Tag Archives: Instruction Checking


18 Jun

So… apparently movies in the Marvel ‘Cinematic Universe’ have grossed over $3,400,745,593 dollars. That’s 3.4 b-b-b-billion for 11 movies with a whole slate of follow-up on-screen bombast en route to complete their cinematic world subjugation. Not too shabby eh?

I’d argue though that the studio masterminds have left money on the table by overlooking a key figure in their comic book source material, the 1980’s anti-hero Taskmaster!!! Intent on “[training] a large number of thugs at criminal academies”, Taskmaster was a superhero and a teacher! True, he never went much into humanistic language pedagogy, but not all super teachers can start pseudo-scientific Hungarian cults.


I’ll admit, I’d never heard of Taskmaster until I googled the word a few minutes ago, but I can relate to the idea of a task-setting obsessive. It definitely doesn’t get into any of the deeper truths about language learning, but it still amazes me that the success of a lesson can hinge on whether learners have actually understood the tasks. That’s probably why a few years ago one of my first posts ever was about ICQs, and somehow, that post still gets more hits than almost any other (which doesn’t say much for my improvement as a writer!). Back then, I was railing against pointless instruction checking questions, and a few dozen CELTA courses later I’m still not a huge fan.

A few months ago though I decided to dig a bit deeper and see what actually does work in terms of helping students to come to grips with activities. Here, the concept of ‘instructional scaffolding’ was helpful, covering all kinds of support structures like checking questions, visual support, examples and demonstrations, gestures, etc. (Applebee and Langer, 1983).

With the kind permission of my Celtees, I made a note of every instruction given, the type of scaffolding used, and whether or not teacher intervention and repair was then needed. I even recorded a few samples for good measure. Four weeks, a bunch of pretty graphs, and one excessively long paper later, I came to a couple of simple conclusions:

1)  Instructional scaffolding works:

Pretty ground-breaking stuff, I know. Basically, looking at both the numbers and transcripts, it seems that no matter how you do it, providing some kind of support for instructions leads to better comprehension. This was true even when taking into consideration the type of task and the quality of the scaffolding, e.g. clear, unchecked instructions vs. garbled, checked instructions. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this!

Types of scaffolding used and subsequent repair


Between the three most common support types, there was not much difference in either usage or apparent effectiveness in comparison to when there was no support.  However, these stats are a bit misleading as Visual support was never used in isolation.

2)  Combinations of instructional scaffolds work best

More importantly in terms of being able to help my trainees, there was pretty compelling evidence that combinations of instructional scaffolds are more likely to ensure task comprehension than any instructional scaffold used in isolation. Although just asking ICQs or doing a demo worked some of the time, when used in combinations there was a massive improvement in task understanding. In fact, although it might seem excessive, when there was a demo or example, an ICQ, and some sort of visual, the learners understood 100% of the time on the course, no matter which of the eight trainees was teaching. At the other end of the spectrum, one or no scaffolds led to repair between 70% and 100% of the time.

Combinations of Scaffolds Used and Subsequent Repair


Of course, all the usual caveats apply – specific context, small sample, only one course, etc. Still, it was interesting to put intuition to the test and to gain a little evidence that may help future teachers trying to effectively set tasks.

Like with past blog posts about projects of little interest to all but a strange few, feel free to contact me for the complete paper full of thrilling facts, methodology, and figures. As well, if anyone has had a different experience in their teaching/training context, it would be great to hear about it as there are a lot of questions still to answer – does it make a difference if they are new or experienced teachers? The length of time the teacher has had the group? The cultural context?

More importantly, when will Taskmaster be coming to a theatre near me?


Applebee, A. and J. Langer. 1983. ‘Instructional scaffolding: Reading and writing as natural language activities’. Language Arts, 60/2.

Richards, J.C. and T. Rodgers.  2001.  Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Here’s a blog post about task checking.

26 Jul

Now are you going to read this blog post or lick the screen?

If you’re anything like me, I doubt you bothered to deign this question with an answer.  And yet, this is exactly the type of task check/instruction check question (ICQ) that I often hear when observing teachers.  Some of my other all-time favourites include:

Are you going to listen alone or in pairs?

Now I want you to tell your partner about your weekend.  Are you going to speak?

Please listen and fill in the gaps.  Where are you going to write your answers?

And of course, the classic:

Do you understand?

The list goes on…

So why does this happen?  Most of the teachers I observe are intelligent, capable educators with good people skills, and yet they often admittedly have serious issues when checking tasks.  Having spoken to many new and experienced teachers, it seems that they frequently feel that they have only two options:

1) Ask obvious ICQs, feel silly, patronize the students

2) Don’t ask ICQs, hope for the best

Everyone I’ve spoken to also seems to agree that making sure students understand the instructions is important, especially at lower levels where there is more chance of a communication breakdown.  So I thought maybe I’d look at a few viable options that have worked for me, to help clarify my own thoughts on the topic, and maybe help out anyone else having similar issues.

When is instruction checking appropriate?

First it is important to recognize that obsessive instruction checking is a real teaching disorder.  Luckily there is a simple remedy: remember that your students are intelligent adults.  If something is patently obvious even without spoken instructions, there is no need to check it!  After all, it is the language the learners have trouble with, not simple concepts like what to do with a gap-fill or which skill involves using a pencil.

On the other hand, some tasks are more complicated and might require an ICQ if they include

  • multiple stages
  • different roles for different students
  • necessarily tricky language in the instructions
  • things that it is critical that students do/don’t do (e.g. not look at each other’s paper during and info gap activity)

Regularly, it is possible to anticipate when ICQs are likely to be needed during the planning stage, assuming you’re into planning activities beforehand.  And of course, if after giving instructions a sea of puzzled faces are staring up at you, it might not be a bad idea either!

What are some alternatives to ICQs?

Naturally, ICQs should not be thought of as the only, or even the most effective way to make sure learners understand a task.  In fact, the majority of the time, I feel the following typical ways of checking understanding are just as valid and often more comfortable for the teacher and learners:

1)   Do the first question/activity/example as a class

2)   Get students to demonstrate the activity (possibly with teacher guidance)

3)   Elicit the instructions from the students

After all, if the learners can show you or tell you what they need to do, chances are they understand!  Also, don’t worry if not everyone understands absolutely everything – it might just be that they weren’t paying attention.  Usually a little monitoring after setting the task can take care of the rest.

One more thought…

Sometimes it does seem to me that a more hard-line approach to checking everything is preached on teacher training courses.  While it may work for some, it also appears that many other teachers are turned off from the practice of ICQs altogether.  Maybe with a bit more reflection about when and where to ask ICQs in the first place, more teachers could find a comfortable balance between the linguistic needs of the students as language learners and the affective needs of the students (and teacher!) as people.

Do you know what I mean? Ok? Is that clear?  Innit?  Get my drift? Know what I’m sayin?  Right?