Checking For Understanding – We Verify By Asking More Y/N And One Word Answer Questions Than We Ever Thought We Could In A Million Years

For me, this is a must read every day. It is one of the two or three most important of the 4,000 articles written in this space. I will post and repost it over and over through the year. I have to remember to check for understanding via a thorough questioning process. As we teach for full comprehension and therefore eventual fluency by our students, we sometimes move on to a new statement, a new idea involving new targets and therefore new and unfamiliar sounds, when all of the students are still searching with their eyes for the last thing we said.

This is a big mistake – the student needs to:

  • make that visual connection with the word or structure that is written in L1 on the board for acquisition to take place.
  • have time to do so.

We can’t leave the student searching for the L1 translation on the board and go on to new things. We cannot have them searching around a messy board, one that is too messy for them to find it and in cavalier fashion move on to the next thing. No wonder our students get confused and we feel as if we can’t do comprehensible input and the whole thing becomes so emotional for us.

We must learn to wait until all our students have time to find the word on the board with its handy dandy English translation right next to it and then we must give the student the time to process what they see there on the board into their minds before moving on. It is as simple as that. That is really what SLOW means.

SLOW doesn’t mean just going slowly. It means going at the pace and doing the things necessary (finger pointing, waiting for the “kathunk” moment, watching their eyes, being patient) for every single student in the room to fully understand what was just said, and we do that by questioning.

To repeat – we don’t go on to the next thing until we have verified that all the students in the classroom understand the thing we just said. We do this by asking more yes/no and one word answer questions than we every thought we could in a million years. We check for comprehension in a way that we have never done before – that is the subject of this article.

Finger comprehension checks don’t work. We only need to use them when an administrator is in the room. Those unfortunate people (unfortunate because they don’t understand current research in foreign language acquisition and act as if they do – which is really a sad thing) are looking for things like that. Building managers are happy when they see such creative formative assessment with all those sets of ten fingers in the air but that is about all the hands checks are worth.

Finger comprehension checks don’t really tell us anything because the students lie to us. Only use finger comprehension checks when administrators are in the room and need to check the “uses formative assessment during class” box. Isn’t it crazy that we have to teach to our observation goals and teach our students at the same time just to be seen as competent teachers? It is all so strange!

We are looking for real, not bogus, indicators of comprehension. What is a real indicator of comprehension? There is only one that really and truly works. We verify by questioning. Here is how we do it:

1. We say something.

2. We go to the board where it is written (or write it if it is not already there) and we point to it and its translation into L1, then we put our hand on it, or we laser point to it.

3. We wait about four seconds. At this point some kids have gotten it but others haven’t. That’s not enough kids. So we move on to step four here.

4. We ask a number of questions about what we just said. What does that mean? It’s what I said above – we verify by asking more yes/no questions or questions that require one word answers  than we ever thought we could ever ask in a million years. We do not ask a few of these y/n and one word answer questions – we verify by asking a very large amount of them, so many that we don’t go on to the next thing until we see that every single student in the room has fully understood the question we just asked.

5. Only when everyone in the room has fully understood do we move on. We look for comprehension in each student’s eyes and we also feel the strong choral response in response to each question we ask from the group.

Here is an example, taken from the middle of a PQA session I did at NTPRS on Thursday using the structures works, lazy and the boss yells to set up the Anne Matava story Lazy:

I started the circling in the usual way:

  • Class, Malcolm works at Wal-Mart. (ohhh!)
  • Class, does Malcolm work at Wal-Mart? (yes)
  • Class, does Malcom or Mickey work at Wal-Mart? (Malcolm)

Note carefully: what happens in the process above, how most of us circle, is that we continue to circle half heartedly but never feeling really feel convinced that the kids fully know, as a class, what they are hearing. That has been the big problem for us up until now – those half-sincere Ohhhs! and yesses and nos and generally weak answers that we have largely accepted in a game of understanding that has been basically almost a sham. A few kids get it, lead the responses from the class, and we take that to mean that the class understands and we go on like the Tarot fool about to walk off the cliff with his faithful dog following right behind him.

Those weak responses are no greater indications of understanding than the bogus finger comprehension checks and the bogus intimidating random pointing to a kid and “What did I just say?” We have to go deeper with our checking for understanding – that is the point of this article. We have to verify that all of the students have understood by asking more yes/no and one word answer questions than we every thought we could in a million years, or at least in a hell of a long time.

That means that, after we circle, we don’t just go to on to the next thing. We stay on the first thing keeping in mind the idea that we are going to circle Malcolm works at Wal-Mart until we get a strong choral responses and full clear eyed understanding and head shaking up and down from every student in the class, even if we have to do that one thing for the rest of the class period. We wait them out.

