The trick is always, ‘how do I get them to show me what they know?’ Once we figure this out, we can give students an opportunity to demonstrate their level of understanding and adapt our instruction according to their needs.
Working with English language learners (ELLs) pose even more challenges. In addition to how safe students feel with the teacher and with one another, Non-native English speaking students may not understand the question, lack the language to respond, or remain silent for fear of making a mistake.
There are both effective and not-so effective ways to check for comprehension. Here are five typical ways teachers check student understanding:
- The Look: This instructor looks at the students’ faces and thinks, “They all seemed to understand.”
- The Feeling: This teacherscans the classroom with his/her intuition and says, “It really felt like they were getting it.”
- The Question: This educatorasks the class if they understand and states, “I asked them and they all nodded, yes.”
- The Test: This instructor usesformal test, reviews it and considers, “It looks like they’re getting this but not that.”
- The Show & Tell: This teacher gets the students to show they understand and considers,“What is this telling me about the students’ needs?”
Let’s examine each of these comprehension checking ways to uncover the benefits and challenges that each presents.
The challenge is weeding out those who aren’t confused from those who are confused. It doesn’t feel good to ‘look’ foolish, and some people tend to veil this more than others.
Gauging student learning by looking at the students’ faces gives us a surface level understanding, but it’s not always accurate and rarely complete.
The challenge comes in putting so much trust in intuition his alone. Some students may feel like they are getting it but aren’t getting it at all. Other students may sense they aren’t getting it may do their best to hide this.
Using our sixth sense gives us a piece of the puzzle, but doesn't get to what is helping or hindering learning.
Think about your experience as a student. How many times has a teacher asked your class this question only to receive silent answers? For a variety of reasons (fear, boredom, proficiency) we respond, ‘yes, we understand’ when we should say, ‘No, we don't understand’.
The challenge comes when students say they understand but don't, or one or more students that seemed to be struggling confidently say they got everything.
Asking students if they get it may be the easiest way, but it rarely gives us any useful clues.
The challenge is that we often receive this data after the fact. Waiting until after the teaching is over to assess student learning inhibits us from adjusting our teaching in real time.
Formal assessments are powerful comprehension checking tools but often come too late.
The challenge is to do this effectively and efficiently. Asking each individual student to show comprehension eats up a lot of time.
Of all of the comprehension checking strategies outlined, the Show & Tell is the most effective in checking student comprehension.
- Students become more engaged as they understand their teacher may ask them to demonstrate their comprehension.
- When a student demonstrates the learning effectively, students who may not have fully understood benefit; students who did understand have their comprehension validated.
- When the student is unable to show his/her understanding, other students who struggle are encouraged; students who do understand, have the opportunity to peer teach.
- The teacher can immediately gauge whether they need to back up, stay put, or plow ahead.
Getting students to demonstrate their understanding is the ticket to understanding their needs.
There are many ways to check for student comprehension.
Non-native English speaking students may make checking for comprehension more challenging. Teaching ELs provides instructors with a wonderful opportunity to consider how they check for comprehension and develop additional ways.
I’m tempted to ask you if you understand and dying to know if there are any questions. So, come on; show me what you know about checking for comprehension strategies.
John Kongsvik is the director of TESOL Trainers, Inc. As an education consultant, John works with K-12 schools, colleges, and universities that serve English learners and non-native English speaking students. Contact John to learn about professional development options TESOL Trainers has for your teacher training needs.