Comprehension…it’s one of those “trust but verify” things.

On social media (where else?) some teachers recently got into a discussion about whether circling is a comprehension check. I thought that was an interesting question (“question”…see what I did there? LOL)

First, a definition, so at least you know what I’m talking about when I say “circling”. (These days, you never know.) Circling is the use of repetitive questioning focused on a single “chunk” of language (generally a sentence, sometimes a clause), presented in an unpredictable order, ideally interspersed with other CI input delivery (parallel questions, comprehension checks, recaps, etc.) that serves to provide additional meaning-to-language matches for not-yet-acquired language.

So some folks in the discussion were saying, “Well, we ask questions in real life to make sure we understand, so circling is a way to check students’ comprehension.”

I agree that *asking questions* is *a* way to check student comprehension. The problem, I think, is when questions become a substitute for a full-on comprehension check (the gold standard being, IMO, “what did I just say?”) Circling is not just asking questions. It’s asking questions intensively but subtly, providing repetition disguised among the other elements of input so that it isn’t “okay, we’re circling now” but rather an organic thing.

So circling is not a single question, and it is definitely not a comp check (or perhaps better stated, it’s not an ideal comp check). Questioning is used to get clarification when we’re not sure (in natural conversation) but that’s not circling. The purpose of circling is to provide more of that oh-so-pleasant feeling of “I GET IT!” to students which coincidentally also provides more meaning-to-language matches for the LIMITED amount of language being focused on.


IMO — and I say this all the time when I train — there is no comp check to rival “What did I just say?” You can “judge” all you want, but kids are very, very good at playing the school game and appearing to answer with everybody else, or reacting or doing an action, or whatever. Even speed of response is not a guarantee of comprehension. It’s possible to answer questions without having a clue about what they mean. Speed of response is an indicator but the “what did I say?” is the gold standard.

I’m always amazed how many ideas there are floating around out there about circling, and how many of those ideas seem to come from folks who either never got beyond the “sí, no, Juan, taco” model of circling or who never use it anyway but are convinced it’s Evil. Because, you know, they ask: Does circling have a communicative purpose? To which I reply, I dunno, is a communicative purpose required to drive acquisition? (Spoiler alert: no.)