By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville
How many times have I hesitated before asking my students the question “Is Everything Clear?” Many. Why? Probably because I have suspected something.
Abandoning, or at least limiting the use of this seemingly handy comprehension check question has not been easy for me. It has been attaching itself, by some universal law, to the end of my classroom explanations for years.
However, in many cases the question has seemed to serve very little purpose.
When asked “Is everything clear?” (or some equivalent of it), students will frequently answer “Yes.” because they wish to save face, to please the teacher, or to help maintain the lesson’s momentum, etc. Knowing this, we can only wonder at the sincerity of that response on a given occasion. Similarly, the response “No.” usually provides little usable feedback. Head-shaking to indicate a negative response can leave the teacher uncertain about whether students have misunderstood just one word, or most of an explanation.
Since establishing students’ comprehension is crucial to the teaching-learning process, it may well be a good idea to replace the asking of some common, yet characteristically ineffective questions such as “Do you understand?” and “Is everything clear?” with alternative and more productive comprehension check techniques. Here are a few that I have found to be comparatively effective.
Ask very specific questions and encourage students to respond using fingers or cards.
Questions like “Would you like me to repeat the last sentence?” and “Is this structure familiar?” can be better alternatives to the sweeping and often ambiguous “Is that clear?” After all, students may be unsure about what “that” represents.
But even when more concrete questions are asked, some students may feel too shy or too embarrassed to give a frank answer verbally. Most likely, the teacher will hear from only those who understood the concept. We can sometimes get a more accurate response from students if they are allowed to provide their answer visually. One way is for students to show the teacher two fingers (index and middle) to reply “Yes.” or just one finger (index) to reply “No.” When students are seated in a traditional arrangement (or in one of several others no doubt), the teacher can easily see their replies but their peers cannot. This method seems to prevent quite a bit of that suggestiveness which can spread almost instantaneously when answers are given orally.
A similar technique uses pairs of cards (red and green) which are placed face down on students‘ desks. When asked a question, students may raise the green card to say “Yes.” or the red card to say “No.” Due to the color-coding, the teacher can quickly get an impression of students’ responses.
Use concept questions instead of questions requiring repetition or recall.
Concept questions allow us to check if students have grasped the meaning of the language item they are studying. They ask for interpretation rather than repetition or recall, they often involve personalization, and they differ somewhat in grammar and vocabulary from the constructions and words being practiced.
Example: The teacher has explained and illustrated the meaning of the phrase “to be reluctant to do something,” and in order to check students‘ understanding of the expression, the teacher has presented students with the following sentence: Mary was reluctant to share her textbook.
If students provide answers to questions such as “Who was reluctant to share her textbook?” or “Was Mary reluctant to share her textbook?”, the teacher will have little confirmation of students’ comprehension of the meaning of the phrase.
However, if they offer responses to concept questions such as “Why do you think Mary could have been reluctant to share her textbook?” or “Since she was reluctant to share her textbook, what might she have said if you’d asked her to let you use it?” or, even more personalized, “Have you ever been reluctant to share something? If so, why?”, the teacher will obtain more usable information. A much more effective comprehension check can result.
Provide students with opportunities to practice asking their own, focused questions.
Students often have questions but they don’t ask them. One reason has to do with the difficulty of formulating the questions that they know are appropriate. Sadly, students will sometimes avoid asking any question if they can’t manage to formulate the one they really wish to ask, and, of course, basic questions like “Could you repeat that please?” or “What does … mean?” do not always fit the context.
So, if an intermediate student hears the sentence “The documents need to be sent to the Office of Human Resources” and does not quite catch the name of the office, coming up with ways to ask for clarification regarding that information might be a real challenge, especially if the student assumes that an appropriate question would take a form such as “What office do the documents need to be sent to?”
Complicating the matter is the fact that clarification questions are not always formulated as complete sentences in natural, daily conversation. If native speakers of English didn’t quite hear where the documents must be sent, they might simply say, “Where?”
In his article “Say What?: Getting Students to Ask Questions,” Randall S. Davis suggests exposing students to an amount of focused repetition so that they can practice isolating words they don’t quite catch, using interrogative words to ask questions about missing information, adding tag questions, and even simply identifying some last word that they understood, repeating it, and adding a facial expression to show their puzzlement. Davis includes a couple of interesting exercises which are based on the strategy of focused repetition that he outlines. http://www.esl-lab.com/research/question.htm
I’ll continue in my mission to substitute a variety of comprehension check questions for the reflexive, but ordinarily ineffectual, question “Is everything clear?” (and just hope that my tongue won’t need any more splints for sprains). How about you? Do you find yourself using that question (or an equivalent) reflexively? Any thoughts on the value of using it?