Traffic Lights‏‎ in English Language Teaching

How To Teach English

A row of plastic cups in various colours.Traffic Lights is a way of understanding if your students are with you in a lesson or if they’re having problems understanding what is going on.


During a class there are times when students have not understood what you are saying and are beginning to lag behind.

As a teacher you may well stop and ask the class if they understand what you are saying. Most likely they will answer yes, often because students fear they’ll look stupid or stand out if they don’t.

You may well ask concept checking‏‎ questions, but there’s still a chance students won’t be with you.

And a student will often feel embarrassed about putting up their hands and asking for additional explanation.

Following this, after the lesson it’s difficult for students to come back to you asking for extra explanations and help with a topic. Either they have to rush off for another lesson or the next week you don’t have time to go over the previous week’s lesson.

Slowly these students will fall behind the rest of the class.

To counter this problem, you can use a traffic light system in the classroom. It can be used both when you are giving explanations or when the students are working either alone or in small groups.


Essentially each student is given 3 plastic cups. One is green, one is orange and one is red. Explain in simple terms how your students should use them.

They put the cups inside each other until only the green show. This is the default color and it means they understand what’s going on and have no problems with what you are saying or the work they’re doing. If you look out and see green around the room, you can carry on in the knowledge the class are with you.

If a student is having a few issues with the lesson, perhaps they don’t quite understand what you are saying and need a bit of help, they simply change their cups so that orange shows. As a teacher you can look around the class and if you see one or two orange cups you can make a mental note to check with those students when you’ve finished the explanation you’re giving or – if you see a lot of orange in the class – you can backtrack there and then and cover the explanation again till the cups are all green.

Finally if a student is completely lost and needs immediate help, they show red. You may not be able to stop the lesson there and then to help that student, but the moment you can, you go to the student and work with them through the issue.

Of course if there are several reds amongst the greens you can get those students together to go over the problem with them as a group.


The traffic light system is ideal for the class. It allows students to let you know how the lesson is going and gives you immediate feedback as to their understanding without the whole class being disrupted by having to stop. This lets you tweak your presentation immediately so that all the class understands.

It also works while the students are working alone; you can walk around the class monitoring progress and immediately see who needs your help and who does not.

Image © Andy Holt

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