Teach English in Japan: Student Comprehension

japan cherry blossoms

Each Teach English in Japan post offers up a practical tip for honing your teaching skills and work habits that can pay big dividends with students at conversation schools.

‘Do you Understand?’

Are you thinking about teaching in Japan? Please say no right now as I ask you if you’re ever going to ask a student the question above.  And resolve not to ask it again if you’ve already gotten in the habit of relying on it.

Asking your students if they understand can let them know that you’re focused on them and their individual needs, and aren’t just blowing through a lesson plan without concern for how it’s going over.  It can also give you immediate feedback, which is potentially very worthwhile.

That’s why lots of teachers, especially inexperienced ones who have recently arrived in Japan, utter this well meaning but in fact rather meaningless and often counterproductive query so often.

Here’s why it’s a crutch and can get in the way of getting a real handle on how well your students are grasping what’s going on in your lessons.

When we ask this question, we do it with certain assumptions. Two main ones are that the student will answer frankly, and even more fundamentally, that they’ll be able to accurately assess in the moment whether they understand or not.  

Let’s look at these and and factors at work that make it likely that one or both of them in a given instance might stand in the way of getting to the gist of things.

When asked as a group or individually, students are inclined to say that they understand because they don’t want to look ‘dumb.’  There’s also the tendency, especially in parts of Asia, to focus on not wanting to inconvenience others, even if it’s at one’s own expense. 

In this light it becomes much more palatable to say a simple ‘yes’ than to say no and disrupt the flow of the lesson,  perhaps compelling the teacher to spend more time on something that others have apparently already grasped.

It’s also easy for learners to infer that the right answer is a simple ‘yes’ because to say otherwise is to on some level call the teacher’s ability into question in front of others. 

This can be true anywhere, but it can be especially prevalent in countries like Japan and others in Asia where fear of losing face and respect for authority are so woven into the fabric of social interactions.

Shifting focus for a moment, is it possible that you in fact might have asked this question at least once assuming/hoping that you’d get a quick ‘yes’ and be able to get on with the lesson or wrap it up and get to your next class?  Some teachers certainly come to habitually do this, without specifically deciding to. 

Then there’s the bigger and intriguing issue of the very nature of understanding.  To understand something can mean different things to different people, because there are so many levels to this thing called ‘understanding.’ 

It’s quite possible for someone to have a certain intellectual understanding of something as a linguistic construct and yet not be able to put it to practical use in conversation, for example.

A resourceful teacher knows this and has the tools at their disposal to get the answer without asking the question by creating opportunities for students to use the target language in natural contexts. This illustrates to the teacher and the learner  just how well they’ve mastered the material and the extent to which they can manipulate it.

Give the students a chance to show you rather than tell you what they understand and what they don’t. 

Conscientious teachers who take this loaded question out of their repertoire will be compelled to examine and hone other, more meaningful tools they have at their disposal in order to get a handle on what the students ‘get’ and what they don’t.

How do you check your students’ understanding? It’s a question well worth exploring!


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