Why You Should Never Ask 'Do You Understand': 6 Tips to Help You Check Comprehension

Why You Should Never Ask 'Do You Understand'
6 Tips to Help You Check Comprehension

Vicky Zurakowski
by Vicky Zurakowski 64,292 views

Sometimes it just comes naturally, but actually “do you understand?” is the biggest taboo question when trying to gauge whether your ESL learners understand the points being taught.

With such inviolable questions, learners feel obliged to answer “yes” but how do we really know that they do understand? Anyone can get around this by just answering “yes”. The phenomenon of just answering affirmatively is more common with adult learners who have more of a fear of being wrong, but it’s not uncommon with younger learners too who could be tired, unwilling to answer the question or the fear of being teased by their peers for answering the wrong answer.

Learning how to ask concept checking questions is one of the first things that ESL teachers learn in their TESOL or CELTA courses. However, even though we’re well-equipped with the knowledge on how to ask them and we know their importance, we often fail to do so and slip back into old ways and dirty habits of asking our students “do you understand?” It is those teachers, who regularly use concept check questions in their classrooms, who are more effective in their teaching and thus get better results. So, what exactly is a concept check question? Concept checking is a method employed by ESL teachers to check the students have understood what has been said in quick and short ways without asking that question “do you understand?” This way of checking comprehension allows teachers to check whether the learners have fully understood, whether their teaching instructions are clear or not and it also helps to clarify points that are still a bit of a grey area of not. While concept check questions are not a difficult notion, it does take time to get used to them, but just like everything else it will get easier the more you practice.

How to Check Comprehension Without Asking ‘Do You Understand?’

  1. 1

    Put Yourself in Your Students’ Shoes

    Everything taught or referred to in the ESL classroom needs to be checked for comprehension. Some simple things that we believe to be easy may just seem like a totally new tongue to your learners – well it is! Firstly, we have to remember that they’re not learning in their L1 so there are more chances that things will get lost in translation so to speak. To really understand how it feels to be your student, imagine what it feels like to be listening to a seminar or lecture that’s completely above your head for example, astrophysics. Even better still, jump online and play and try to understand a college video lecture that’s totally out of your expertise area and see how much of it you can actually grasp – this is exactly how your language learners feel sometimes when points are not explained properly. For many ESL teachers, they forget what it’s like to be a student and for others who have never studied another language, they just have no idea.

  2. 2

    Never Translate!

    No translation is the golden rule of ESL teaching – translating basically goes against everything we’ve ever learned as ESL teachers. While it may seem easier just to give a quick translation when we’re met with blank looks, it can actually be more detrimental to their learning. The main reason why translating should be avoided at all costs is that from language to language there are different ideas, concepts and behaviors which are alien to our learners – things that just don’t exist in their L1, therefore they can’t be translated.

  3. 3

    Checking Questions with Questions!

    The quickest way to check a learner’s understanding is by asking other questions. This can be done when learning vocabulary, grammar or in reading comprehension. Checking new terms and information with short quick questions is a surefire way of gauging whether your learners have caught on and whether your instruction has been clear or not. For example you’ve taught the word ‘pool boy’. How can you test they have really understood what a ‘pool boy’ is? Ask them short closed questions that require “yes/no” answers to determine whether they know it or not. “Is he a lifeguard?” “Does he clean the pool?” “Would he bring you a cocktail?” “Is it his job to serve you?” The abovementioned are a few example questions that could be asked to check if they know the true meaning. Asking a question that requires the word “maybe” could also make the learners think a little more and it’s a good idea for more advanced learners and if time allows you could also get the learners to justify their answers.

    Asking questions with “yes/no” answers will take the pressure off the learners to give full answers. In this way you’ll give the learners more confidence as they’re only required to speak one word and there’s very little focus on one student. Additionally, asking closed questions is the fastest way to check comprehension. You can move around the class and ask individual learners about different things or you could ask the questions to the class as a whole and have the learners answer in unison. Having the students answer in chorus at the beginning will make the learners feel more at ease with answering such quick fire questions without thinking too much.

    Avoid using the target word in the question if possible. If you’re trying to convey the word “peace” you wouldn’t say “is peace quiet?” Write the focus word on the board and ask simple questions such as “do we fight when we have it?” “can we touch it?” “can I have it in my mind?” “do most people want it?” Repeating the same word over and over again could become confusing and it’s easier just to have it in front of them visually rather than be heard in every question.

  4. 4


    It’s true what they say – pictures tell a thousand words. The great thing about pictures is that everyone sees the same thing. If one student sees a lemon, the rest of the students see a lemon too. Pictures, if chosen wisely, can clearly show the image of animate objects. Pictures are especially good with younger learners and beginners as there’s a lot of repetition. If you’re trying to teach the meaning of steak, hold up two or three pictures showing people eating different foods and ask the question, “Which picture shows the people enjoying a steak?” The learners will then answer picture A, B or C.

    In order to work with pictures for concept checking you’ll need to be super organized. While quick and short verbal concept check questions are easy to come up with on the spot for the more experienced ESL teacher, pictures are not – and even if you wanted to quickly sketch them on the board, it wastes a lot of unnecessary time. When planning a lesson, it’s necessary to decide which words will be the key words and which words they’re unlikely to know. Time needs to be taken to gather the resources – the traditional methods would have advocated flashcards but these days it’s much easier to use the internet and powerpoint if you have access to them in your classroom.

  5. 5

    Mime it

    For younger learners a great way to check they’ve got it is by asking them to mime. Young learners respond well to actions and the total physical response is an effective way of learning. Call out the words and have your students act them. It can be used for simple actions, but it can also be used for things, especially if they’re in pointing distance from your learners. A quick action or a simple point of the finger will let you know whether they’ve caught on or not. This method will also improve retention in the future as it’s been proven that putting words together with actions helps in the acquisition and retention of vocabulary.

  6. 6


    Using a little bit of variety in your concept checking methods will make them more effective. Another great and quick method of checking comprehension is to ask your students for the opposites of words. Or you could ask them if something is the correct opposite, “is empty the opposite of clear?” “No?” “What is?” Using synonyms and opposites will not only check their acquired knowledge, it will also help increase their vocabulary banks at the same time.

Remember for your learners, things in English don’t come as naturally as they do in their L1.

When teachers inundate their learners with difficult instructions or comprehension questions it could leave them feeling slightly inadequate and exposed which will have a negative effect on their learning. A good ESL teacher will continue to check their comprehension in quick non-obtrusive ways to ensure understanding and learning is taking place no matter what their level or age is as our number one goal is to have our students learn and learning can’t take place if there’s no comprehension.

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