Gauging Student Understanding With Total Response Signals

by Valentina Gonzalez

Andrea was a new immigrant. Her family had just arrived from Venezuela in January, and she was enrolled in third grade right away. She was a fluent Spanish speaker, completely capable of doing third-grade level work in Spanish. Back home, she excelled in school. On the other hand, this was her first experience with English in a classroom setting, and she was not in a bilingual program. Although Andrea’s teacher was ESL certified, he did not speak Spanish. 

During the first few weeks of school, Andrea’s teacher found it difficult to figure out what Andrea understood during instruction. She seemed lost and unsure. Andrea’s teacher often went through lessons and watched Andrea in hopes that he could see if she was following along. But it only became clear when she began to do independent work that Andrea did not understand the lesson. Through all of this, Andrea herself felt defeated, sad, and as if she lacked the ability to learn. 

Sound familiar? 

This Is a Problem 

Andrea was not my student, but I have had my own experiences (both as an ESL student and as a teacher) similar to hers. What I discovered was that the lack of immediate and timely feedback during instruction was the problem. 

Even the smallest feedback can provide information that can prompt the teacher to change the course of  instruction in order to increase learning. The power of gauging where students stand during a lesson is very important when working with English learners who are trying to learn content and develop language simultaneously. 

If we don’t stop frequently to find out how students are doing, gaps in learning will emerge and may continue to widen the longer we go without stopping to gauge understanding. 

A Solution that Closes Gaps

Total response signals can help teachers quickly and effectively engage students while also gathering formative information. This enables teachers to discover what students know (or don’t know) on the spot. Total response signals are nothing new in instructional practices; they have been around for many years, and lots of teachers are using them but may not know what they are called. Sometimes they are confused with Total Physical Response (TPR), which I wrote about here

The most effectively used total response signals are intentional and planned. But honestly, I’ve seen some pretty good ones that were on the fly, too! In the book 7 Steps to a Language Rich, Interactive Classroom, Seidlitz and Perryman write that “total response signals enable us to consistently check for student understanding” (p.30). If we know what our students know, we can certainly do a better job of guiding and facilitating their instruction. 

Think back to the example of Andrea at the beginning of this blog. Stopping occasionally during instruction to gauge her understanding would have made an impact on her teacher’s next steps, and in the end Andrea’s content and language progress might have been accelerated. In addition, knowing that her teacher cared about her instruction and whether or not she was comprehending the content might have made her feel safer. This has the added bonus of increasing her chances of learning and retaining new information. 

Total Response Signals in Face-to-Face or Virtual Classrooms

Probably one of the most common total response signals is something similar to “put your pencils down when you’re finished.” But let’s focus on a few other powerful total response signals that can not only include all students but also inform instruction and help close gaps. 

Below you’ll find a chart with total response signals for face to face or virtual classrooms. 

Type of Total Response SignalFace-to-FaceVirtual
Written ResponseStudents write their response on a sticky note, index card, or paper and hold it up when they are finishedSame, OR students write their response in the chat, on padlet,, jamboard, or
Ready ResponseStudents show they have finished a task by standing when they are ready, closing their books, or putting their pens on their papers. Same, OR students show they have finished a task by typing YES in the chat.
Making ChoicesStudents have letter cards with A,B,C,D and hold up their response when ready.The teacher provides choices A,B,C,D and students type their choices in the chat or show their response on a piece of paper. 
RankingStudents rank with their fingers 0-5 to show their understanding of or agreement with a statement. Same, OR students rank on a or 
For more examples of each type of total response signal see page 31 of 7 Steps to a Language, Rich-Interactive Classroom.

One way I’ve successfully used total response signals to catch gaps before they widen is through “Written Responses.” At the end of a lesson, I ask students to write a ticket out. Then I gather those Written Responses and divide them into three groups: Group 1: Reteach, Group 2: Review,  Group 3: Enrich. This process helps drive instruction for the next time we meet. 

I also love using “Making Choices” because it’s quick and I can do it on the spot to gauge my own instruction and determine if I need to be more specific or explicit, or reteach the material in a different way. I quickly give students a multiple choice, yes or no, or true or false question and wait to see each students’ answers as they hold them up. 

Which of these have you tried with your students in traditional classrooms? 

A. Written Responses 

B. Ready Responses 

C. Making Choices

How about virtually? I’d love to hear about what you’ve tried. Tweet your response using the hashtag #SeidlitzEdChat so we can all see and chime in on the conversation. I can’t wait to hear from you.  

And finally which of these will you try in the coming week? Just reflect on that one. And then when you do it, give me a shout out on social media or in the comments below. 


Seidlitz Education. (2019, May 05). Total Physical Response: Learning through Action! Retrieved from

Seidlitz, J., & Perryman, B. (2011). 7 steps to a language-rich interactive classroom: Research-based strategies for engaging all students. Seidlitz Education.

2 thoughts on “Gauging Student Understanding With Total Response Signals

  1. Thumbs up/thumbs down has been great in virtual learning! It can be used for Yes/No or for a two choice question (to follow up with a “why did you choose _?”) I also use thumbs up as a signal for “finished” when kids are writing/copying so they don’t interrupt with a loud “I’m done!!”, and I can just acknowledge with “thanks S I see you”.

    Thumbs up/thumbs down/shaking a flat hand like “ehhh” is also perfect for academic or social check ins, as in “how’s it going S?”


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