Do you understand?

In one of my last posts I discussed different techniques which can be used for clarifying meaning of new language. Here I wanted to talk about the next likely stage, that is checking understanding.

I entitled the post “Do you understand?” because it’s perhaps the most natural, yet the least welcome, way to find out whether your students have understood the explanation or not. And if you’ve done CELTA , then you know that it’s THE persona non grata of language teaching. But I’ll come back to this point later and first start with the more “acceptable” techniques for checking understanding:

  1. CCQs: 

    The teacher asks a question or a series of questions which focus on the underlying meaning of the target language, and check if the student has grasped the concept. Keep the responses short so more students can participate, and less demand is put on their production, e.g. I bumped into a friend yesterday. CCQs: a) Did I meet a friend yesterday? (YES) b) Was it planned? (NO) c) Was it an accident? (YES)

  2. Timelines:

    Very useful when dealing with expressions where the tense is the problematic bit (although can be culturally dependant), e.g. I’ve been teaching for 6 years.

  3. Clines: 

    Useful for any language concepts which can be ranked, e.g. frequency adverbs, modal verbs for probability, degrees of reality/imagination, although it can be tricky to decide on the exact degree (e.g. I love, I’m crazy about, I’m keen on)

  4. Personalisation: 

    Standard CCQs can be followed by something more personal, i.e. a question which uses the target language or one which elicits a response with the target language. For example, for the verb to ban you could ask:

    • Should the government ban smoking in public places?
    • Is banning soft drugs a good idea to prevent their use?
  5. Extension: 

    Students finish a prompt given by the teacher; they’ll only be able to finish if correctly if they understand the concept, e.g. CC although:

    • T: Although it was raining…
    • S1: …we went out.
    • S2: …we went for a walk.
  6. Translation: 

    This is normally frowned upon, especially on initial TEFL courses. However, if you speak students’ L1, it can sometimes be useful to translate in order to dispel any doubts. L1/L2 comparisons can also be a useful tool, raising students’ language awareness of similarities and differences between the two languages. It’s also very quick and relatively unambiguous.

  7. Do you understand?

    Well, technically this question is persona non grata and all CELTA candidates have a really hard time avoiding it. Probably because it’s the most natural thing in the world for god’s sake! Of course, it is not to say that it should be our only concept checking technique. Having said that, if we know that our students usually speak up when they don’t know something, asking do you understand?can:

  • tell us when our previous concept checking has failed and we need to re–clarify
  • save us time by avoiding unnecessary CCQs

Do you use any of the techniques more often than others? Are there any you use which I haven’t put on the list? Would love to hear from you in the comments section.

In the next post I’ll present a few activities in which you’ll be able to try out and practise some of the techniques described above, so stay tuned! 🙂

If you’re teaching lexis soon, check out this post on clarifying meaning and this one on recycling vocabulary.

For now, you might find these sources useful:

16 thoughts on “Do you understand?

  1. I JUST finished recording a video on CCQs for the content teachers (teachers teaching math or science in English) at my school. I think it is a GREAT tool given to EFL teachers and many other teachers should use it!

  2. Good stuff! I'd love to see the video. Are you going to blog about it? Or perhaps we could add it here as a guest post?
    Definitely agree: CCQs are great! What's your take on 6 and 7? Do you use them often?

  3. I was teaching today, one student asked me: 'what's a river?'…I gave an example. Asking a student for another example of river under this context can be quite good, in my opinion. Personalization can be very handy in many situations. Say, you are teaching the simple past. The student still doesn't understand for any reason the concept of the tense, you could ask: what did you do? When did you do? Did you like it? and so forth suchlike questions.

  4. Hi Chico,
    Thanks for your comment.
    'River' lends itself really nicely to explaining with examples. In the case you describe it seems the student didn't know the word, so you needed to clarify the meaning for the first time. There's another post I wrote about it, which you might find useful. I listed quite a few practical ways of clarifying meaning of new language and I'd love to hear what you think:
    Good idea with the past simple. You could probably accompany it with a bit of gesturing, e.g. with your hand or thumb pointing behind you, to the past.
    what do you think?

  5. Yeah, for 'river', the idea of having a picture would still be quicker to understand. i quite agree with you, for tenses, you should really get your body moving, especially your hands to signal where the actions take place. i have read that article you have posted, you are a genius. I wish i was just like you, had many answers of how to do things in an ESL classroom, instead I am still a rather 'bad' teacher. If you can assist me on something for example: I have some groups that they are way below their level, I mean, they are studying in a level, but they should not be because they didn't grasp fundamental concepts before. You know what i mean? they were just moved to the next level without really getting the essentials. How can we work stuff from the current level with these students…I always struggle a lot to get myself across. i explain, create activities, everything. To be honest, my step-by-step always go wrong.

  6. Thanks for your comment.
    Probably a picture would be quicker, but if it's a random word, then you can't prepare for it. So giving a few names of rivers is the simplest idea, perhaps followed by some CCQs: Is the Nile a river? Is the Atlantic a river?
    I feel quite flattered by your praise. I don't feel I've got answers to all EFL problems, but I'm glad the posts on this blog have been helpful 🙂 There's always plenty of room for CPD, and I'm sure you're not a bad teacher. Perhaps an insecure one. If you feel you lack knowledge in certain areas, try attending workshops or webinars or sign up for a CPD course. You could also observe other teachers and learn from them.
    The situation you describe above is a tricky one. And unfortunately, there's not much you can do. If all the students are on a lower level then what you're supposed to teach, and they know it too, it'd be best if you spoke to them and explained that they might need to do extra work to catch up.
    If you can, try and ditch the syllabus and do what the students need to improve. You might want to talk to your DoS about it. If you can't ditch it completely, do your best to throw in little bits on the things they need to improve. Some quick grammar or vocabulary revisions. Usually dictations are good for that. See the post here:
    It's difficult to give more concrete advice, without seeing the group interact and work. Let me know how it goes.

  7. Question: if you have a group with low level, but they are actually in a higher level, like i described. How do i decide what to teach for them to catch up? How do I see what to teach?
    I have appreciated highly your answers and i will appreciate these ones too.
    I have been investing on this particular class to make them more fluent. I always try to listen as much as I can from them, obviously there are the time constraints. That's the way i found to rate speaking higher, because they were bad at it. They somehow tend to follow the translation method, I have implemented some no translation policy to make them speak more English, it is being quite successful.

    All the best.

  8. Hi Chico,
    One way would be to do a diagnostic test followed up by a needs analysis. You could also conduct individual interviews with students to find out what they need, how they'd like to study, etc.
    A less invasive way is to note down mistakes and issues (e.g. during a speaking activity) you can then come back to and address either in the same class or in later ones.
    Your questions prompted me to write a post about teaching mixed ability classes. You can find it here:
    Let me know whether the ideas there have been helpful.


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