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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

3 reasons why language teachers should never ask the question ‘do you understand?’

One of the most basic aspects of a language teacher’s job is to help students to understand and communicate more things at the end of a lesson than they understood at the beginning. This seems obvious, but a lot of the teaching activity that goes on in a typical language classroom does not work towards that goal effectively.

One example which represents this well is the question ‘do you understand?’. This well-meaning question is asked in many forms, and aims to give a teacher some insight into any problems that students are facing in what they are learning. However, this question neither achieves that goal, nor helps learners to understand anything better. In fact, that question can actually hinder learning.

Here are 3 reasons why:

1) No-one likes to admit that they don’t understand

Asking whether your class understands assumes that the class will tell you if they don’t. However, admitting that you don’t understand something is actually a very exposing thing to do, especially in front of a group of peers. Essentially, this means that anyone who doesn’t understand the content of the lesson could feel a negative impact from this question.

Negative emotion such as anxiety or shame can negatively impact affect in the classroom – affect is the term for the emotional and psychological aspects of learning which lead to more (or less) confidence, power and positive feeling about learning. If the affect of a learning experience is compromised, it is likely that the effectiveness of the actual learning that takes place will also be reduced. Hence, this question can actually prevent learning happening, rather than encouraging it.

2) It doesn’t lead to evidence of learning

Even if a student has the confidence to answer your question with a ‘yes’, this does not actually represent any learning in the areas of language being studied. What if the learner thinks they understand, but are actually missing a key component, or have not understood the lesson content correctly? What if they are just trying to look good in front of their peers, or they want to move on to the next part of the lesson? All of these are good reasons for answering ‘yes’ to your question, though none of them represent that anyone understands anything, or in what way.

The best way of getting the evidence that this question aims for is not to ask for understanding, but to ask for actual use of the language being studied. This is the function of checking questions (CQs). CQs are short, simple questions which break down key concepts into small, testable chunks, so that students can demonstrate their understanding to you authentically. If they don’t understand or have not processed something well, CQs will expose this, and show you exactly what aspects of the target language from the class needs addressing.

3) It means that the teacher has just been explaining something

As I have mentioned on this blog before, explanation is not the language teacher’s friend, and is certainly not useful for second-language speaker students. The question ‘Do you understand?’ is typically asked about a concept explained by the teacher, at which point it is actually very unlikely that students have been able to pick apart the dense teacher language used, and so may not feel comfortable answering honestly. After all, the teacher has just gone to great pains to explain this thing, so it may not be polite or appropriate to simply say ‘I don’t understand’.

As a golden rule, a language teacher should demonstrate, not explain; a language teacher should ask, not tell, and overall, should seek authentic evidence that students can do what they are learning independently, without too much teacher support. Only then will you have evidence that the learners ‘understand’ what you are teaching. After all, ‘understanding’ is only half of the battle for learners. If they can only understand and not do, they will not be able to achieve anything productive with their language when they come to use in in speaking or writing tasks, or in the world outside of the classroom.

Example: Explanation vs Checking Questions (past perfect simple grammar)


Teacher: So we use the past perfect simple when we have one action which happens before another time or action, to show that one thing has been completed before the other thing happened. Do you understand?

Student: Yes.

Checking Questions:

Teacher: Take a look at the sentence on the board: “They had waited for hours when the lobster arrived”. Think about the relationship between the two actions: ‘wait’ and ‘arrive’.

Carol, which action happened first?

Carol: ‘wait’

Teacher: OK, good. How can you tell?

Carol: Because ‘had waited’

Teacher: OK, and what about ‘arrived’? That’s in the past too…

Carol: Yes, but ‘had arrived’ is before the past – more past than past.

Teacher: Exactly! Qing Yi, can you change the sentence around so that we mention the bus first? Keep the same meaning about waiting and arriving

Qing Yi: The bus… had… arrived when… they waited?

Teacher: OK, which action happened first?

Qing Yi: The bus arrived?

Teacher: Are you sure? Weren’t the couple waiting for the bus?

Qing Yi: Oh…yes, so the bus… arrived after they… had waited for hours.

Teacher: Mikael, does Qing Yi’s sentence work?

Mikael: Yes – the bus is past, the waiting is past past.

Teacher: Good!

This is a typical interaction about ‘understanding’ of an example sentence, where several students can evidence their understanding with real examples and ideas, rather than simply claiming that they understand with a single word. CQs lead to more thought, self-correction and application of language than simply saying ‘yes’. That is where the demonstration of learning happens.

So, in conclusion, the less you ask this question, and the more you ask students to demonstrate their understanding through practical application in their own language, the more actual evidence you will have of your learners’ progress, and the less you will have to ask that non-question!

Teacher Questions to avoid:

  • ‘Do you understand?

  • ‘Does that make sense?’

  • ‘Is that clear?’

  • ‘Does everyone get it?’

Ways of gathering actual evidence of learning:

  • Asking Concept Checking Questions (CCQs)

  • Setting short quizzes on vocabulary or grammar

  • Instructing productive tasks where learners have to use the language they are studying independently

  • Asking if learners have any questions, then leaving a silent thinking period

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in an entirely online mode of study, and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.



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