I (Don’t) Understand!

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Have you ever explained a task to your students, checked to make sure they understood, and then let them go to work – only to realize as they stared blankly at their work, that they actually didn’t understand?  In my first years of teaching, I was so puzzled by students telling me they understood when they clearly didn’t.  Even when I would ask directly, “Do you understand?” the answer I was given was often “Yes, teacher” before it became clear that the opposite was true.  This was frustrating!  It seemed so obvious to me that honest communication would be better for their learning.  Why wouldn’t they tell me they did not understand?  

Then I moved overseas, became a language learner, and started saying that I understood all the time when it was true almost none of the time. “Kao jai! Kao jai!” (I understand! I understand!) became my favourite phrase. 

Here are my reasons for saying “kao jai” when I didn’t kao jai at all: 

  1. I wanted the conversation to continue.  Most of the time, “I don’t understand” was a conversation ender.  If I said that too many times, people gave up on trying to communicate with me. 
  1. I wanted the conversation to end. Occasionally, an unusually tenacious person would continue to repeat the same thing, the same way, until I agreed or said I understood. 
  1. I got tired of being the one out of the loop.  I wanted to laugh when everyone else laughed, even if I didn’t get the joke.  I wanted to be a part of the conversation instead of a hindrance to it. 
  1. It MIGHT have been true.  I MAYBE understood.  I HOPED I understood.  I couldn’t say for sure that I didn’t understand. 

A couple of times, I got myself into trouble with this tactic. However, rare inconveniences aside, pretending to understand helped me learn.  What I really needed was the chance to practice the language – the opportunity to use my slow-growing skills and to improve them.  Faking comprehension allowed me to participate in conversations, and over time, my “kao jai” became less of a lie. 

Now, I try to remember that my students usually know what they need more than I do;  even though I have studied teaching methods and the English language, I should trust their approach also.  I have found other ways to make sure they understand my instructions or expectations, and I try to remember what I was thinking when I was a language learner.  

Have you had an experience as a language learner that changed your perspective as a language teacher?  What methods do you use to ensure your students understand? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!

Hi, readers! My name is Misha Gingerich. I am delighted to be involved in this idea sharing space, and hope that I can provide a useful perspective. In Ontario, I have taught English for Academic Purposes to adults, focusing mainly on grammar and writing skills, and I would gladly be labelled a grammar nerd. I have also lived and worked overseas, in India and Laos. In Laos, I taught English to adults and children while also playing the role of language learner. In addition to teaching, I have spent many years working in community building. Recently, I started a new project with a fellow teacher called Extra English Practice (EEP – www.extraenglishpractice.com). We create online learning materials for students and teachers, including videos, with the goal of helping students learn while having fun.


8 thoughts on “I (Don’t) Understand!”

  1. Misha,
    Thanks for this post. Yes, I have struggled with the same thing to a greater or lesser degree over the years. Sometimes I nail it, but quite often I turn students loose on a task only to realize they did not understand the instructions. Here are some ways I’ve learned to mitigate this potential disaster.
    1 – Spot check with a few group leaders, asking, “What is it we’re about to do?” 2 – Write the instructions on the paper or on the board AND explain verbally. 3 – Model with a volunteer. 4 – Go around the room right away to see what students are doing so that they don’t get too far down the wrong path. 5 – Remind them that communication is 50% their responsibility, which includes asking me to clarify, confirming what they think they heard, and looking around to see what most of their peers have started doing.
    I’m not perfect at delivering directions yet, but I think I’m improving.

    1. Hi, Kelly. Thank you for the suggestions; those are useful techniques, I’m sure! It’s definitely a learning process for both students and teachers.

  2. Hi Misha,

    It was interesting to note that even my learners have the same strategy of nodding their heads just for me to continue my explanation of some grammar rules. Later when are asked to apply, I learn that they haven’t grasped the application. I end up giving hordes of examples which are helpful.

    1. Hi Malvinder,

      I agree that examples are often the best way to help students understand! It’s also a good point that nodding might mean “yes, continue” and not “I understand”. I think sometimes I misread my student’s body language since it can be different from what I am used to. Thanks for you reply.


  3. Hi Misha,

    I know what you’re writing about. I agree that other methods can be used to determine whether they truly understand and at the same time reveal to the students that they don’t actually understand to the extent they think they do.


    1. Hi Cindy,

      Thanks for your reply. Helping the students realize that they might be missing something when they think they’ve understood everything is definitely one of the more complex parts of the process!


  4. So true! As a Spanish student and traveller, I would relish conversations with strangers on buses in Central America just to practice. I always let on I knew exactly what was happening…which was rarely the case. I was worried my new-found conversation partner would grow tired of me if I asked too many questions to clarify. The teacher inside me cringed as I lied and said I understood. However, in many ways this was an effective strategy to get more real-world practice.

    In my lower-level classroom, I try to remind myself to pause longer than I would with L1 English speakers. Sometimes that pause gives someone the courage to ask a question. It also allows students more time to process the instructions. At the lower levels, I write instructions on the board in addition to giving them
    orally to the class…even for what I think are the easiest tasks.

    1. Thanks for telling us about your language learning experience, Julia. I bet riding the bus was a great way to practice!

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