Every teacher intuitively knows the importance of student comprehension of instruction. Without comprehension, there is no learning.

It is our duty and charge as teachers to make sure that our students are able to grasp what we are teaching, be it the sounds of the letters, the meaning of the text they are reading, a discussion on an important event in history, a science experiment, or any other concept or skill students are expected to learn.

Teachers have learned through the ages how to make the content they are teaching clear to students. Hands-on activities, alternative explanations, using different materials, using pictures and gestures have all been employed to increase student understanding. These techniques are tried and true and are helpful to students.

When teachers have the added challenge of working with students at varying English proficiency levels, they must find ways to lower the linguistic demand of the content, while keeping the academic rigor in place. Several key concepts and techniques can be used to help English learners comprehend to a greater degree in any classroom.

Background Knowledge

The importance of linking to students' background is well documented. The more students already know about the topic at hand, the higher their comprehension and achievement will be.

When working with English learners, it is important to recognize that their background knowledge may differ significantly from other students, and their background knowledge may not match that of the culture for which text was written. Their world view, prior schooling, cultural views and customs may be different, but can still serve as a link to comprehending new material.

Teachers can ask students questions about their prior experiences, assess learning on a topic and provide examples of how the information relates to cultural norms or traditions.

Nonlinguistic Representations

Teachers have long employed posters, pictures and gestures to help students learn. By utilizing visuals consistently, teachers can help students quickly comprehend an idea or concept.

Numerous tools can be used to find high-quality visual images. Internet search engines provide a fast and large quantity of visuals related to a concept, vocabulary word or topic. These visuals need not always be printed out; simply projecting them while discussing the topic with students can be of great use.

Magazines such as National Geographic, outdated calendars and reference books can also serve as a wonderful resource for finding visuals. Consider cutting out high-quality visuals and laminating them. Students can then use the visuals as writing prompts or sort pictures in a variety of ways. Teachers can use the visuals to highlight concepts.

Students can also aid in finding visuals: hand students a stack of magazines, give them the topic or concept word, and have them find pictures that go with the topic. This can provide students with a higher-level thinking activity as they justify how the pictures they chose relate to the concept or topic at hand.

Gestures are another powerful way to help students comprehend and recall concepts or vocabulary. Movement and kinesthetic activities tap into another learning modality that helps students learn.

Demonstrate to students a movement that relates to the concept, and have the students mimic the movement themselves. This can be done as a class or in small groups. After demonstrating a gesture, discuss with students your thinking as you created the gesture. Students can later develop their own gestures to demonstrate words or concepts, share them with the class, and the class can vote on which they would like to use consistently.

Realia, or real objects, are another helpful tool. Bringing in examples of objects that relate to the concepts or topics increases comprehension while lowering the linguistic demand on students. Of course, it is not always possible to bring real objects to the classroom; in these cases, utilize pictures as a great alternative.

Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary knowledge has a high impact on students’ comprehension and achievement. Clearly, students cannot understand what they read without knowing what most of the words mean. William Nagy states, "Of the many benefits of having a large vocabulary, none is more valuable than the positive contribution that vocabulary size makes to reading comprehension.”

Time spent teaching vocabulary is well worth the investment and is highly effective. In addition to directly teaching words, Michael Graves asserts that teaching word learning strategies such as analyzing affixes and root words to determine word meaning is critical, as is developing word consciousness.

Vocabulary instruction should be a daily part of your instruction. English learners and word-impoverished students will especially benefit from a high emphasis on vocabulary. Some of these students may need instruction in words that are known by other students in the class.

Echevarria, Short, and Vogt recommend that teachers focus on “Content Vocabulary — Subject Specific and Technical Terms; General Academic Vocabulary — Cross-Curricular Terms/Process & Function; and Word Parts: Roots and Affixes.” To increase comprehensibility, be sure to continually assess students on their vocabulary knowledge and teach vocabulary consistently.

Student Discussion Opportunities

At times, despite our best intentions and tireless efforts, students do not understand what we are trying to communicate to them. When we allow students the opportunity to talk with one another, comprehensibility can increase as students can clarify key concepts and topics with each other.

Peer learning has proven effective with English learners as well as with other groups of students. When students discuss, explain or talk through a concept, it can become clearer to them as they learn from peers.

Provide opportunities for students to talk to each other on a consistent basis. Consider using the 10-and-2 rule; for every 10 minutes of instruction, allow students two minutes to process the information with a peer. These numbers are not hard and fast; rather they give a guideline of providing students with a chunk of information, then allowing them to process it in some way, be it orally with a peer, or in writing.


One powerful tool a teacher can employ to ensure comprehension is to consistently check for student understanding. Teachers can listen in to student discussions during interaction opportunities, provide quick assessments such as anticipation guides or short written responses, and incorporate questioning strategies and other assessment techniques to determine if students understand.

At times, student misbehavior can be a symptom of not understanding the concepts being presented. Provide opportunities for students to practice the material often, check in with individuals and small groups to determine if they are comprehending the instruction, and adjust as needed.

Teachers have long used the phrase “monitor and adjust” to discuss the importance of assessment and spot checking. Keep this fresh in your mind during instruction to ensure that students comprehend the instruction.