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?

REALLY assess reading comprehension

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Scott Benedict is the king of assessment, so if you have never before pondered accurate assessment, standards-based assessment, etc., you should probably hop on over to his site, Teach for June, and spend the next few weeks there before you come back and finish reading this post. If you have already reached the conclusion that it is essential to create and administer assessments that accurately demonstrate whether or not students have mastered whatever skill you are assessing, then you can keep reading :)

Strengthen coreThe Common Core has a bad rep (with good reason, I would say), but much of its content is quite good! One of the things that I love are the 10 Anchor Standards for Reading. I love them because they have made it much easier for me to write excellent reading assessments! In order to truly determine whether or not your students have understood a text, it is essential to ask high-order thinking questions in addition to your basic fact regurgitation questions. If a student truly understands a text, whether fiction or non-fiction, that student should be able to answer questions that require them to summarize the text, apply what they read to a new context (for example, “Which of the following is an example [not given in the text] of the concept described?”), interpret selected portions of the text (“What is another way to say [excerpt]?”), evaluate portions of the text (“Which of the following statements did the author best support?”), and more. Writing these questions isn’t difficult, per se, but it does require intentionality and forethought. The CCSS have done this for us, woohoo! I have a list of the standards posted near my computer, and I reference them whenever I write a reading assessment. If the assessment consists of five questions, I try to hit five different standards with my five questions. The end result is a challenging assessment; but that is because it is a quality assessment. When I first began to administer assessments with varied, high-order thinking questions to my students, their reading scores plummeted. Part of this was due to poor test-taking ability, but part of it was because my view of my students’ reading comprehension was inaccurate due to my formerly poorly designed assessments. The greatest benefit of changing the way that I wrote assessments was that it forced me to be a better teacher (continuing instruction until my students had truly acquired whatever material we were studying), but a nice side benefit was that my students “strengthened their core”. By this, I mean that they improved their test-taking ability effortlessly as I incorporating higher-thinking questions into my daily instruction through comprehension checks and discussion. (Side note: While I always administer reading assessments about Spanish passages in English (see Scott’s website for the reasoning behind that), we discuss many of these questions in Spanish throughout each unit as we talk about stories and other input that we work with.) I don’t really care about improving their test-taking ability other than it was a really great ‘brag’ for my Spanish program when it came time to defend my request to add an additional language teacher at the end of the school year!

I created this handy-dandy infograph for you to use when creating your own reading assessments, both formative and summative. Since the first two Anchor Standards for Reading contain multiple tasks, I broke them down a bit. Standards 7 and 9 are not included because they apply only when working with multiple texts, and Standard 10 is not included because it is too general to be helpful when writing an assessment. Enjoy :)



What did I say?

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A good teacher is always looking for ways to vary his or her assessments. Administering varied assessment types allows for differences in student strengths and weaknesses and provides novelty. Novelty is important because it makes the assessment feel less like an exam and more like an activity, which reduces anxiety and lowers the affective filter, allowing the students to be more successful. I’ve posted several kinds of listening assessments before, and here is yet another!

1973297-manuel_que“What did I say?” Listening Assessment

STEP ONE: Read aloud a short text to students in the target language. This can be fiction, non-fiction, original, or authentic.

STEP TWO: Have students draw a picture of what they heard.

STEP THREE: Have students write a sentence or short paragraph to describe their picture in English. They should write it in English so that any error in their work can only be attributed to a misunderstanding of what they heard and not an inability to produce correct language. By describing their picture instead of writing explicitly about the text, they are required to summarize and use their own words.

Turn it into a writing assessment…

STEP FOUR: If you want to turn it into a writing assessment as well, you could then have students translate what they wrote in English into Spanish. You will then know that students understood or did not understand what you said originally and whether or not they are able to produce original language by describing the picture (summarizing the original text) in Spanish.

Spanish II Final Exam, Take 2

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La_llorona_by_TsukiNoYumeMy maternity sub is unavailable on one day during finals week, so I needed to develop a new final exam for Spanish II that did not involve the use of the computer. (Last year, I gave my students this exam based on the video La leyenda del espantapájaros.) Wanting to do as little work as possible, I turned to the Embedded Readings blog to see what pre-made readings I could find and turn into a test. I found a reading by Matt (don’t know his last name) about La Llorona that I could work with. Two hours later (so much for saving time, right?), I had a new final exam with a past-tense reading. Since a Spanish speaker will not be administering the exam, it consists only of reading and writing. Download the pretty PDF of the exam here, or download the not-so-pretty Microsoft Word version here. (Since I do all my word processing with Pages, the files often get screwy when I convert them to Word. Sorry!) Both documents are FREE–my Teacher’s Appreciation gift to YOU! The final includes target structures from the storytelling units that I use to focus on the preterite tense (in addition to vocab that we’ve studied since Spanish 1), so check out those students if you are looking for how to adequately prepare your students for the final.

