A is for Authenticity

21 02 2010

The internet never forgets! Curious how something that you wrote years ago can come back to haunt you.  In the latest issue of Applied Linguistics (December 2009) Alan Waters, of Lancaster University, takes me to task over something I wrote on a discussion list in 2004 (!).  Talking about ways of checking learners’ comprehension, this is what I said:

“Do you understand?”  is the most direct and honest way we check understanding in real life, so — if the same conditions of authenticity and sincerity are operating in the classroom (which I argue they should be) — then it may make a lot of sense if, when in doubt, teachers simply stop and ask, hand on heart, “Do you understand?”.  The reasons such direct questions were proscribed in the past is that the classroom was never considered to be a place where communication could be authentic, hence students were not trusted to give honest answers, especially when questions were motivated by fear rather than a sincere desire to register the current state of your interlocutor’s understanding.

Waters goes on to comment: “Unfortunately, such reasoning fails to take into account the typical psychology of classroom relations.  It assumes that simply because the teacher asks a group of students to do so, they will automatically begin to operate on the basis of trust and openness.  But as Prabhu (1992), Allwright (1996), and Allwright (1998) show, lessons are made up of complex patterns of interpersonal dynamics, causing learners to frequently behave in ‘dishonest’ and distrustful ways….  From the pedagogical point of view, therefore, it will usually make greater sense to check understanding via questions which ask students to display their knowledge directly, however ‘inauthentic’ in terms of everyday language use. “

Do I recant?  Not really.  Of course, I am well aware that there are many different ways of checking understanding and that a competent teacher should be able to deploy these as required.  At the same time, I believe that, as teachers, we should always be aiming to create a classroom dynamic where to ask the question “Do you understand?” need not — indeed, should not — elicit a dishonest and distrustful response. In short, I believe authenticity — that is to say classroom language that reflects “real-life” language use – is achievable in the language classroom, and, that, as teachers of language use, and as educators, such authenticity should be our goal.

Am I mistaken?

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33 responses

21 02 2010
mark andrews

I don’t think you are mistaken Scott. Trying to create the conditions where students can openly talk about learning, how they might learn better and to share this with others in a classroom, both to build trust and learn English at the same time is, I think, an aim worth pursuing.

My friend at Leicester University, Simon Gieve, who I did my MA with in Lancaster talks about how learners might become good learning partners for each other and what we can do to try to make this happen. It involves everybody in the class thinking about how they can do their bit to create more learning opportunities for everybody else and how to get learners to think more about their role as learners in the classroom.

As educators I think this is something worth pursuing and in the end it is about whether we believe that learners can take learning seriously. This is the third of Dick Allwright and Judith Hanks’ 5 propositions about learners:

“If learners are key practitioners, then we must take them seriously, as serious people…..A good many experienced language professionals consider that the learners they know are really not serious about learning……But experience also tells us that people tend to conform to what others expect of them, and expectations can work positively as well as negatively……….So it may help to TREAT learners as being capable of taking learning seriously, even if their behaviour suggests otherwise (The Developing Language Learner: Allwright and Hanks 2009)”

In the end, isn’t it about whether we have more positive views about what can be achieved by teaching, people and life in general and what can be achieved or whether we remain more cynical and try to develop strategies to manage the cynicism that we contribute to ourselves and encourage in our students by our own behaviour as more pessimistic teachers?

21 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Brilliant, Mark! Not only for vindicating my own position, but also for enlisting Allwright (and co.) to do so: I found it curious that Waters should have cited Allwright in order to refute the point I was making (which is about trust, in the end) which in turn seemed very Allwright-ian!

Yes, if we treat learners as if they were capable of taking learning seriously -including being capable of honestly reporting their present state of understanding – then perhaps they will. There is something slightly defeatist – and ultimately de-humanising – in the view that classroom exchanges are inherently untrustworthy.

In fact, in reflection, maybe I should have titled this post T is for Trust – which is what – in the end – it is all about. For Paulo Freire, too, the notion of trust was central to the concept of a dialogic pedagogy: “Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence” (Education for Critical Consciousness, p. 72).

