Teacher: “What don’t you understand about the word no?”

Student: “I don’t know.”

Understanding goes beyond just having a sense of what is going on; the student knows in a deeper way-a way that enables him or her to explain and elaborate on the idea, concept, or skill under study. To make sense, to make meaning, is implied when a student understands and comprehends.

Understanding is that foundational level of thinking that opens the doorway for more analysis, evaluation, scrutiny, and critical thinking about the topic. First, the student must grasp the meaning, getting the gist of what is there; then he or she can make determinations that are more sophisticated. With a basic understanding, students can compare and contrast, categorize, prioritize, predict, infer, and generalize.

In language arts, teachers want students to read an informational text or a fictional story with a sharp mind, identifying parts such as characters, events, symbols, and important scenes; examining characters’ words and actions; finding the connections among the parts, words, and actions; and then communicating the ideas they have developed.

In math, teachers want to know how students have solved problems, why they reasoned in a certain way, and why that way ended in a logically defensible solution. Thus, understand, implies a deeper comprehension with the ability to not only explain, but to use and apply that understanding appropriately.

The many applications of the skill understand all point to the same kind of thinking: making meaning, making sense of, knowing in a deep way, getting the gist of, or knowing the essence of the information. To understand is all of the above, with the implied ability to share the understanding in some way.

This table provides examples of what this thinking skill looks like and sounds like in the classroom.

Looks Like
Sounds Like
Students completing a math equation on the board.

Students celebrating after a science experiment.

Students winning a debate.

Students completing a complex task.
“I did this because…”

“The reason for doing it this way was…”

“The clues I used were…”

“You will find the evidence on this page…”

“The most important ideas include…”

If students can’t, don’t, or won’t read to understand, it affects everything else they do in the school arena. This leaves little doubt that understanding is most definitely a skill to teach explicitly to students as they approach narrative and informational text, as well as the speaking and listening situations that prevail in most classrooms. If students don’t understand what they read or what they hear, the communication arts are not useful or productive. Understanding is the first measure of critical and creative literacy for students of all ages.

Adapted from:

Bellanca, J. A., Fogarty, R. J., & Pete, B. M. (2012). How to teach thinking skills within the common core: 7 key proficiencies of the new national standards. (pp. 91-92). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.