Saturday, April 18, 2009

EFL Teaching: The Cardinal Sin

light bulb idea
Whenever a budding EFL teacher asks me for a bit of advice, I offer a simple, sure-fire way to improve their teaching skills:

Never, ever, ever check a student’s understanding of something you have taught them by saying, “Do you understand?” There are numerous variations to guarantee that you will never get an accurate answer as to whether a student comprehends.

“Is that clear?”

“Is everyone OK with that?”

“Can we move on now?”

All these questions ensure that, especially in a large class, a good portion of your students will be left confused. Some students no doubt do answer truthfully when asked this question. However, when a student doesn’t have a clue what is going on, they’re often not even sure that they don’t understand. More importantly, they are too embarrassed to admit that they are the only one in a class of students who isn’t nodding in the affirmative (many of whom also are in the dark).

This is an almost universal trait amongst teachers. I hear this every time I observe another teacher in action or return to the classroom as a student. I cringe when I hear myself falling into the same trap and recognize that I need to slow down and do some more work.

It’s easy to understand why teachers do this. It highlights one of the key reasons why teaching can be such a nebulous and evasive skill and why so few truly good teachers exist. It’s all about making assumptions and failing to grasp that concepts you take for granted may be alien to your students.

That most cringe-worthy of cop-outs always seems to come when a general sense of confusion permeates the classroom. The teacher usually recognizes the fact that their best laid plans have careened off the tracks. But instead of doing damage control, they extricate themselves from an embarrassing situation. They say, “Do you understand?” quickly look around, answer the question themselves and move on.

What is a better alternative for checking comprehension? There are a few options. Rephrasing or presenting an idea in a different way is almost always necessary. Recognizing that you haven’t set aside enough time for a particular language function or grammar point is helpful. Examples on the board, drilling, and calling on students can all be beneficial. If you like using activities, come to the classroom with more than one. If you feel the first activity hasn't connected, try out another one. Be willing to alter your lesson plans and concentrate on a problem area instead of rushing to make sure you are at the prescribed stage in the course time-line. Slow down and accept that developing a successful approach can take some serious time and effort.

Next time you hear yourself asking your students if they understand, recognize that it's almost certain that they don't. More importantly, know that your subconscious is telling you that you've got to ease up and make some changes.


Clarissa said...

This is SO true.

When I'm working one-on-one with students that I know well, I get a better response with "Did that make sense?" For some reason they answer that more thoughtfully than "Do you understand?" (which I also answer "Uh-huh" to, reflexively, in my terrible excuses for second languages!). In a group situation, I don't think it would work as well. For that matter, I take any hesitation in answering as a "no."

P. S. Hope you don't mind--I've added you to the blogroll at

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