On Comprehension Checks and “Holding Students Accountable”

A few years ago, I read a book about designing listening activities for ESL students, and the author said that you should never have students “just listen”; they should always “do” something, like answer comprehension questions or complete some sort of activity after they listen. I think the reasoning was that if students don’t have something to do during a listening activity, they won’t pay attention. They won’t have motivation to listen because they don’t need to.

This idea made sense to me at the time. It goes along with the idea that we need to always hold students accountable and test them frequently so that they will learn the material. When I was in school, I always thought that was the main purpose of tests: to motivate us to study and learn the material. If there were no tests, we wouldn’t have any reason to remember what we learned.

The problem, however, is that this way doesn’t really work. For some students, grades are not sufficient motivation to study hard. And even for those students who do study hard, they usually just learn the information they need to know for the test, and then they quickly forget it within a few weeks after the test. And it’s not the students’ fault. That’s just the way the human brain works. Consciously learned knowledge usually doesn’t stick.

This style might work somewhat for subjects that require learning conscious knowledge, like in math or science classes. But language acquisition is entirely different. Language acquisition is an innate human ability, not a set of rules to be consciously learned.

When children are learning their first language, they receive a lot of input that they don’t need to “do” anything with. They listen to their parents read bedtime stories without having to write a summary of the story afterwards, and they have conversations with their peers without having to answer comprehension questions about it. People don’t really need to “do” something with every bit of input they receive. If the content is interesting enough, people want to listen.

I’ve been using the technique of Story Listening more and more over the last few months, and I love the fact that it’s just about telling the students a good story. They get to sit back and enjoy the story without pressure. And I can see that my students are listening intently as I tell the story—despite the fact that I don’t test them over what they heard. I usually just tell the story, and then I ask, “Did you like the story?” and sometimes, “Have you heard the story before?” If there was something interesting in the story to discuss, we might discuss it a little. And that’s it. Done. Occasionally, I do a little bit of comprehension checking, but I try not to do too much.

In addition to Story Listening, I’m also starting to decrease the amount of assessments and comprehension check activities I do with other in-class activities. With my Level 4 students, I usually have them listen to one song every week. I used to always have them fill out a cloze sheet with the song lyrics as they listened. But I recently started questioning this practice. I realized that I was mostly just doing it because it made me feel like students were doing something—but I don’t think it was necessarily helping them. And I had noticed that there were a handful of students who often had a lot of trouble filling out the cloze lyrics. Sometimes they couldn’t fill in any of the missing words or maybe only a few. I can imagine that this probably made them feel pretty discouraged. So last week, I simply handed out the complete lyrics to the song, and we listened to it a few times while the students followed along. They didn’t need to “do” anything other than just listen to the song and look at the lyrics. Afterwards, I asked them which way they preferred, and they said they preferred having the complete lyrics instead of filling out the cloze sheets. The students who were most vocal about preferring the complete lyrics were the same students who usually struggle a lot to understand the words. So I do think the complete lyrics helped them feel less discouraged. And since they are able to understand more of the language this way, they will probably be acquiring more language. Win-win! And, of course, giving students the complete lyrics is the much more natural way to do it. When we listen to music for fun on our own time, we don’t fill out cloze sheets. We just listen to the music because we enjoy it. Listening to music is an enjoyable enough activity on its own; I don’t need to make it into an assessment simply to motivate students to do it.

This is not to say that I am completely doing away with cloze sheets or other comprehension-check activities. There are certainly times when we do need to assess our students. But I’m learning that I don’t need to always “hold my students accountable,” and they don’t always need to “do” something with every bit of input they receive.

In some ways, I’m always assessing students. I assess them in small ways, like noticing when a student is hesitant in giving an answer or noticing when a student looks confused. These kinds of subtle assessments give us valuable feedback without being intrusive.

One of the problems with most assessments and comprehension-check activities is that they use valuable class time that could instead be used to give students more input. As Stephen Krashen has said, “Weighing the pig more often will not make it grow faster.” Overly excessive assessment is a waste of class time, it increases students’ levels of anxiety, and it takes a lot of the joy out of learning. And taking the joy out of learning is one of the worst things we could do for students—especially when it comes to language acquisition, since we know the importance of intrinsic motivation.

The more I learn about how language acquisition works, the more I am learning to let go of controlling my students’ learning. For me, teaching is increasingly becoming a way to simply have fun and spread joy. Class time is about sharing interesting stories and about getting to know each other by talking about our lives. It’s not about drilling students on irregular past tense verbs or testing them to make sure they memorized their vocab lists.

And that’s the way it should be. Students don’t acquire a language through hard work and memorization. They acquire language by receiving comprehensible input that truly engages them.

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