Practical Ways to Check for Understanding

By on May 4, 2014

This year, I have struggled to find good ways to check in with my students in order to learn what they know and still don't understand. The idea of constantly checking for understanding is really important because this year I am teaching a newcomer ESL class. The students are brand new to our country and have a variety of academic experiences, so measuring growth in their learning is more challenging than other classes I have taught before.

Although I am learning their languages (Arabic and Spanish), I am no where near fluent in either language. Because I do not speak their languages, I cannot assess them as easily as I would my fluent English-speaking students.  Instead of throwing my hands up in frustration, I am finding new ways to check for understanding. As I move through the year, I am discovering what is working and what is not working. I want to share some ideas that are working wonders when checking for understanding in the areas of reading, writing, listening and speaking. It's important to note that the ideas and strategies discussed below are not limited to English language learners. All teachers can use these strategies to check in with their students.

Visual Summary

I like to use a Visual Summary to assess my students' reading comprehension.  The Visual Summary activity is similar to a storyboard where students draw pictures to represent the actions or information in different sections of a text. It can be used for both fiction and nonfiction texts. Students read, draw pictures, and write a brief (5-8 word) summary sentence for each picture. To assist my students, I help preview the text and decide how the text should be divided. Depending on the level and students' abilities, they will need your assistance to predetermine where the author changes topics. When my students become more proficient in English, I ask that they decide how to divide the text into different sections. To get the students started, I write the page numbers or paragraph numbers In each box of the graphic organizer showing them which section or chunk of the text that needs to be represented in each box.

As they read and draw pictures, I walk around the room and view their visual representations of the text. It becomes vividly clear to me based on their pictures which students understand and which students do not.

Analyzing Prompts

This year, I have decided to provide a prompt for each reading and/or writing task that I assign. My students analyze a prompt before they begin a task so that I can see if they understand what they are being asked to do.

Before they write, for example, we start by analyzing their writing prompt. For the first six weeks of the school year, we learn and practice this skill. We study directive verbs and learn the steps to isolate the important aspects of the prompt. As they are working, I walk around to see if they are able to identify the directive verbs and number the tasks. Here are the steps to this academic skill.

  1. Circle verbs and underline what you are asked to do.
  2. Number the verbs in a logical order.
  3. Draw a box around the intended audience and identify sources.
  4. Create a "Do/What Outline."

Last week, Jonathan wrote an eCoach post about how to best scaffold academic work. In his post, Jonathan suggests that we should strive to scaffold up and give all of our students access to rigorous course work. Because I want my ESL students to learn academic English and content at the same time, I provide scaffolds that support them as they learn challenging vocabulary. When teaching my students how to analyze and respond to prompts, I like to use LiteracyTA's Common Verbs Found in Prompts handout.

This type of scaffold helps my students learn academic vocabulary while learning parts of speech. I can go one step further and offer my students this same list of verbs translated in their own home langauge. It has been my experience that most of my English learners know what words mean in their first language, so all I need to do is bridge their prior knowledge to the English they are learning in my class.

The process of analyzing prompts requires spiraling from week to week. It also requires multiple attempts at analyzing multiple prompts. To check for understanding, I project a prompt on the whiteboard and ask students to come to the front of the class and demonstrate one of the steps. I also ask them to complete the steps independently on paper. I assess them weekly and give them feedback using the rubric. This skill takes time and patience, but we all benefit because going forward, students are able to tackle more rigorous reading and writing tasks after mastering this skill.

Here some other activities to help with checking for understanding:

What do you do in your classroom to check for understanding. Join the conversation and share your brilliance with our growing family of inspired educators.

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