The #1 … (delivery error teachers make)

** Not your ordinary, endless list – just what’s number 1.

Assuming The Students Understand

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

~George Bernard Shaw

I’ve thought a lot about this and based on my own experiences as a teacher in the trenches, based upon my own development and reflection, based upon knowledge of how a brain works and students learn – I’m convinced too many teachers don’t check student understanding enough. Especially language teachers. They assume there is communication with students when indeed, many times, they didn’t understand a thing.

I’m sure it is a familiar scene for all teachers. The teacher talking, explaining an activity or idea. The students nodding. The teacher continuing and assuming everyone understands. Do they?

The pragmatic elements seem to dominate. The students using context and non verbal communication “assume” to understand. Also, students just never want to say they don’t know. They are human. Teachers do the same. They see the polite nod and eye contact, the paralanguage of students and assume they are listening, they understand, there is communication. But really is there? Too often, I believe there isn’t.

As a language learner, I’ve had so many conversations or been in so many situations where this is the case. Teacher assumes she/he is communicating. The students not understanding and just “playing the game”. There is learning failure.

I think teachers need to do several things to avoid this kind of surreal and ineffective situation.

1. Filter the teacher language. This is a teacher acquired skill that often must be done by thinking through the lesson, the language of the lesson.

2. Pausing. Give Ss time to process language. 2nd language learners have brains that are hot and overworked – they need time to process the information.

3. Rephrasing. Get Ss to rephrase and communicate for the class what was said, explained. Students will put the language into a form better for student understanding. The teacher will know the students did understand.

4. Slowing down. All of the above entail that many teachers need to slow down in their lessons. Of course, this entails not pushing through units, coursebooks and you’ll have to negotiate this with your school. It does no one any good to finish a unit, if so little was understood!

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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2 Responses

  1. Katja Thornton says:

    I agree completely. I often assume students have understood and then find out afterwards they didn’t. Frustrating – for the students and for me. But you see, I ask students to repeat instructions for example. I ask one student to repeat what I’ve said, I ask another student a more indirect question that shows me that student has understood. Aside from the students who plainly don’t want to be there (not very many I hasten to add), how do I know whether the nodders really have understood? I do also get the rolling-of-eyes students as well who communicate to me that “obviously” checking a third time is overkill. And yet, and yet – in a class of 12 there are going to be at least 3 learners who did not get it and are left behind. Putting my thoughts into words, I have to say that this is actually my problem in the sense that I’m worried I might in some way “offend” stronger learners, and I just have to get over that. If it helps those remaining three get it, then a third time is time well spent – and who knows, maybe the rolling-of-eyes students are also secretly relieved… 😉

  2. ddeubel says:

    Hi Katja,

    I sympathize and that’s a dilema facing teachers with multi level classes (and I guess we might even think of any class as “multi level”.).

    I guess there is only so much you can do. With experience too, we get better at communicating with students and also understanding if they did indeed understand us. But there is a limit and short of communicating in the L1, there is a limit to what we can do…. do what you can and do it well – that’s all we can ask of ourselves!

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