Teaching techniques – checking understanding

Checking understanding

When should we check understanding?

We should check that learners understand:

  • when we are introducing or revising new language (grammar or lexical items and functional expressions)
  • when, during an activity, we realise that our learners haven’t understood something. This could be, for example, a word in a reading text
  • when we are giving instructions for an activity
  • when we are correcting errors
  • when feeding back for comprehension of a listening or reading activity

How can we check understanding?

Our choice should depend on the type of language that we’re checking. Different techniques lend themselves to different types of language. Here are a few different ways with some examples:

  1. Using synonyms and antonyms
    Example: hot
    “What’s the opposite of hot?”
  2. Eliciting or giving definitions or examples
    Example: software
    “What are some examples of software?”
  3. Getting the students to mark language on timelines
    Very useful for verb forms – have students (in pairs, small groups, or at the whiteboard) mark the verb forms on a timeline
  4. Concept questions
    Example: “You don’t have to do your homework”
    “Is it necessary to do your homework?” (no)
    “Can I decide?” (yes)
    “Can I do my homework if I want to?” (yes)
  5. Asking for personal responses
    Example: bear
    “What would you do if you saw a bear?”
  6. Using pictures or realia
    Very effective when you have planned which language items you’re going to be checking (you can bring pictures or realia with you or use what is in the classroom). More difficult for ad hoc checking.
    Example with realia: shoes
    “Show me your shoes”
  7. Asking students to mime
    Useful for action verbs
  8. Discriminating between different forms
    Example: “I ate my dinner when you arrived” / “I was eating my dinner when you arrived”
    – What’s the difference? (Learners could answer with timelines)
  9. Using translation
    If a language item has a direct and unambiguous translation in the learners’ L1, translation can be a quick and effective way of checking understanding if you don’t want to interrupt the flow of an activity. This requires a monolingual class (every learner has the same L1) and the teacher to be confident with his or her translation.

Checking understanding of instructions

After giving instructions clearly and concisely, we can check understanding by:

  • Modelling the activity with one student
  • Asking one pair of students to model the activity
  • Asking students to repeat the instructions back to you – if you have broken the instructions down into clear steps, this becomes easier: “Luisa, what is the first thing you are going to do?”… “Ok, Rafael, what are you going to do next?”…

How not to check understanding

Asking the question “Do you understand” can lead to trouble. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • Learners may be afraid or shy to admit that they don’t understand. Loss of face with peers or the teacher can be an issue.
  • Learners may think they understand but don’t. False friends are one reason for this. For example, a French student may think “actually” translates as “actuellement”. (“Actuellement” in fact translates more like “at the moment”, “currently” or “nowadays”).

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