difficult to break down entrenched attitudes and beliefs, and certain strategies may be required:

  • Nominate students rather than waiting for volunteers. The student is then not responsible for being made to stand out from the group.
  • Give learners time to prepare an answer. Spontaneity may be ideal, but students will be more confident if they are given a moment to think about or even to write down an answer.
  • Ensure that there is no right or wrong answer involved. General questions such as ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ or ‘What kind of music do you listen to?’ are more likely to produce answers than those requiring specific knowledge.
  • Encourage rather than correct. When eliciting language, comments such as ‘nearly right’ and ‘try again’ are more constructive than ‘no, does anyone else know the right answer?’ Try not to correct when learners are volunteering background information about a topic – confidence-building, not accuracy is important here.

Tips for eliciting

  • Eliciting is a basic technique and should be used regularly, not only at the beginning of a lesson but whenever it is necessary and appropriate.
  • Don’t try to ‘pull teeth’. Prolonged silence or incorrect answers suggest that input is required from the teacher.
  • Don’t ask students to repeat incorrect answers, but ask a variety of students to repeat a good answer.
  • Acknowledge or give feedback to each answer with gestures or short comments.
  • Provide sufficient context or information. Eliciting differs from Socratic questioning in that it is designed to find out what the learners know rather than to lead them to a conclusion which only the teacher knows.
  • Learners can elicit from each other, particularly during brainstorming activities. This helps to build confidence and group cohesion as well as shifting the focus away from the teacher.
  • At lower levels, more guided questioning is needed. Open-ended questions should be avoided as the learners are unlikely to have the language to answer them to their own satisfaction.

The success of eliciting depends largely on the attitudes of teachers and learners to their respective roles. Ideally it promotes the notion of an exchange of information, helps to break down traditional teacher-centredness, and begins to establish a variety of interaction patterns in the classroom. It is also fundamental to the inductive approach to teaching language and to learning through tasks and self-discovery, and a simple and effective way of getting learners to produce language.

Steve Darn, Freelance Trainer, Izmir, Turkey
Funda Çetin, Izmir University of Economics


Checking Understanding

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.

Checking Understanding - methodology article
Steve Darn & Ian White, Izmir University of Economics, Turkey

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 questions
  • Some examples
  • Learning to construct concept questions
  • Conclusion

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:

  • Time lines to establish tenses. Time lines 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.

Concept questions
Concept questions themselves are often difficult to construct since they involve clarifying function and meaning using simple language but not the target language itself.

Apart from their classroom value, thinking of good questions also helps inexperienced teachers to understand the complexities of form, function and meaning, and to practise grading their language. Some basic tips for good concept questions are:

  • Make sure the questions are simple and that no difficult language is required to answer the question. Yes/no questions, either/or questions and simple ‘wh’ questions are particularly effective
  • Don’t use the new (target) grammar in your questions
  • Don’t use unfamiliar vocabulary
  • Bring out basic concepts such as ‘time’ and ‘tense’ in your questions
  • Use as many questions as possible to check various aspects of the language and to cover as many learners as possible.

Some examples
These examples show how concept questions could be used to help differentiate between the main functions of the present simple and present continuous.

Target sentence: Look! They’re painting the wall

Checking questions
Is it happening now? Yes
Can you see it? Yes
Is the painting finished? No
Are they painting now? Yes
Is this the past, present or future? Present

Target sentence: She’s a shop assistant. She works in a shop

Checking questions
Has she got a job? Yes
Is she working now Don’t know
Does she work there every day? Yes
Is this the past, present or future? Present, but also past and probably future.

This example shows how concept questions can be used to clarify the meaning of more complex structures:

Target sentence: If I won the lottery, I’d buy a new car

Checking questions
Have I won the lottery? No
Am I going to win the lottery? Probably not
Am I going to buy a new car? Probably not
Has he got a lottery ticket? Maybe
Is this real, or imaginary? Imaginary

Learning to construct concept questions
One way of beginning to think about concept questions is to break the meaning of a word or structure into components. A vocabulary item might be diagramatically represented. Here are some examples of the concepts included in the word ‘bed-sit

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‘.

Another way of constructing concept questions is by writing a sentence containing all the elements of the concept, from which questions can be formed. This is a useful method when distinguishing between two functions of the same structure, particularly where those functions would be expressed by different forms or tenses in other languages. For example:

  • ‘He’s been eating garlic.’
    : He isn’t eating garlic now, and I didn’t see him eating it, but I know he was eating garlic because I can smell it.
  • ‘Harry’s been working here for two years.’
    : He started working here two years ago, he’s still working here, and he’ll probably continue working here.

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.
  • Time lines 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.

Further reading
Graham Workman – Concept Questions And Time Lines; Chadburn Publishing, 2006.


leave your comment

This site uses User Verification plugin to reduce spam. See how your comment data is processed.