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How to Deal with Misunderstandings in the Classroom

ccqs comprehension instructions new to teaching reflection Mar 22, 2024

Imagine this - you’ve just finished giving instructions to an activity or teaching the meaning of a word or phrase and then it happens, your students do or say something you weren’t expecting, and you’re confused. They’ve completed the activity incorrectly or they’ve just tried to use the new word or phrase but the context is off or it doesn’t quite work. Alarm bells (albeit gentle ones) should be going off in your ears. Your student(s) misunderstood something you said. What do you do?? Well, let’s look at how to handle this situation in a constructive way.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that student misunderstandings are amazing opportunities for clarification, peer correction, and they can even lead to additional teaching. Sure, it might be a little awkward when you first realize there’s been a misunderstanding but there’s no need to fear misunderstandings during class; it’s all about how we handle them. 

Step 1: Notice there’s been a misunderstanding

Misunderstandings might look and sound like a student error, a confused face, an activity that’s been completed (or attempted) incorrectly, or it might just be regular old silence. However it manifests, when you sense there’s been some sort of confusion, don’t doubt it, lean into it. You can practice this awareness in moments when misunderstandings are most likely to happen - when an activity begins after you’ve given instructions, or after teaching a new concept. If you are on high alert for misunderstandings during these moments, they’ll be easier to spot and you won’t be caught off guard.

Step 2: Pick it apart

Wee-oooo, wee-oooo, there are those gentle alarm bells sounding - you’ve just sensed a misunderstanding. It’s time to act! Your first approach should be a concept checking question (CCQ) or instruction checking question (ICQ) depending on when the misunderstanding is taking place. If there’s some confusion about how to complete an activity, implement an ICQ. This could be asking the question “What words are you listening for in the audio?”, or “What phrases will you be using to respond to the questions?”, or even simpler, “What’s your first step?”. Depending on how students respond to these questions, you’ll be able to identify the exact breakdown in communication, and have an opportunity to clarify. 

If the misunderstanding happens with the meaning or use of a vocabulary term or grammar point, asking CCQs is your best approach. You can ask questions like “When do you use this structure?” for a verb tense or “How can you tell when a sentence uses the present perfect? What are the key elements?”. For clarifying the meaning of a word or phrase, ask questions like “What does this mean?”, or “Give me an example of when you can use this phrase”, or “Can I use this phrase in a professional setting?”, etc. The options are endless when it comes to asking clarifying questions. Don’t be shy; if misunderstandings aren’t dealt with in the moment, they can manifest as frustration and errors. 

Step 3: Identify and learn from the root cause of the misunderstanding

Reflection should be happening constantly in your classes, not just something you save for the end of the lesson. When a misunderstanding happens, and you’ve CCQ’ed your way to clarity, reflect on where the communication breakdown happened. Did you make assumptions about what your students already know? Did you not provide enough examples of the meaning of a phrase/word? Did you breeze through a new grammar point without giving ample time for practice? Did you speak too quickly? Did you not answer a student’s question clearly? Checking in and reflecting on what may have gone wrong isn’t ever about blaming yourself or making you feel bad, it’s about getting to the point where you can better anticipate where students might experience misunderstandings in the future, and planning to provide more clarity next time before it even happens. Be gentle while also critical to best take advantage of this learning opportunity. 

Step 4: Take it a step further and anticipate future misunderstandings

You might start to notice a trend that students often misunderstand your instructions. Or maybe it’s that they experience confusion after being presented with a new grammar point. Connect the dots to identify these trends and remind yourself to take your time in these areas, plan for clarity, and implement extra CCQs or ICQs for these specific moments. Next time you prepare to teach a lesson, look through your lesson plan and identify spots you think your students might get tripped up. Develop a strategy to avoid confusion. You can write a few CCQs, you can schedule a bit of time for extra examples or practice so that the concept is clear before moving on. You get to choose what strategy works best for you and your students so get creative and personalize it based on what you know about your students. Once you implement these extra steps for clarity, take note of what worked and what didn’t. 


And there you go! You’re 4 steps closer to a smooth lesson! Are you ready to put them into practice? The TEFL Lab has hundreds of ready-to-teach interactive lessons that come with teacher notes packed with guidance just like these tips. Click here to start your free trial and gain immediate access to the complete lesson curriculum and resource library!