Comprehension Checks

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Note: Much of my knowledge about comprehension checks has come from Betsy Paskvan, a Japanese teacher here in Anchorage, AK. Betsy has presented many times on checking for comprehension at state and national language conferences (she’ll be at NTPRS this summer), and she often travels to other school districts to offer them professional development on comprehension checks and other essential TPRS®/CI skills.


It is important for all teachers to informally assess students’ comprehension throughout any lesson. We use students’ answers to decide whether to move on to the next topic or to spend more time on whatever we are studying at the moment. Comprehension Checks are one of the essential tools in a TPRS®/CI teacher’s toolbox. When they are used effectively, the input provided by the teacher will remain comprehensible to all students, and therefore all students will further their language acquisition.

There are five keys to comprehension checks:

  1. Check for comprehension continually.
  2. Check for comprehension in English.
  3. Check for comprehension in different ways.
  4. Check for comprehension quickly.
  5. Modify instruction as needed based on students’ responses.

It is important to keep your finger on the pulse of your students’ comprehension so that you do not lose students (cognitively or emotionally) by venturing into incomprehensible territory. This requires continual checking for comprehension. It must be done in English so that a wrong answer can only be attributed to a lack of comprehension of the content in question and not a failure to understand the question itself. You must ask different kinds of questions to different populations (individuals and groups) in order to gather accurate data. Comprehension checks should be quick so that they do not distract from the content. Finally, comprehension checks are only valuable when you use the information gathered to inform your instruction–spending more time on a topic, backtracking, or moving forward based on your students’ needs.

Here are four basic meaning-based questions that can be used during storytelling, PQA and other discussions, and read-alouds. These questions can be asked to individuals or to the entire class. When asked to individuals, the teacher should try to match the difficulty level of the question to the students’ language ability:

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Those four questions are all meaning-based and require an oral response. However, there are many other ways that students can give feedback (both general and specific) during instruction. Some are more accurate than others, so it is important that you do a variety in order to gain a complete, accurate picture of your class’s comprehension:

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In addition to comprehension checks completed during instruction, there are many ways that teachers can informally assess comprehension after instruction: exit slips, post-it notes, pop quizzes, etc. These checks can be used to plan instruction for the next day, but they’ll have to wait for another day :)

What other comprehension checks do you use during instruction in your classes, and what strategies do you have to develop the habit of checking for comprehension?

My favorite game EVER!

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I am a very bossy person by nature, and unfortunately I didn’t realize it until right after I graduated from high school. By the grace of God, I’ve learned how to tame my nasty natural instincts…although it’s not always easy! Being married helps :)

I think that this is why the game that I’m about to explain is my favorite game ever. It’s a mind game, and I’m in control. I get to tell people “Yes” or “No”, and they have to live with my verdict. I get to go on a power trip, but everyone thinks that it’s fun. MUAH HA HA!!!

You’ve probably played this game in one of its many versions before, but perhaps you have not considered how to apply it to the language classroom. I’ll explain the rules, several possible scenarios, and then I’ll wait for your comments to find out even more ways that we can use it to further our students’ language acquisition!!


Premise: The students are going on a trip and have to figure out what they can/can’t bring. Only the teacher (game master) knows the criterion that an object must meet in order to go along with the student on the trip.


  1. The teacher tells the class that they are going to go on an imaginary trip. The class decides where they want to go.
  2. The teacher tells students that they can only bring certain items on the trip, and that any object they bring must meet a specific criterion. Their goal is to figure out what the criterion is, but they must never say what they think the criterion is when they think they know it. They must use guess and check to confirm their hypothesis.
  3. The teacher gives students one example of an object that can be brought on the trip decided on by the class, enclosed in a model statement. For example, “I’m going to Hawaii, and I’m going to bring [a swimsuit]“.
  4. The teacher writes the model statement on the board, then turns it into a question and reflects it back to the class. For example, “What are you going to bring to Hawaii?”
  5. Students take turns saying what they are going to bring to Hawaii, always following the model statement exactly. “I’m going to Hawaii, and I’m going to bring [a palm tree]“. “I’m going to Hawaii, and I’m going to bring [my boyfriend]“. They can say anything.
  6. CC 2007 Simon Law

    CC 2007 Simon Law

    After each statement, the teacher responds “Yes, you can” or “No, you can’t”.

  7. Students continue saying what they will bring, with the teacher confirming or denying their idea.
  8. Every once in awhile, the teacher throws in an example that works in order to help the class. At first, they should be examples that confuse the kids–bring ridiculous things like buildings, countries, whatever! The examples should get more and more obvious as the game goes on in an effort to help all students to figure out the criterion. Use inflection, body language, etc. to help students figure it out!
  9. Again, students must never say out loud what they think the criterion is, but instead confirm their hypothesis by volunteering more statements. Once they have it, you will know (and they will too) because they will be allowed to bring everything that they volunteer.
  10. Ideally, you end the game when all students have figured out the trick…you may need to “cheat” to help all students get there, depending on how difficult the criterion is with which you play.