Running Dictation Extension

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IMG_9955.JPG copyJulia developed an awesome extension for running dictations (click here to read how to do a basic running dictation)! Instead of having students record the events on a single piece of paper, she had the secretary write each event on a separate square of paper. After the secretary recorded it, he or she passed the paper to another student in the group (one that was not currently the runner) to illustrate. By doing so, she added another role to the activity and increased the level of engagement! To put the events in order, then, students only have to stack the papers in order (the first on top and last on the bottom). They can staple them and hand them in very easily, instead of trying to re-write the list or number them on the side.

The best part about this extension, however, is that you now have illustrations to use for any number of activities. Julia used them for a listening assessment: she showed two pictures on the Doc Cam and read one of the statements from the dictation. Students had to write “A” if she was describing the picture on the left or “B” if she was describing the picture on the right. It lowered affective filters that usually go up during assessments because the kids got to see the drawings of their classmates…sometimes quite interesting!

Can I please have an intern ALL the time!?

Reading Comprehension Conundrum

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I continue to experience the same problem with each reading assessment that I assign, and I am wondering if anyone else experiences it as well and/or has input and suggestions.

When I administer a reading assessment, I make absolutely certain that it is comprehensible to my students. If there are any words that my students haven’t learned and shouldn’t be able to figure out with a few squints of concentration, I footnote it. The point is to assess whether or not they understand the structures that they are supposed to have acquired when read in context. So I get really frustrated when I grade an assessment and the scores average a Developing (C) or–worse–an Emerging (D)!

Occasionally, I can look back and see that I was trying to stretch them a bit too much. This was the case with my Spanish A kiddos last week. But those instances are few and far between because I am SO CAREFUL when designing reading assessments. The problem, I have discovered, is that my students are really, really, really bad at answering questions. I have discovered this pattern because I will often give papers back to students and have them write out the translations of the readings, and they translate the entire thing without significant errors. Then, I ask them to go back and re-answer the questions. Most of the time, they say, “OH DUH!” and correct their mistakes. Oftentimes, however, they still don’t get it. About a month ago, this sentence appeared in a reading for Ladrones: “The robbers robbed the same store four times”. The question was, “How many different stores were robbed?” The answer, obviously, was ONE. Even after students translated the sentence, however, many were unable to answer the question.

Do you think that my questions are just too hard??

Is this nothing more than a result of my students’ low ENGLISH reading comprehension?

Is it fair and accurate to accept a correct translation of the reading as proof of their Spanish reading comprehension, or is the fact that they can’t answer questions (in English) about a Spanish reading proof that their Spanish reading comprehension is low?

I need input, people!!!!!!!  Help!!

Conference Time!

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This week is conference week in Anchorage. At the middle school level, we do Student Led Conferences, in which students prepare a portfolio that includes work samples and self-reflections and present it to their parents. Teachers check in during the conference to see if parents have any questions, but the student is responsible for explaining his or her experience in the class to his or her parents.

I have struggled to create self-reflections that elicit honest, accurate responses from students, and I think that I have finally found the magical combination (until next year, I’m sure)!! First, students complete this self-reflection about their experience in the class. I have used this in the past, and it has proven a successful conversation starter for students and parents. Kids get to talk about what they like and don’t like, and consequently the areas in which they experience successes and struggles. Download a free, editable version of this document here.

The second piece is one that I added this year, and I am VERY pleased with its success. It is a self-reflection on behavior, work habits, etc. (their Citizenship grade, essentially). I found that by a simple re-phrasing of the questions (asking students what they think that I would say to their parents vs. simply what they think about their own performance), students produced more honest, well-thought out and defended responses. Knowing that I would later circle whether I agree or disagree with their thoughts held them accountable, and I added comments to support my agreement or dissent.  Download a free, editable version here (but beware–the font that I used in the original is most likely not on your computer, so you will probably need to do some re-formatting).

Students included this self-reflection in their portfolio with work samples and explanations of why they chose to include those samples. The final piece that I used was this “instruction sheet” for parents, so that they could speak with their students about the missing and incomplete components of their portfolio. It is helping parents to feel equipped to address concerns about work habits with their child and develop strategies and goals to address those concerns.

There are some benefits to Student Led Conference and some challenges, but I am thankful for the opportunity with which it provides students to have meaningful conversations with their parents about their class performance! It is also great for the MANY families in our school that do not speak English! What do you do for conferences??

Standards Based Assessment

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Someone started a new thread on the #flteach listserv about Standards Based Assessment, and so I of course had to jump in on the conversation. I’m posting my response here because I was filled with warm fuzzies while I was writing it. Standards Based Assessment is the best!! If you’ve not made the switch, you’re missing out!!


This is my third year using Standard Based Assessment, and I’m hooked.

