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Checking students' understanding of meaning

Updated: Mar 2

Checking students' understanding of meaning
How can we tell if students understand?

One of the most important skills to learn as a new teacher is the skill of checking students' understanding. We might think we're speaking clearly and giving amazingly clear contexts and definitions that help students understand everything easily, but it's only when we see the students misusing the word, or sneakily checking it on their phones that we realise that we actually haven't been as clear as we'd thought.

If we're teaching something that's simple and visual, then checking understanding is a breeze. If we're teaching the names of fruits, we can show the students pictures of strawberries, bananas and apples and when we want to check understanding, we can simply hold up two pictures and get students to tell us which one is the banana. If they can do that correctly, then great, they've understood what a banana is.

Unfortunately, not all the language we teach is as visual as that. Often, especially at higher levels, the language we're teaching is quite conceptual. For this reason, we need to check understanding using what are known as concept-checking questions or CCQs.

Trainee teachers often struggle with CCQs, because it can be a challenge to think of how you will check understanding of a complex concept, but do it in a simple way that students will understand.

The most important thing to remember, is that if the concept itself is simple, then the concept-checking question should be simple too. For example, "furious" means very angry. Let's assume that your students are upper-intermediate and they all know the meaning of angry. Then your questions can be very easy. "Is it a little angry or very angry?" You could also get students to give you examples of things that make them furious, or to act out the emotion of fury. Any or all of these will help check understanding of "furious".

So what happens when a concept is genuinely tricky? Let's take the example of the word "disappointed". This is a difficult word because it means sad, but it means sad in a specific type of situation. You are only disappointed if you expected something to be good and then it wasn't. For this, we'll need to link our CCQs to the context that we used to convey meaning in the first place.

The context for "disappointed" might be a situation where you're competing in a gymnastics tournament. You trained very hard. You knew that your competitors hadn't been working as hard as you. You were feeling very fit and flexible. You were sure you would win. But then, on the day of the competition, you injured your foot and you couldn't compete. You were very disappointed.

So now that you're contextualised the word "disappointed" for the students, you need to check if they understand the idea that it means you were sad because you expected something good, but something bad happened. Don't ask a theoretical question like "Did I expect something good?" Tie your questions directly to your context to make it easier.

Did I want to win the competition? Yes

Did I think that I had a good chance? Yes (because I trained hard etc)

Did I expect to win? Yes

Did I win? No

These questions should allow you to build a conversation around the concept of "disappointed" and they should allow you to really see if students get the idea of the word.

CCQs are one of the more technical aspects that we deal with on CELTA courses, but they're not as difficult as they first seem!

Dr Connor O'Donoghue hails from Ireland and he started teaching English as a foreign language in Poland in 2003 and he became a CELTA trainer in 2008. He has taught and trained in Ireland, the UK, France, Italy, Slovenia, Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. Connor also holds a Masters and a PhD in Education from Trinity College in Dublin. He has previously managed large teacher training centres in Vietnam and in London before founding DC Teacher Training.

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