The Criterion:

Here are some possible criteria that you can use to play the game. You only use one per game!!

  • You must say “Um” or “Uh” before you make the statement. (This is my favorite!) Ex: “Um….I’m going to Hawaii, and I’m going to bring a castle”. In order for this to work well, however, it is best if the teacher calls on random students as opposed to having students raise their hands. If kids have planned out what they are going to say, they will not often say “Um”. Your students that are excellent at public speaking may get frustrated because they don’t use fillers, and so they won’t ever be allowed to bring the items that they suggest!
  • The items must go in alphabetical order. For example, “I’m going to Hawaii, and I’m going to bring an Apple” “I’m going to Hawaii, and I’m going to bring a Boat” “I’m going to Hawaii, and I’m going to bring a Chunk of cheese”. Start from a letter in the middle of the alphabet to make it less obvious, and use words whose initial letters are disguised in sound, like “Xylophone” or “Phenomenal”.
  • The items must begin with the last letter of the previously accepted item: ex: ApplE, ElephanT, TrampolinE, EgG, GoD, DoG…
  • The items must all consist of the same number of letters: food, door, cars, hand, etc. You would probably want to plan out a list of these ahead of time for you to use as examples, because it isn’t easy to think of them on the spot.
  • The items all fit into a specific category–things that are round, things that are red, things that are awake in the night, things that have doors, etc.)
  • The person saying the sentence fits into a specific category–boys only, students with birthdays in August-December, students that speak another language in addition to English + TL, etc.

Here are some possible language structures that you can use to practice it in different units and levels:

  • I go to __ and I bring __
  • I’m going to go to __ and I’m going to bring __
  • I want to go to __ and I want to bring __
  • I’m thinking about going to __ and I’m thinking about bringing __.
  • I went to __ and I brought __
  • If I were to go to __, I would bring __.
  • When I used to go to __, I used to bring __.
  • When you go to __, I recommend that you bring __.

You can also change the subject to “WE are going to __ and I/We/my friend am/are/is going to bring”, and you can change the verbs used (flying to, traveling to, etc.; I live in __ and I have __; I’m packing my suitcase and I put ___ in it). The possibilities are endless!

Hope your students love this game as much as my students and I do! I’d love to hear more ideas for how to play it differently in the comments section!

Wants, has, says

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I got to teach Spanish today! It was super fun and super exhausting–and I only taught two-20 minute classes. Phew! How did I used to do this every day!?

Mat-Su Community College has an annual “Kids 2 College” day where local fifth graders spend a day at the college and take classes. None of the kids had any prior language, so the challenge was to teach them a story starting from nothing! It’s like the first day of school in Spanish 1! Unlike when I taught full-time, however, I didn’t care about doing any kind of getting to know you activities, and I knew that whatever they got today would be all that they were going to get, so I wanted to make sure that the structures that I targeted were EXTREMELY high frequency and useful for their lives. We learned “Wants” and “Has” with a few extras worked in.

Here is the basic script that I used in the demo lesson (To learn how to use story scripts, click here):

This is AlexAlex is a boy. Alex is a smart, attractive, athletic boy. He is the perfect boy. Alex has a computerAlex hasphoneAlex hascarAlex doesn’t havebikeAlex wants a bike.

This is Kendra. Kendra is a girl. Kendra is a smart, attractive, athletic girl. Kendra has a bikeAlex wants Kendra’s bike.

Alex says to Kendra, “I want your bike“. Kendra says to Alex, “This bike is my bike.” Alex steals Kendra’s bikeKendra is furious. Kendra says “Police, Police”. The police arrest Alex.

After the story, we didn’t have any time for the literacy step, but I sent the kids home with the illustrated reading on pages 1-2 of the document that you can download here (free). The vocab was on one side of the paper, with pronunciations, and the new story was on the back. The remaining pages of the document are the posters that I printed out to put on the board. Since I was working with elementary kids, I wanted to make sure that I used images in addition to the traditional black and blue translations because their visualization skills are still developing. Use this as a demo lesson, a first day of school lesson, for practice while being coached, or save the story and write up some accompanying tasks (translation, comprehension questions, expansion, extension, etc.) to use as a sub plan. If anyone wants to send me a translation of the reading into another language, I can format it and post that, too. Just email the translation of the text to Hope you find a use for it!

