Comprehension Checks

It is important for all teachers to informally assess students’ comprehension throughout any lesson in any content area.

When we ask a comprehension question, we use students’ response to determine whether it’s time to move on to the next topic, or if we must spend more time on whatever we are studying at the moment.

Comprehension Checks are one of the essential tools in a Comprehension-based™ teacher’s toolbox. When used effectively, comprehension checks guarantee that all students understand the teacher when he or she is using the target language. When the input is comprehended by all students, all students will further their language acquisition.

How to Check for Comprehension in Language classes– learn how to make sure your students are actually understanding you when you speak the target language in class!

Image by agongallud, Adobe Stock

Keys to comprehension checks:

Here are five key guidelines for checking for comprehension:

  1. Check for comprehension continually.
  2. Check for comprehension (mostly) in English. (Students can respond in TL; but usually question should be asked in English.)
  3. Check for comprehension in different ways.
  4. Check for comprehension quickly.
  5. Modify instruction as needed based on students’ responses.

Check for comprehension continually

It is important to keep your finger on the pulse of your students’ comprehension so that you do not lose students (cognitively or emotionally) by venturing into incomprehensible territory. This requires continual checking for comprehension.

Check for comprehension in English

Checking for comprehension should typically be done in English so that a wrong answer can only be attributed to a lack of comprehension of the content in question and not a failure to understand the question itself.

Use different questions to see comprehension from different angles

You must ask different kinds of questions to different populations (individuals and groups) in order to gather accurate data.

Keep your checks quick!

Comprehension checks should be quick so that they do not distract from the content.

Be responsive!

Comprehension checks are only valuable when you use the information gathered to inform your instruction–spending more time on a topic, backtracking, or moving forward based on your students’ needs.

In a language class, the response to a comprehension check is ALWAYS the same: MORE INPUT!

Four questions to check student comprehension

Here are four basic meaning-based questions that can be used during storytelling, PQA and other discussions, and read-alouds in language classes. These questions can be asked to individuals or to the entire class. When asked to individuals, the teacher should try to match the difficulty level of the question to the students’ language ability:

Those four questions are all meaning-based and require an oral response. However, there are many other ways that students can give feedback (both general and specific) during instruction. Some are more accurate than others, so it is important that you do a variety in order to gain a complete, accurate picture of your class’s comprehension:

Follow instruction with comprehension check-ins

In addition to comprehension checks completed during instruction, there are many ways that teachers can informally assess comprehension after instruction: exit slips, post-it notes, pop quizzes, etc. These checks can be used to plan instruction for the next day, but they’ll have to wait for another day 🙂

What other comprehension checks do you use during instruction in your classes, and what strategies do you have to develop the habit of checking for comprehension?

…and for more on checking for comprehension, check out this infographic from the TELL project; shared by Thomas Sauer!

Quick comprehension checks that you can use in language classrooms to ensure that students are picking up what you're putting down

Note: Much of my knowledge about comprehension checks has come from Betsy Paskvan, a Japanese teacher here in Anchorage, AK. Betsy has presented many times on checking for comprehension at state and national language conferences, and she often travels to other school districts to offer them professional development on comprehension checks and other essential Comprehension-Based techniques.

17 thoughts on “Comprehension Checks

  1. Diane Volzer says:

    What a comprehensive list! Thank you for compiling this resource. One comment on the “think don’t say”: LOVE this. I didn’t use it until this year…after I attended a workshop and was reminded that I am a slower processor in a language classroom. I had been neglecting the kids who are much like me! This method REALLY WORKS for those kids who just need extra time to think and respond. I use a red/green paper to signal. There are lots of great ideas on the Internet for cute little signs…STOP/GO in TL.

    • Martina Bex says:

      Yes, signs are a great way to switch things up! I had an administrator that had done her Doctoral thesis on wait time, so she of course LOVED to see the “Think don’t say” in action…she would count the seconds that I waited after every question I asked before accepting an answer. Having her in the room was a great reminder for me–she should have come more often so that it truly became habit!

  2. Kimberly says:

    I need to use “Think, Don’t Say”! I have one class in particular with some very fast processors in it who always blurt out the answers, even though I have asked them to silently count to five. When those students are not here, the other students participate more and comment how much they like having time to think. I haven’t been sure about how to manage this, but “Think, Don’t Say” could be a great tool!

  3. Chelsea says:

    Hi!!!! I am a first year Spanish teacher and the year is coming to a close. I am just now reading this and omg, I wish I had this back in AUGUST!!!! These are all such great ideas! Thanks so much for them. It’s never too late to implement them so I am starting tomorrow! 🙂

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