Thanks, again, for pointing me in these directions, Mark.

26 02 2010
Patrick Jackson

“Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence”

Wish I’d known that fifteen years ago. I was being interviewed for a job I really wanted. The headmaster asked me what was the most important thing (in education) and I said ‘Trust’. When asked to elaborate on this I couldn’t. Just couldn’t. Bombed. Spectacularly. Spluttered. Gibbered.

After that poor start the conversation moved on to my interests. ‘Art’, I said. ‘So, which Japanese artists do you like?’ asks the Head. ‘Hakusai’ says I, completely oblivious to the fact that that means ‘spinach’ in Japanese. Ah, well.

21 02 2010

This is an interesting point. I was taught to ask check questions during my training, and I’ve developed a personal style of being a bit dim sometimes in class which forces the learner to convince me with repetition.

I think that with higher level learners the direct question is a fair approach and even with seasoned businessmen I can usually tell before I ask when a no is coming.

There are two areas where I’m not sure that the direct question is a good idea. Adult beginners are well aware fo the huge gap between their L1 communication and the L2 communication. I can imagine (though I have no proof) that there is an embarrassment factor in play here and the pressure not to be seen as even more lacking in skills could lead to a “white lie”. I’ve often felt this in corporate teaching where the learners know, and are sometimes in competition with, each other.

The second problem zone is teaching in secondary schools. The pressure to please the teacher as well as peer pressure could well result in false positives.

From the quotation above, it doesn’t seem as if you are advocating the exclusive use of the direct question. If that is the case then this is a typical example of an academic hunting around for a quotation which allows them to prove how many journals he or she has read. Equally, academics should be aware that respondents often give less than truthful answers to people conducting academic studies. I’m sure there are more than a few journal articles on that as well!

I’ll try a few more direct questions this week and see what happens.

21 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Olaf – and I totally agree that learners may not always know if they understand ( a bit like Donald Rumsfield’s ‘known unknowns’ vs ‘unknown knowns’ etc etc!), and I’m the first to recommend that teachers acquire a battery of comprehension checking techniques that they can use, in conjunction with Do you understand? But if I was a student, I would like to be asked that question myself from time to time, so that I could answer, honestly, I think so, but you’d better make sure! In other words, I hope to treat my students as I would like to be treated – as a sentient human being capable of monitoring my own comprehension!

Related questions that I would like to see rehabilitated are: How much did you understand? What didn’t you understand? Are there any words you don’t understand (and would like to)? Even if you didn’t understand it all, are you happy to move on? etc etc.

21 02 2010

I’ll adopt the strategy for the next week and see if can detect any different reactions in the kids.

What’s interesting is I have a technology class where all of the questions you suggest are standard. I’m starting to wonder why I haven’t been using them in English.

21 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Go for it, Olaf – and please report back! I might add that the question itself (Do you understand?) is of less significance than the way that you respond to their answer!

21 02 2010
Karenne Sylvester

I agree too.

Funnily enough, this came up in a lesson this week and I had taken a bit of pause after doing it.

The task I’d given them was fairly complex and involved a relatively high level of faffology (they’re making a video of false friends and this was step 1 where one of them is responsible for checking for the English-English meanings of the words that are often confused in German within a GoogleDoc spreadsheet and the other 8 are grabbing non-copyrighted pictures for the vocabulary slides to feed into the video, hopefully…blah,blah)… and though the steps were on the board, I turned around and said

“Do you understand?”

To which, of course, I got back yes.

I sat down.

And then the guilts set in, did they understand, were they being honest – do I leave them to it? (I’m trying to build autonomy so I make a point of not hovering over their computers…)

Do I go check..?

I didn’t move.

Oh, no – I can’t take this… what if they spend the next 45 minutes doing completely the wrong thing…

I got up.

I sat back down.

I got up walked to the back of the room and sneaked a peak – looked fine… breathe in, breathe out.