Quiere tiene dice

Ready-to-go sub plans

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I recently learned that this time of the year is when folks in Alaska are the sickest because people don’t pick up their dog poop from the yard all winter. Now that temperatures are finally above freezing, the poo is mushy and ready for kids that are excited to play outside to track it into their homes. So…that’s a fun piece of trivia for you!

greedy-rat_Vector_ClipartMaybe you don’t have the same problem in your state, but you still might find yourself sick or otherwise out of school as we approach the end of the year. I’ve been cleaning out my computer and stumbled across a few student-generated stories that I turned into sub plans back when I was in the classroom full time. If you’re a Spanish teacher, save them for future inclusion in your Emergency Sub Plan binder! If you’re not a Spanish teacher, find someone to translate them for you :) I’m not proud of them because these docs aren’t pretty and the stories are pretty lame and goofy, but they will serve the purpose just the same. For more (and more interesting) sub plans, check out my sub plan archives.

Plan #1: A story about a rat at the movies. Good for students that have recently studied “Places around town” vocab or tener expressions. Download the movie rat PDF here.

Plan #2: A story about a boy, a girl, and a wolf. Perfect fit for anyone that has recently done or is in the middle of the “El lobo hambriento/Como agua para chocolate” unit. Download the wolf PDF here.


Semana Santa

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Finally! I have been meaning for years to add a comprehensible Semana Santa reading to my holidays repertoire, and I am happy to announce that I’ve finally finished it! You can download the final product here. It contains a two-level embedded reading with pre and post-reading discussion questions and comprehension questions, a MovieTalk/video activity, an infograph activity, a project with writing component for which rubrics are provided, and a slideshow about Guatemala’s sawdust carpets. Hope you love it!


CC 2010

Want more Semana Santa? Follow my Semana Santa board on Pinterest.


TPRS®/CI and the Common Core

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Over the last year, I have received many email requests from teachers, administrators, and conference planners that need to know how TPRS® and other Comprehensible Input strategies meet Common Core standards. Teachers must explain the connections so that they are permitted to use these best practice strategies in their classrooms, administrators seek to know whether or not to approve their teachers’ proposed instructional methods, and conference planners must defend their offerings in order for conference attendees to receive funding from the institutions that they represent. All of this pressure has created much stress for all parties involved, but when we take a moment to examine TPRS®/CI through the lens of the Common Core Standards, we quickly see that there is absolutely no reason to freak out!

One of the beautiful things about TPRS® is that it has been meeting Common Core Standards since before the standards existed. A quick glance through the CC Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening standards will leave those familiar with TPRS® and other Comprehensible Input strategies nodding their heads in agreement. When teachers use a variety of the TPRS®/CI strategies available to them, they easily address Common Core Standards in their classes on a daily basis. Below are just a few of the connections that I see between TPRS®/CI and the Common Core–the list is certainly not exhaustive. To learn more about the content and strategies mentioned in this post, consider attending iFLT or NTPRS this summer. Individual sessions at both conferences will help you to address unique standards. By attending either conference in its entirety, you will leave with a toolbox full of strategies to address Common Core standards in your language classes!

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  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

While TPRS®/CI teachers focus on Comprehensible Input, teacher-led output is at the very core of TPRS®. PQA (Personalized Questions and Answers) is a collaborative class discussion that TPRS®/CI teachers use to begin almost every single class period. We know that students must maintain interest in the content in order to keep the affective filter low, and there is nothing that students love more than talking about themselves and their world! PQA is a time when teachers ask questions to the class that include the target structures, and then re-state student responses and reflect them to the class for questioning and conversation in order to provide more repetitions of the target structures. The topics range greatly depending on what is going on in the students’ lives and the world and what the class is studying.

While it is true that one on one and small group discussions are less frequent in lower levels, many TPRS®/CI teachers strive for 5-10 minutes of output per day, even at the novice level, to accustom students to speaking. These snippets of conversation often take place 1:1 or in small groups, and they range in topic from the students’ lives to the story that was created in class to the topic that was presented and discussed in class (often of cultural or historical significance). Many teachers (Laurie Clarcq comes to mind) work closely with the “core” departments at their schools to align the World Language curriculum with that of their core classes. For example, if students are reading “Romeo and Juliet” in English, the WL teacher creates a parallel story to use in his/her class so that the students can compare and contrast and discuss themes. For this reason, the conversations that take place are often academic in nature even in classes that appear on the surface to be fiction-based.



  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

It is no secret that authentic resources are of great value to language learners, and for that reason they have been the highlight of many presentations at state, regional, and international language conferences throughout the past several years. By examining lists of their benefits (see one such list here), it is easy to see that TPRS®/CI teachers love to use authentic resources in upper level classes as a source for discussion and content. However, the strategies that TPRS®/CI teachers have mastered in order to make input comprehensible to students allow even novice-level teachers the ability to use authentic resources in their classrooms. (TPRS®/CI guru Kristy Placido ( has presented on this subject many times.) Whether the resource is a commercial, an infograph, an article or blog post, or a piece of art, TPRS®/CI teachers are constantly on the lookout for materials that will pique their students’ interest in the target language and culture and further their understanding of the topic at hand.



