comprehension check

Do they understand?

An important part of your teaching is checking the students’ comprehension. Do they understand the instructions you just gave them? Do they understand your expectations for an assignment? Do they understand the material you just presented?

You have two choices to find out if your students understand:

  1. You can ask if they understood. This will result in two possible and usually unsuccessful outcomes:

    • They will say yes because they do not want to disappoint you, or suggest your lack of clarity, and they are embarrassed to admit their lack of understanding in front of their peers. Or,
    • They will say no, but you will not know what they did not understand – it could be any part of your directions or presentation.
  2. You can have your students demonstrate their understanding. You will then know what they understood and what they did not. Below are six suggestions for ways to check for your students’ comprehension, using an example of a dialog that can be used in an intermediate ESOL class. You can easily adapt the six types of comprehension-checks to other kinds of input.

The dialog:

Birgit, a native of Germany, has just started her first job in the United States. She is a clerk in a women’s clothing store in Seattle. Listen as your teacher reads you a conversation Birgit had with a customer:

  • Birgit: Good morning. My name is Birgit. May I help you?
  • Customer: Good morning. I’m just looking.
  • Birgit: Fine. Is there something special I can help you find?
  • Customer: Well, maybe you have some ideas. I’m looking for a birthday gift for my daughter-in-law.
  • Birgit: Do you think you want an item of clothing or an accessory?
  • Customer: Well, I’m not sure of her size.
  • Birgit: Then, may I suggest you play it safe and choose an accessory. Would you like to look at some of the new items we have just gotten in?
  • Customer: Yes, please.
  • Birgit: Let me show you our accessory counter. I’m sure you will find something you like among those items. (Birgit walks her to the accessory counter.) Here we have some wonderful new scarves, belts, hats, and pins. I’ll let you look for awhile. I’ll be over there (points) arranging a new display. Please let me know if I can help you in any way.

checking comprehension blog#1Comprehension Check #1: Questions

“Work with a partner. Answer the questions below. Then, share your answers with the class:

  1. Why is the customer in the store?
  2. Is a dress an accessory?
  3. Why does the customer say she is just looking?”

Comprehension Check #2: True, False, or Not Enough Information

“Work with a partner. Read the statements below. If the sentence is true, write ‘True’. If it is false, write ‘False’ AND write the true sentence. If there is not enough information to decide, write ‘Not Enough Information’. After, share your answers with the class:

  1. Birgit knows the customer.
  2. The customer knows her daughter-in-law very well.
  3. The customer is going to a birthday party for her daughter-in-law.
  4. Birgit suggests that the customer buy her daughter-in-law a dress.
  5. Birgit’s only job is to wait on customers.
  6. Birgit really likes the new accessories.”

Comprehension Check #3: Underline Target Language

“Work alone. Read the conversation. When is Birgit offering to help the customer? Underline the language she uses. After, share your ideas with a partner. Then, the whole class will share ideas.”



checking comprehension blog#4.jpgComprehension Check #4: Who Said What?

“Birgit and her customer continued their conversation. Work with a partner. Read the sentences below. Who said each sentence? After, share your answers with the class:

  1. I see a skirt I really like. May I try it on?
  2. Would you like me to get a larger size for you?
  3. Can I suggest a top to go with that?
  4. May I put this on my VISA card?
  5. Would you gift-wrap this, please?
  6. Is there anything else I can do for you?
  7. I’ll come back in a few minutes to see if you need anything.”

checking comprehension blog#5.jpgComprehension Check #5: Open Ended Statements

“Work alone. Complete the sentences. Share your answers with a partner, then with the class:

  1. The customer is in the store because…
  2. Birgit suggests accessories because…
  3. The best part about Birgit’s job is…
  4. Birgit suggests the customer ‘play it safe’ because…”

Comprehension Check #6: Disagree!

“I am going to read an untrue statement about the dialog. Disagree with me!

  1. Birgit is shopping for a gift.
  2. It is the evening.
  3. The customer knows what she wants.
  4. The customer is shopping for her daughter.”

Above are six ways to find out if your students understand what you have said, read, or presented. The underlying idea behind all ideas is that students are being required to demonstrate their understanding, or lack of it. They are also involved, communicating, and improving their comprehension of what you presented.

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Nancy Butler

Founder of The School of Teaching ESL at The School of Teaching ESL
"I expect all of the teacher educators at the School of TESL to model our teaching philosophy. I want our teacher education classrooms to represent much of what our students' ESL classrooms will be."