First of all, my students’ grades reflect their performance in the language, not their performance as a student. In my old grading system (quizzes, tests, homework, classwork, projects, participation), students could earn high grades by simply being a good and responsible student, and all the language ability in the world could not keep a ‘slacker’ student from achieving a high grade. The frustrated teacher in me liked this because I liked rewarding students that worked hard and “punishing” students that didn’t. “See! You have a D because you never turn in your work!”. But that is not just. My course is called “Spanish” not “Work Habits”, and my students’ grades should reflect their ability to interpret and produce the language. My categories are now Reading (25%), Writing (25%/20% depending on level), Listening (25%), Speaking (20%/15% depending on level), Culture (5%), and Citizenship (5%). More on Citizenship later. I have fewer Fs and Ds, but not fewer As. Most students have As and Bs because I am focused on their proficiency and I know that if my students are getting Cs and Ds on assignments, it’s not because they are lazy and not doing their work but because they don’t understand the material. I spend more time working on it until the majority of my students are proficient. The other great thing about this system is that typically my students’ grades go UP as the year goes on instead of down.

My students receive a score of “Advanced”, “Proficient”, “Developing”, “Emerging”, “Beginning”, or “No Attempt” on each assignment. These correspond to A/95%, B/85%, C/75%, D/65%, F/55%, and F/50% and to ACTFL proficiency levels. For an example, please see this document that I created by combining the ideas of about a million different brilliant minds (it’s free!): Even though my students are well aware that an Advanced is the same as an A and an Emerging is the same as a D, I have found that it encourages them to work harder to move to the next level. An “F” means “FAIL”–an ending–whereas a “Beginning” shows that there is hope and that the student is just at the beginning of the journey. Students WANT to jump to the next level. If they’re Developing, they want to be Proficient. If they’re Proficient, they want to be Advanced! I also like it because students know that they cannot improve their grades by doing extra credit or handing in missing assignments. They have to perform better in order to improve their grade, and so they actually STUDY and PRACTICE in order to bring up their grades. It’s fantastic!! Best of all, I have students re-take my course BY CHOICE after they have failed to move on to the next level (D or F). I think that that is the most wonderful testimony to the hope that this grading system gives them. They do not think that they have failed, but instead that they need more work to become proficient. I love it.

As many of you have brought up, the great conundrum caused by Standards Based Grading is how to hold students accountable for anything but summative assessments. Some schools issue two grades for their students: one for their content performance and one for their behavior/study habits. I wish this were the case for me! My solution is the Citizenship category. It’s only 5% of my students’ grades, and it includes formative assessments, participation, attendance, behavior, work completion, etc. It’s a catch-all. It is such a low percentage that it has almost no affect on their final grade, but it’s something that the frustrated teacher in me can hold onto and hold over their heads. It’s a grade that I can point to at Student Led Conferences or mention in a phone call to show their parents tangibly how “studious” their child has been. Now, my kiddos are middle schoolers and don’t really have any concept of just how little of an affect a 5 percent category has on their overall grade. If you teach high school, when students actually understand percentages, you might bump it up to 10 percent. But I think it is very important that even an extremely low grade in Citizenship (namely, an F) not bring the students’ overall grade down more than a single letter. In most situations, students’ grades have already suffered because of their poor work habits, and so adding on additional punishment simply to stick it to them is really not necessary. 

Accurate Assessments, Part II

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Open House is tonight, and I’m feeling the pressure to have grades for my students’ parents to see. My first year kids only have one grade in the books so far, so I gave them a listening assessment today so that they could have a second one. But as I’m sitting here looking at them, I realize that I can’t put them in the gradebook!! They are formative at best, but even that is questionable because they really aren’t an accurate measure of my students’ listening abilities.

I asked the story Camina y corre in class today, and it was a huge success!! In one class, a girl was walking with her friend Lady Gaga and saw Michael Jackson, who turned out to be a zombie that ran after the girls. In another class, one girl saw One Direction, but she doesn’t like them so a classmate who is completely obsessed ran after them, but they ran away. My sixth graders thought that it was the best thing ever!!

So after the story, I gave them the listening assessment–four questions in English about the story. But I realized that (1) I can’t count it as a summative assessment because we haven’t even gotten to the “read” stage of TPRS yet–they are still just learning the words, and (2) it isn’t even accurate as a listening assessment because the whole time I was pausing and pointing to words on the board so that the kiddos could read them, and the actors were acting everything out. I tried to think of questions that weren’t obvious from the acting, but even then I think I ended up with details that the kids couldn’t exactly remember, even if they understood them at the time. Sigh. I need to remember that if I want to put something in the gradebook, it has to be summative (the kids must have “finished” learning whatever I am assessing), and it must be accurate.

Maybe I’ll count it as a Citizenship grade…the kids had to be paying attention to know the answers, right?….