  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

Comprehensible Input without leveled readers is like a hot dog without a bun—some people use one but not the other, but it is just so much better when they are together! Repeated exposure to a variety of level-appropriate, written texts is not only one of the Common Core State Standards, but it is also an important tenet of Comprehensible Input practitioners. Krashen’s theory of Comprehensible Input (an umbrella term that encompasses five hypotheses) states that fluency increases when input is received at level i+1. In other words, we become more fluent in a language when we hear or read language that it just one step above our current level of fluency. Leveled readers allow language students to do just that because teachers can select texts for their students that meet their language needs based on unique word count, tense and perspective, and overall word count. Students are introduced to a limited number of new structures in context, allowing them to use the same reading strategies being taught in English Language Arts classrooms across the country in order to determine the meaning of word parts, words, and phrases. Because our goal is to improve fluency in the target language, we teach those same reading strategies in our classes, too! With a range of leveled readers available, TPRS®/CI teachers often have a library filled with books from which their students can select to read independently during Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) or even outside of class. Whether fiction or non-fiction, leveled readers provide yet another textual format for teachers to include in thematic units, providing increased opportunities for analysis of content and form.



  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Movie Talk is an ESL technique developed by Dr. Ashley Hastings that was brought to the CI world by Michele Whaley ( While many TPRS®/CI teachers and trainers had used similar techniques in the past, Movie Talk took the CI world by storm in 2012 after Michele began posting demos on her blog. Now, many would consider it to be an essential tool in the CI tool belt. Movie Talk allows teachers to vary the input that they provide, and it allows teachers to transform otherwise-incomprehensible video sources into Comprehensible Input. In this way, teachers have access to a nearly unlimited selection of “texts” that can be used in combination with things like short stories, novels, articles, poems, songs, and discussion in order to explore topics from different angles and use vocabulary in diverse contexts. With Movie Talk, TPRS®/CI teachers “comprehensify” commercials, music videos, short films, and clips from long films, making them accessible to their students and greatly enriching the content of their classrooms.



  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Comprehension Checks are a continual presence in TPRS®/CI classrooms because the teacher must ensure that the input that students receive is truly comprehensible to them. The teacher must be acutely aware in every moment as to whether or not students comprehend the input and, if not, the point at which the breakdown in comprehension occurs. For this reason, TPRS®/CI ask a variety of targeted questions throughout every class period to individual students, small groups, and the whole class, asking students to do all of these things. Betsy Paskvan has presented many times on strategies for incorporating and diversifying comprehension checks in TPRS®/CI classrooms, and nearly every TPRS®/CI presentation or instructional material reiterates their importance.



  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Due largely to the work of Scott Benedict at Teach for June (, the majority of TPRS®/CI teachers use Standards Based Grading to the degree that it is possible within the confines of their school’s grading system. With Standards Based Grading, TPRS®/CI meet these three Common Core Anchor Standards with ease. We no longer require students to simply regurgitate facts on multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank quizzes; instead, we require our students to prove their understanding of the text by supporting their answers with facts that they put in their own words. Teachers ask high-order thinking questions because students must have truly comprehended a text in order to respond to them. For this reason, “big picture” questions about theme and character analysis have become common-place in TPRS®/CI classrooms. In order to accurately assess our students’ mastery of a standard, we must push them to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the information that they glean from class discussions, cultural readings, film sources, fictitious texts, and more.



  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Again, while the TPRS®/CI focus is on input–not output–writing remains a key component of their curriculum. Free Writes (which meet Standard W.9-10.3) are the most commonly used technique, but most trained TPRS®/CI teachers incorporate expository writing into their curriculums as they study history, culture, and contemporary issues in class. In many classes, students spend several days learning vocabulary, and then they use their newly acquired vocabulary to study a cultural topic. At the end of the week, they are required to write and speak about the cultural topic using the target vocabulary. (For examples of such units, please check out my Curriculum Map.) The production tasks require students to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize the information learned throughout the week in a new way so that the teacher can accurately assess students’ acquisition of the structures and comprehension of the material. They cannot produce it in the same way that they received it, and so they must write personalized arguments and truly synthesize the information in order to successfully complete the task.

I will reiterate that this list is not exhaustive. Please feel free to add any connections that you see in the comments section!

Copyright © 2014, Martina Bex - - All rights reserved 

If you find yourself in need of a “TPRS®/CI and Common Core” defense, please contact me via email ( to request express written consent to reproduce the information contained in this post. This post (along with all material posted on this blog) is copyrighted material.