Yes, T for Trust would have made a good title for this posting – that’s really what it’s about, isn’t it? or perhaps even C for Control. ;-)


21 02 2010

Three cheers for this post. I have always found it a bit tiring the teacher trainer “wisdom” that says questions like Do you understand should be prohibited. I agree with you 100% that it is a natural way of checking. I see where the detractors are coming from but the prescription AGAINST using it always felt a bit condescending to learners. I think there is a whole paragraph devoted to it in Implementing the Lexical Approach in fact.

By all means use other means at times to check understanding, but ignoring this is a bit like saying “Never ask someone How are you because they will always answer FINE even if they’re not”.

21 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Lindsay -the analogy with How are you? is spot on!
I was intrigued by your reference to Lewis’ Implementing the Lexical Approach, and combed through it, trying to find the reference – but failed. Could it have been somewhere else?

22 02 2010

Mm. Maybe it wasn’t that book then but it WAS an LTP book, and the style (I think) was Michael Lewis’. Could it have been Practical Techniques for Language Teaching? It was not in my personal library, I remember it from a teacher training course I gave in Barcelona.

21 02 2010

Caring enough is important in this debate. By which I mean students caring enough. If they don’t, even though they may trust you and their classmates, they may just go for the easy option and tell you that they understand when they know they don’t.

I’ve been keenly aware of that happening after dragging students through tedious, teacher-imposed readings. The students just want to move on: they don’t care about what they don’t understand and they certainly aren’t going to tell you about it if that means that it’ll take longer to change to a different, and hopefully more interesting, activity.

21 02 2010
Darren Elliott

I’ll say that you are right to a point, Scott… I absolutely agree with the idea that a classroom should be a place of trust in which all are free to express themselves honestly without fear or embarrassment. In which case, ‘Do you understand?’ should be one of the questions it is perfectly acceptable to ask or answer. But, as has been mentioned, my worry about the question is not about the dishonest answer – rather the honest but incorrect one. Of course, ‘teacher radar’ like (Karenne’s) will tingle in such circumstances, and some kind of rectification will take place. In which case – why bother asking or checking orally at all? Just a thought…..

22 02 2010
Linda Aragoni

The problem with the question “do you understand?” is that the person asked may think s/he understands until s/he has to apply the information. In working on a web page, for example, I often think I understand the directions until I start to make the page. Then I find I didn’t understand as well as I thought I did. I got some of the information, but not all I needed.

I don’t think I’m the only person in the world who has that experience. That’s one reason I like to give students informal writing that requires them to restate or apply a concept. They see and I see what they didn’t understand while there’s plenty of time to reteach.

I find the informal writing particularly useful when teaching grammar where many terms that look like everyday words are used with specialized meanings. I find many college students totally misunderstand rules they memorized in third grade because they didn’t know that a term in the rule has a specialized meaning in grammar.

22 02 2010
Sara Hannam

Not much to say that hasn’t already been said by these great responses above and your (totally correct IMHO) response to Water’s article. I totally agree that we should treat learners as we wish to be treated – as serious individuals worthy of our respect. I think the key here is trust and how you see yourself in relation to your learners. Getting into the whole thing of second guessing what students might *not* be saying to the teacher (or vice versa) seems to me to characterise a classroom where there is high levels of power and hierarchy in circulation i.e. saying “no” to the question will elicit a kind of judgment and/or that students are trying to hide things.

It also describes a world/classroom where collaboration is unlikely or perhaps thought impossible? In my experience providing that the conditions are relaxed and open (and enough time has been invested in ensuring those relationships) it seems like a direct question is the quickest way to ascertain a direct answer and can always be followed up with the offer to consult you privately after the lesson if some students might lack the confidence to speak out (you can often ‘see’ the answer from facial expressions as well as direct responses) to help guide you in this.

I feel that some methodology seems to take the view that the teacher knows the student better than the student knows themselves which I find incredibly disempowering and never liked as a learner. By asking the question in the way you would anyone in any situation (beyond learning) which basically means “did you get that or do you want me to help?”, it seems to place the agency to decide on the course of action with the student. So I think the original contribution you made still stands personally and would be completely at home in any classroom of mine.