And note most importantly that we are not just waiting them out until each student in the classroom has indicated that they understand. We are also establishing strong classroom discipline in those moments. We are:

making sure that each kid is actively involved with us, which is the best and most powerful form of classroom discipline ever devised

encouraging the class to turn on the few kids who think – wrongly – that they can wait out the teacher with their non-responses. Yes, I am saying that if we go so slowly that 80% of the kids in the room have to wait while we wait for the other 20% decide to climb onto the comprehensible input train, then we have a situation where the 80% will get so frustrated with waiting that they will turn on their classmates and provide for you an instant classroom police force.

This is what we haven’t done in the past, most of us. We haven’t waited it out to get full understanding via much more fuller questioning around each statement and it has screwed us. We should, from the moment we have finished the first round of circling about Malcolm, stay on the originial statement much more than feels natural by asking:

  • Class, does Malcom work at Wal-Mart with me? (hand or laser on the word) (NO! – strong choral response)
  • Class, does Malcom work at K-Mart with me? (hand or laser on the word) (NO! – strong choral response)
  • Class, does Malcom work at Wal-Mart? (hand or laser on the word) (YES! – strong choral response)
  • Class, does Jerry Lewis work at Wal-Mart? (hand or laser on the word) (NO! – strong choral response)
  • Class, does Malcom work with Jerry Lewis? (hand or laser on the word) (NO! – strong choral response)
  • Class, does Malcom work at Wal-Mart? (hand or laser on the word) (YES! – strong choral response)
  • Class, does Malcom work at Wal-Mart with Mickey? (hand or laser on the word) (NO! – strong choral response)*

If you ask 5 to 10 questions per minute in this way about the same sentence before moving on to the next sentence, you will see what happens in a positive way for your teaching using comprehensible input.

Let’s do the math. Let’s say you can average ten of these kinds of intense yes/no and one word answer questions, these barrage questions, in every minute in each class. It is possible! Therefore, in one 45 minute class, minus fifteen minutes for the bullshit, doing the math on 30 available minutes of instruction time, you could get 300 questions per class. In five days that is 1,500 questions or 6,000 per month over 9 months = 54,000 questions per year. That is a lot of questions and, if the child understands each one of them through the process described above, they will have had a great year of comprehensible input – a great year, and the gains will be visible.

The only valid way to know if your students know is by asking them questions.** Do it, and you will have found what I consider to be the most effective tool yet made in teaching comprehensible input, a tool which, if you properly incorporate it into your teaching, might possibly even prove to be the missing piece in your instruction and may change your effectiveness and your entire relationship with the method in ways you may have never thought possible.

*if you find yourself having trouble coming up with such an unatural barrage of yes/no one word answer questions – slow to you but not to the students! – try turning to the actor(s) and act them such questions, then turning back to the class and asking them, and back and forth like that.*** It will make it easier to ask all those one word answer questions.

**[credit: Blaine Ray]

***[credit: Von Ray]

One last point. Do your best to introduce no new vocabulary into your lesson. This is where it falls apart for a lot of people. Yes, it is almost impossible to use only two or three new structures and to have the rest of what you are going to say already acquired by the kids. But do your best. Start simple and stay simple, and since the kids will NOT have acquired a good deal of the CI in the story beyond the target structures, then just slow way down. It’s better to do one sentence of CI in various forms that everyone gets than to try to deliver CI that they don’t get bc there is too much for them to understand. Build slowly slowly into the year.





29 thoughts on “Checking For Understanding – We Verify By Asking More Y/N And One Word Answer Questions Than We Ever Thought We Could In A Million Years”

  1. Actually that was one of the BIG learnings for me week too while working with Susie. I was asking the “class” to gesture when they didn’t understand… Susie said she never does this because, as you say, kids lie (for a LOT of good reasons, I would argue)

    Anyway, for her this is precisely what contrastive grammar is for…. If we are teaching to the eyes we MUST sense that a kid is struggling and while pointing to the L2/English ask ¿Bobby, what would “carro azul” (low processer)mean? Tommy, what would “carro verde” (average processor) mean and Chad, how would you say “red elephant? (fast processor) This assures constant “understanding”…. It is super quick, and you can really get a flow going…..

    I left two students behind last year. I blamed them and their constant chatter but looking back on it I am sure they were chatting because I was NOT making sure they understood….

    One might wonder if this will BORE the fast processors…. that is the beauty of contrastive grammar, I can ask questions that push them and challenge them too…

    Finally, thank you Ben for your ongoing investment in us. The five hours you spend honing our skills and helping us become better classroom managers is SO appreciated by me. It absolutely blows me away that a group of 10-15 teachers would sit and learn for 3-5 hours AFTER 8 hours of workshops/coaching for MORE! It was a beautiful thing and I thank you.

