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Death to the Yes/No Concept Question

By Tony Penston

Who calls for greater adherence to the principles of Communicative Language Teaching

I wish to show that the Yes/No Concept Question, by the fact that it rarely if ever occurs in real communication, has therefore no place in communicative language teaching (CLT) and should be removed from TEFL teacher training courses.


T: Where is the policeman?
S: He is in a hardware store.
T: Right. Can you buy a dress in a hardware store?

The final question contains a typical concept question to check understanding of hardware store (the word store/shop is already understood). Such type of question would hardly be heard in normal communication, where the person on the receiving end of it would be nonplussed, as I fear many students are, especially those under the impression they were in a CLT environment.

I have for some time used Immersion Principles as a simple indicator of the principles of CLT and to help trainees focus on factors of successful learning. The term immersion here applies to both L1 and L2 learning; L1 in the normal child-carer context, and L2 in a total immersion situation. In both cases the learning is agreed to be enjoyable and successful, and one reason for this would seem to be the abundance of visual indicators and communicative interaction in facilitating understanding. Of course the learning experience is not without mysterious encounters, whereupon the learner will occasionally stop and ponder an aspect of language. Explanation may be sought and given, but such explanation rarely if ever includes a concept question.

Sadly, some teachers are the only creatures that consistently ask questions that would insult one’s intelligence. The exception is when language is being demonstrated, for example in the display question, ‘What colour is your sweater?’. Here the learner knows that the teacher is not colour-blind, and understands the need for and purpose of the question. Toddlers are asked, ‘Where is Granny?’ when the answer is obvious, and they know this is a learning game.

But observe another example, this time from Thornbury and Watkins (to concept check shoplifting):

T: Did the kids pay for the sweets?
SS: No.
T: Is this a crime?
SS: Yes.
T: Can you shoplift a washing machine?

And again we are in the twilight zone. The learner doesn’t know if this is a joke, a trick question, or wonders perhaps if the teacher is curious about the semantic application of shoplift in their language. Unlike the ‘sweater colour’ question above, the learner can’t see the purpose of the question. Communication has stalled or broken down, and this seriously undermines what we profess to be the rationale for CLT – learning communicatively.

Of course we know the reason for the concept question: to check understanding. However, such checking should not be solely verbal (auditive) or delayed. Understanding should be facilitated OPTIMALLY, by which I mean with visuals (where applicable) and meaningful interaction, in good time. And this doesn’t mean being obliged to have a stockpile of images ready for all eventualities. Instead, every language teacher should readily

1. use gestures,
2. mime, and importantly,
3. draw basic shapes quickly to facilitate enjoyable language learning.

Let’s go back to the first dialogue above and see how the concept can be checked communicatively:

T: Where is the policeman?
S: In a hardware store.
T: A yes (draws a hammer quickly while talking). Is he looking for this? What’s this?
S: A… (delays)
SS: A hammer.
T: Yes, a hammer (writes ‘a hammer’ beside the drawing, perhaps while having a student spell it). What else is in a hardware store, anyone? (Teacher continues to draw a screwdriver, more slowly to add a guessing game factor. The actions of hammering and screwing would be included as back-up explanation.)

In the above interaction there is fun (the worse the drawing the more fun), but most importantly there is total and real communication. And incidentally, you may have found that rapid drawing and writing are best done on a traditional board, not an interactive one.

Regarding action verbs like shoplifting the teacher would be expected to role play the shoplifter and mime the action:

T: So the kids shoplifted the sweets. Oh, shoplifted. (Hums innocently as he/she ‘walks’ in a sweet shop) I’m in a sweet shop, yumm… (looks at sweets, licks lips, looks furtively around, hums in a more menacing tone). (Whispers) Nobody looking, I’ll do some shoplifting … (snatches sweets and tucks them under (imagined) jacket. All done in an exaggerated fashion, played to the audience). No police (walking). Good. …

(Adopting teacher stance again) Did you ever shoplift, Daniela?

S: What? No, no.
T: No? Strange. I saw you in Tesco’s yesterday (mimes shoplifting chocolate). Mmm chocolate. Actually, I saw you eating chocolate this morning! Where did you get it?
(It goes without saying that the teacher knows that Daniela has a sense of humour.)

In the above demonstration there is again real communication (visual and verbal). It does require some work from the teacher but for both teacher and students the activity is much more enjoyable than the concept question procedure, and would seem to better check and consolidate the understanding of shoplift.

Other, more communicative types of question, such as knowledge questions, cultural, experience, etc, (e.g. Is there a hardware store near your house?) have a valuable place in information-gap interaction, and shouldn’t be lumped together with the yes/no concept question. In fact, the yes/no concept question should be dispatched to the graveyard of ‘things that don’t really work in TEFL’.

TEFL teacher trainers must be faithful to the principles of CLT; to contradict any of them for the sake of some neat flow-chart or checklist is a serious wrongdoing.

The original version of this article was first published in English Teaching Professional, 89, Nov. 2013.


  • Thornbury, S and Watkins, P The CELTA Course (trainee book, p 23), CUP 2007

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