Regarding the previous posting by Linda, that’s a good point. Presumably when asking the question, the T would be referring to that particular point in time, not ruling out further confusion at other points in the process! Perhaps by asking this question regularly, it becomes clearer what help is actually needed. And in the best case scenario to get students themselves to say “I didn’t understand that, can you help me?” without the T having to ask at all eventually as asking for help is a positive step in the classroom ecology.

22 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Sara – your post underscores the fact that there are different ways of both asking and interpreting Do you understand?, depending on the kind of dynamic that has been established in the classroom – everthing from:

Do you understand? (= I dare you NOT to!)
Do you understand? (= This is not easy, I know)
Do you understand? (= Did you get that or do you want me to help?)

Likewise, in the event of the student answering Yes, the teacher’s follow-up move could be any of the following:

Are you REALLY sure?
Ok [smiling] prove it!

22 02 2010
Nick Jaworski

I’m a big advocate of fostering trust in the class and treating students like equals, however the habit of not asking “Do you understand?” has been pretty ingrained and I don’t see myself changing too soon:P.

I’m not sure I see it as assuming distrust. I always thought it was more about saving face. Nobody wants to say no and I have observed quite a few classes where the teacher does ask this and you see that student with the eyes darting back and forth wondering if anyone else is as lost as they are. They remain silent and the teacher moves on.

Avoiding the question can avoid embarrassment and feelings of inadequacy. No one likes to say no. Instead, I usually ask, “Do you have any questions?” This doesn’t imply as directly that if you say no you may not be as good as the other students. We always ask questions in class and I feel it’s pretty safe.

I really do like the additional questions you added like ‘what didn’t you understand’ and ‘what would you like to have understood.’ These are often questions I ask in private feedback sessions or anonymous paper ones. Again, I feel it’s a bit safer for the students in terms of face.

23 02 2010

Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t recall ever having been FORBIDDEN to ask students if they understood. I do recall having been told that it was not an effective method of comprehension checking as students might think they have understood when in fact they haven’t or might have fallen back on (erroneous) prior experience to understand what is being asked of them. From this perspective, I think any injunction on its use is reasonably understandable. It’s based less on an air of mistrust and top-down management and more on the recognition that an instruction is likely to be interpreted in as many different ways as there are people in the classroom!

23 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Diarmuid. I think what often happens on training courses (especially preservice ones) is that recommendations are interpreted as proscriptions: one shouldn’t transmutes into I mustn’t in the mind of the trainee desperate to avoid incurring the wrath of the Sphinx-like but occasionally volatile trainer.

Out of curiosity, I checked what the methodologists have to say. Here is the eminently sensible Penny Ur:

When you have finished explaining, check with your class that they have understood. It’s not enough just to ask ‘Do you understand?'; learners will sometimes say they did even if they in fact did not, out of politeness or unwillingness to lose face, or because they think they know what they have to do, but have in fact completely misunderstood! It is better to ask them to do something that will show their understanding: to paraphrase in their own words, or provide further illustrations of their own.

(Ur, P. 1991. A Course in Language Teaching. CUP, p. 17)

Sound advice, as I say. (Although isn’t it a teeny-weeny bit patronising? Re-jig the above as advice for a colonial administrator in 19th-century Africa, substituting subjects for class and natives for learners, and you may see what I mean! Is there no other (= better) way of construing the teacher-learner relationship?)

23 02 2010

A “tad” patronising, there’s no doubt! And this patronising is not unexpected (or unecnountered) when looking at how an expert gives advice to a novice. Can one be inadvertently patrionising? Does intent have to be there for something to be patronising? Or is patronising in the ears of the beholders? And is the trainer to blame if “you shouldn’t” transmogrifies into “I mustn’t” or is the issue really a sociocultural one that may have to be addressed right at the roots? If a teacher trainer construes the relationship in any other way, will the teacher trainee be able to shrug off their socicultural shackles?

All of which takes us off topic and I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing. I will sit back and find out, I guess.

23 02 2010
Anita Kwiatkowska

Great post! Gave me a lot of food for thought!