    I was trying to think about what the greatest gift you have given me is… There really have been too many important ones to say, BUT, I do think the circling with props (I changed it from balls because of all the artists, readers, dancers in my room) is right up there. It has brought such a level of personalization and has enabled such a solid relationship with the class, that I think that is the ONE for me.

    And (really finally), it was SO wonderful to put faces to all the names on the PLC. John, David, Clarice, Sabrina, Erik, Shannon, Chill, and others)

    Anyway, that is enough for now. I want to reflect more later about different things including that moment I had in class with Erik but later….

    Thanks for your post and for your continued support.

    1. Skip , it was indeed a great week and most importantly getting to put faces on names and bonding with all the people on this blog was very satisfying.
      I am not sure I understood contrastive grammar from Suzie Gross.
      Can you explain in your own words how you understood that?

  2. Yes, an awesome week, in large part because so many of us from this little community finally got to meet in person, and it was indeed a “mind meld” experience when we all started working and sharing ideas. Those late night “after-party” sessions really helped me get a lot of potential problems ironed out. While the entire conference was a great help in terms of tightening up our skills at doing the method, your primary contribution, Ben (And one which was not always understood or appreciated), was to get us all focused on the emotional energy underlying our classroom interactions, which is where it all happens, and what determines whether or not we have a successful year. At the beginning of the conference, I was focused on WHAT the presenters were doing, and WHAT I was doing, but by the end, I was sitting in presentations thinking: how is this making me FEEL as a student? Am I being acknowledged, or should I start messing around and talking to my neighbor?” And when I was working in small groups during coaching, I had evolved to see my students as emotional beings who needed something from me. Powerful stuff indeed.

  3. …I had evolved to see my students as emotional beings who needed something from me…

    Bingorifically said. But how can we discuss it in writing here? I’m not sure we can.

    1. I don’t know if we can either but, I will tell you, what happened between me and Erik Wednesday night was a VERY powerful thing….. It gave me insight into what it is like to be a student more than anything else ever had…

      I would like to try to discuss it in writing…

      1. pleasepleaseplease “try to discuss it in writing!” i am really bummed to have missed all the action in las vegas, (haha, i was kind of near la vega in the dr, but entirely different scene!) so as much as possible i would love to glean some of this stuff vicariously through your processing and reflection!

  4. I’m new to the group, to TPRS and CI, and to the high school where I’ll be teaching, and I’m learning so much by working my way through this blog and the many comments. This summer I’ve put myself through a crash course in TPRS, starting in June with Blaine’s workshop in Oklahoma City. When school starts in a few weeks (!) I think I’ll begin with circling with balls. Skip, I like your idea of other kinds of props. It makes sense that I could circle with a ball on Day 1, but after looking over the sketches of student interests, on Day 2 could begin bringing in other kinds of things as well.

  5. Yeah everybody needs to be clear that I do not favor athletes, it’s just that middle school is where I developed this idea and all kids or most of them play sports in middle school and I use the ball as a way of getting power over the athletes as described on the resource pages here because some athletes come into class on the first day determined to control part of the room and that right there ain’t gonna happen on my watch so the balls are very useful in that way. Skip is right to call it Circling with Props. Scott calls it Circling with Drawings or something like that. There are many variations on the idea and no one way to do this. And yes I honor and discuss my artists and my non athletes just as much. That term has been around for ten years and should not cause confusion.

  6. And, just to clarify, I do almost always do BALLS (sports) first because of the reasons you taught in your sessions in Maine. Win those athletes and you have won:)

    1. Thanks for the clarifications. I have a few balls ready to go, then I’ll work in some other props. Ben, I think you’re exactly right about the problem with verifying with fingers. In Blaine’s workshop I thought it sounded great, giving students that responsibility to interact and speak up for what they do and don’t understand. Then came a German presentation. The German was hard, and when the presenter asked for the show of fingers, five for high comprehension, I found myself thinking maybe two, three at the most. I glanced around to everyone holding up four and five. I didn’t want to be the slow one and delay the class. So I held up four and hoped to catch up later.

  7. Messy board, guilty! Must work on that. I learned this week that I don’t have to put up ANY out of bounds words on the board – maybe one or two if they are high frequency. Ben, thanks for highlighting this fundamental skill. Now, how to make it artful and not predictable. Great seeing so many faces from the blog over the last two weeks.

  8. And Carol did you notice my board for the kids at Breckenridge and then on Tues. at NTPRS? Messy City. And then on Thursday for Lazy? Neat City. What is the difference? How did that happen? Why was Thursday’s story (Lazy) ten times better than anything in both conferences?

    It is a result of doing what I describe in the above article. It’s why Linda Li’s board is never messy. She is a charter and founding member of the Never Messy Club. When we go so slowly and use more questions than we ever thought we could in a million years, our board cleans up real nice! Hmmm!

