Elicitation Vs. Guess What I am Thinking!

 On starting out, many teachers struggle with eliciting.  The first issue is that they often Screen Shot 2018-10-04 at 12.45.16believe it is quicker and more efficient just to tell learners the meaning, often regardless of the learner’s level! We push new teachers to ‘ask before tell’, and to be very wary of planning comments that start with the words: Explain, Inform or Tell. These words tend to lead to a teacher monologue with low learner engagement.

New teachers have learnt that they are supposed to elicit, to ask the learners questions, but lack the ‘how’ of it or its precise purpose.  They tend to ask learners to guess what the teacher is thinking, particularly in the area of checking meaning. Consequently, quite a lot of early elicitation is slightly random, it can be repeating what the teacher says, only tenuously connected to the topic or often it becomes ‘guess what the teacher is thinking’.

Good elicitation is checking learner knowledge of language based on a developed, meaning rich context.  The context could be developed with pictures, gestures, realia, situation, etc. However it is done, in an ideal world, it will effectively demonstrate the meaning of the target language.  The context will be so clear that even if the learners can’t answer the elicitation questions they are able to use the context to develop their understanding of the language.  An experienced teacher will also be able to utilize the context to deepen, convey and check the learner’s grasp of the language. So, with a clear context, the meaning is evident and it’s just the language the learners don’t have.

However, ‘guess what I am thinking’ sometimes amounts to a psychic test for the learners! The teacher gives so few contextual clues that learners can start randomly guessing. Then, when the teacher does give the language they have little chance at grasping the meaning or how to use it.  A simple example below:

Scenario 1 – Guess what I am thinking

Teacher:       What is a small red fruit called?

Learner:        Strawberry

Teacher:       No, it’s smaller than a strawberry

Learner:        Plum?

Teacher:       No, it’s more like a strawberry

Learner         Orange? (Now guessing wildly and probably has no idea what a raspberry is)

Teacher:       No, the word I want is ‘raspberry’.


Scenario 2 – Elicitation for meaning

Teacher:       (Holds up a picture of a raspberry).  What’s this called?

Learner:        Don’t know

Teacher:       Raspberry


In scenario 2 the class has been engaged, the teacher knows if the learners have understood the meaning, and can also assess some of the learner’s ability to pronounce the word.

Tips for lesson observers

If your teacher is eliciting by ‘guess what I am thinking’ get them to write down the key meaning elements of the target language then ensure that all these elements are incorporated into the conveyance.

Note that experienced teachers have good wait time when eliciting and are able to give learners time to formulate responses, they don’t jump in with an answer too fast.

Very skilled teachers are also able to move past the first wave material they elicit from learners and bore down, pushing for more accuracy and a better understanding of what the learner does and doesn’t understand.

The best teachers are also able to incorporate what they elicit into the next stages of the lesson, using the elicited material as a reference point rather than just to acknowledge it and move on with their own prepared commentary.

Below are suggested commentary notes that can be adapted and used in written and oral feedback on the topic of elicitation.

Suggested Commentary Notes 

Positive comments Areas for development
It’s great to see you tie what you elicit to the next stage, which gives meaning and purpose to the elicitation. Your learners see that what they say has value and they have been heard which is very motivating You elicited the different language well but then needed to do something with the words in order to create a purpose for the elicitation.
Its good to see you eliciting target language meaning, which is much more efficient than asking: What does X mean? Work from meaning to the word rather than asking questions like ‘What is a plaster?’  Remember that to answer this type of question is difficult and doesn’t give the teacher very accurate information about the learner’s actual knowledge of the language.
Well done for establishing such a clear context from which you could elicit so much from and keep learners engaged. Create meaning rich contexts so that it is easier to elicit the target language. If learners don’t know the language you can use the context to convey the meaning.  It moves the activity from ‘guess what the teacher is thinking’ to being an effective assessment tool.
You were right to ignore the first wave of material you elicited and bore down for the sketchier knowledge, the place where the learners are less fluent and need input. Try to filter what you elicit more.  Learners tend to give the easy, well-known stuff first. Acknowledge the contributions but then bore down and challenge them so you can expand what they already know.
You have great wait time, which allows students the time they need to formulate language and respond to your questions. Try to increase your wait time to give learners much needed time to formulate their responses. Remember that at this level it is very hard to produce immediate responses to anything.



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