At the very beginning of my teaching career I used ‘Do you understand’ pretty often. Students always said yes, but sometimes they obviously didn’t.
Later, I was taught that CCQs are a better option i.e. more effective but students (and me) found this technique tiring.

What I do now teaching Young Learners is a) make sure they understand that they came to school to learn and ask questions b) tell them over and over again that it’s not nice to laugh at friends who don’t understand c) ask ‘Who understood?’ and ‘Who didn’t understand?’ which results in students’ raising their hands.
There are always some who don’t understand and my first step is to make them ask their friends for clarification.

So far it seems to be working :)

23 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Anita, thanks for posting that.

You have captured (much better than I have been able to) the kind of contractual ‘trust’ that the teacher needs to establish – not through imposing rules, but by simply being reasonable. I particularly love the bit about “making them ask their friends for clarification”. Brilliant.

23 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Ok, smarty, how’s this (from an alternative teachers manual):

Your job is to work with the learners to create the optimal conditions for language use, since use is learning, and learning use (until the end of time, sayeth the preacher). Monitor the speech that emerges in this optimal environment, playing close attention to the interaction between learners, and between them and yourself. Where communication seems compromised, either because the speaker is literally lost for words, or because the listener can’t understand, or has misunderstood, what the speaker says, intervene. Replay the exchange, supplying language items as needed, and monitoring understanding carefully (by asking, for example, Did you understand?). Make a note of your interventions for future reference. You can use this technique for teaching pre-selected grammar items, you know. Simply set up a situation where the grammar item would be likely to occur (if in doubt, check some data). Intervene if the targeted item fails to occur where it should. Teach it. Monitor understanding (by asking Did you get that? or by any other of the wonderful means available that Alan Waters told you about it in his session). Replay, review. You are now a teacher. The respect you have earned means that your students will trust you and answer your questions honestly, even Do you understand?

End of lesson. ;-)

23 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

PS My last response was directed at Diarmuid but while I was writing it Anita posted! Hence, things are a bit out of order, and it is Diarmuid whom I was addressing insolently, not Anita, of course!

24 02 2010

“Of course”, it would be me who gets the insolence. I didn’t come here for the backchat you know…

I actually like the new patronising-lite version of the teachers’ manual (with the sole exception of the word “literally”). Perhaps the wording could be a bit tighter – you wouldn’t want the teacher to think that it is her job and hers alone “to create the optimal conditions”; nor would you want her to jump in too quickly when “communication seems compromised”.

Oh. And I’m not sure that the words “wonderful”, “Alan” and “Waters” should necessarily be used in the same sentence.

26 02 2010

Adam: ‘Do you understand?’

Student: ‘Yes.’

Adam: ‘Great, then explain it to me because I’m following the teacher’s manual which seems to have been cobbled together by the group of monkeys with typewriters, while on a break from trying to write the complete works of Shakespeare.’

26 02 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Heh, heh, I thought they were mathematicians.

2 03 2010

Great topic!!

This was one thing I found SO excruciating on my initial training course.


Teacher: Now please look at the pictures and talk about the differences


Teacher: Now, Jenny, what do you have to do?


Why not instead build a human relationship including acknowledging your own mistakes then students are more inclined to answer honestly to do you understand. Or why is it really so terrible to give instructions (as clearly as possible) ask do you understand or OK? then have them do the task and heaven forbid have some people get it wrong!!!!! Then you just support them individually. I mean in the real world – when I ask my husband or son to do something there are many occasions where they start doing something quite different to what I asked!

It seems this fear of do you understand and heaven forbid students not understanding and getting it wrong – has a strong audio-linguisitc after-taste!!!

3 03 2010

This old chestnut ranks up there with asking students “What does X mean?” as question most likely to make pre-service course teacher-trainers blow a gasket! I’ve been scribbling a bit on this topic recently and will post it sometime soon if you pop over to my blog in a day or two. Apart from occasionally being proven wrong at some point (which will occur whether or not such a question gets asked, because learners are constantly forming uncountable unspoken hypotheses about language and other things during lessons which teachers cannot hope to check) what harm can come of it for either teachers or learners?