    1. Yeah when our instruction is undisciplined with lots of point and pause stuff all over the board, it then appears on the board as shallow and wide, and the learning by the kids is shallow. Fewer words bring the narrow and deep quality.

  9. It was great finally getting to meet a lot of you at NTPRS last week. Thank you Ben and Skip for the Wednesday night coaching session. After three years of struggling, I finally feel like I am gaining some confidence in my TPRS skills. I am going to try and make it a point to contribute more this year. That’s easy to say before school starts and the madness begins. Thank you all for the continual support because it would be impossible to do this alone.

  10. …that’s easy to say before school starts and the madness begins….

    This is a huge thing to say. We must keep ever in our minds that in our schools it is no less than that – madness, whether it is consciously designed that way or not by those in charge. Some of what we do would drive a normal person nuts, drive Ghandi nuts. So we have to remember that we are not alone in the madness. It is a universal, or at least a national madness. It’s not us. We are doing the best we can on a crazy stage. There is no sane school. It has happened slowly to our national disgrace. Some really small people are in big positions of authority and they should not be. The real leaders are few. This thread came up in April, by the way. We can’t say it enough. We are not the ones who are crazy, and so when we feel that way we must stop and feel the truth – we are teaching in very very difficult conditions.

  11. Just in time training. I have not been active on the board but I’m full steam ahead with CI this year. So many ups and downs but this board has provided great support. My kids have gotten in a rut with responding to questions and I have as well. I have started to see some students not acquiring the key phases after a week of circling and story. I will use these rules to break the cycle. I’m also guilty of a messy board.

  12. And Hayne for years SLOW has been the star word of what we do. SLOW this, SLOW that. SLOW everywhere.

    But SLOW is only one of the two prongs needed for acquisition. Staying in Bounds is the other one. Together they get the job done.

    If you want proof, take a really really simple story tomorrow, or just do a little PQA, and have the entire text consist of about four sentences – the whole thing. Then take a super long amount of time to circle it into existence.

    Go much slower than you usually do. Make sure there are not more than a few new words to them. Just go as slowly as you can and stay in bounds better than you ever thought you could.

    And try to not write more than once or twice on the board. Use slow in-bounds circling to go so much slower than you usually do that you that it makes you feel very very uncomfortable.

    Then watch what happens. The kids won’t be uncomfortable – they will be happy because they understand. Make yourself uncomfortable so that they don’t have to. When you do that, you should get that uniform choral yes/no/one word set of loud answers from the class. Watch them carefully. They will all be up around 4 on jGR.

      1. Sabrina Sebban-Janczak

        I’m not sure where to post this but actually I think this is the perfect place for it since it deals with comprehension . I am trying to remember that catch phrase leitmotiv that Blaine uses all the time when it comes to making sure the students have acquired a structure. It goes something along the lines: you know they have acquired the structures when they are able to ——-,———– and without hesitation ( that s the only part I remember). I can’t remember the first parts and it’s driving me crazy, I looked in Blaine’s green bible but cannot find it.
        I think I’m starting to develop OCD. Anyone knows what I am talking about?

  13. Glad you posted this article Ben and perfect timing as I took one more glance at the PLC before resting up to go into my second week of CI. My new goal this week after reading this: SLOW DOWN. I had mess all over my board this week during OWI. Clean board, minimal new structures, and SLOW starting tomorrow!

  14. I had mess all over my board for nine years dude. And I still go too fast. We all do. You’ll get it. Just look at your board after class and vow not to do it again. Those kids don’t know the language. Keep that in mind. You can do it. Week 2 – yea!

  15. I sometimes give all the markers to a student so that I won’t write any more on the board. I totally forget that my students aren’t proficient. And I often go too fast. After we do a story, the students assess themselves on the rules and then they asses me on my role in it all, and my greatest issue is circling slowly and staying inbounds. It’s a good reminder when I hear it form my students. We assess the heck out of them, why can’t they do it about us?

    1. Annemarie,

      THAT is totally cool!
      I will take and implement your idea to have my kids assess me on my speed and comprehensibility starting today!
      If I have to leave it up to the administrators to accurately assess me on that , it’ll never happen b/c they don’t get it but the kids DO GET IT. Plus kids are brutally honest. Why didn’t I think about that before?

  16. Annemarie

    I too LOVE this idea…. do you have a rubric that you give them to assess you on how slow you went etc.?

  17. OK James are you following this mini-thread? Somebody PLEASE make up an assessment rubric for teachers by kids on our speed and comprehensibility and post it here as a comment and I will beg James to write it up in a flow chart for the above rubric hard link. This is – allow me to say it again Annemarie bc you said it first here about two years ago – poignantly badass.

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