However, trust notwithstanding, some would say that the classroom (and, by extension, the interactions and relationships which play out within it) cannot operate in precisely the same way as they might outside the classroom simply because they are occurring within a classroom context, with its own ecology and conventions, all of which is co-constructed by the combined prior knowledge of those involved. A teacher may want to establish different “rules of engagement”, but may be looked on as someone who decides to try to turn a game of Football into Bridge when everyone else is happy with the game how it was, ta very much. This being so, they would argue, why try to change things like power dynamics just out of a sense of socio-cultural guilt?

Light blue touchpaper, stand well back…

7 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Footnote on the topic of authenticity, with an interesting reference:

In The Courage to Teach (1998), Palmer explores how professional teachers can include their identity in their work; and the benefits of doing so. He argues that ‘good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher’ (1998: 10). Palmer indicates that in order to achieve integrity in the work it is necessary to bring self to it. Weaving identity into teaching involves the importance of remembering and acknowledging why the work was personally attractive in the first place. Keeping this at the forefront and linking it with the authenticity of care, may provide a foundation from which an authentic relationship can grow.

Smith, H. (2002) ‘Seeking out the gift of authenticity’, Youth and Policy 77, pp. 19-32. Also available as an article in the encyclopedia of informal education, http://www.infed.org/biblio/authenticity.htm.

1 07 2011
Alan Waters

Sorry to have come rather late to this discussion! Much of the argument so far seems to have revolved around the assumptions that i) ‘trust’ is important in ‘real-life’, and ii) this should therefore also be the case in the language teaching classroom.

I would agree with both of these views, but to my mind it depends what we understand by ‘trust’ in this respect. ‘Trust’ in professional encounters outside the classroom resides largely in feeling confident that whoever you are engaged with has the necessary understanding of and competence to deal with your needs. In other words, we trust, e.g., the doctor, because the diagnosis s/he makes appears to take into account our own understanding of our illness, and the remedy being proposed appears to have a reasonable prospect of being effective; and so on.

Therefore, for this sort of trust to also operate in the classroom, the learners have to feel that the teacher has ‘the necessary understanding of and competence to deal with [their] needs’. One small but important part of establishing this kind of trust is showing that you know how to really check whether or not a learning point has been properly understood, since this is one of the matters that learners will expect teachers to pay attention to and be able to deal with effectively. Conversely, behaving in a way that appears to show ignorance of or disrespect for this kind of expectation is likely to lead to mistrust.

Also, in relation to some of the other threads in the postings, what can therefore be regarded as truly ‘patronising’ is to fail to take into account learners’ accustomed perceptions of this kind about how trustworthiness can be established, not only in classroom learning but in terms of other kinds of professional encounters as well. And isn’t this kind of attitude also what being ‘colonial’ is really about?

Light even bigger blue touch-paper and retire…

1 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Alan, for coming in on this discussion, which, although dormant, somewhat serendipitously chimes with the current conversation about elicitation. Both connect to a more fundamental issue, which Anthony raised above, as to whether the classroom has “its own ecology and conventions, all of which is [are?] co-constructed by the combined prior knowledge of those involved”. Or whether the classroom (and particularly the language classroom) shares some, many or all of the features of ‘natually occurring’ talk, where IRF exchanges and concept checking questions would seem odd, even delinquent.

I accept that many learners (not to mention teachers) come to classrooms with expectations that certain discourse conventions apply. And that it would indeed by ‘colonial’ to ride rough-shod over these expectations. But some of these expectations might include discourse moves that are now generally considered inimicable to a positive learning environment, like raising one’s hand to answer a question, or calling the teacher ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’, or not speaking through fear of making a mistake. Most teachers would not consider it inappropriate to (gently) re-educate learners into other modes of interaction. (A student in my MA class called me Professor yesterday, and I quickly – but kindly, I hope – ‘corrected’ him). Convention, of itself, doesn’t validate certain behaviours, whether in the classroom or without.

1 07 2011
Alan Waters

Dear Scott

Thanks, and yes, very much agree with this! Am now also intrigued to have a look at the elicitation conversation…


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