Fed up with monosyllabic replies in class, Jamie Thom developed strategies to get the most out of pupils’ verbal answers
I was faced with an ocean of completely blank expressions. Some students stared at me vacantly, while others deliberately avoided eye contact.
I persevered and repeated the question, unable to disguise the hint of desperation in my voice: “Come on, what did Wilfred Owen want us to feel about his poem?”
He was clearly somewhere other than my scintillating lesson about Dulce et Decorum Est.
“Dunno,” he grunted, in that special way only adolescents appear to have mastered.
And there ended yet another attempt at class discussion.
We ask hundreds of questions throughout our working week, and we expect our students to take part in extended periods of questioning and answering in our lessons. This allows us to check understanding of our content, enables us to encourage and extend thinking and helps to maintain the focus in our classrooms.
The reality, however, is that we are often faced with two extremes: awkward and monosyllabic answers (see above); or the dominance of a handful of extroverted students who control any dialogue we attempt within the class.
This year, I decided that enough was enough. I needed to improve the quality of verbal answers in my classroom. So I made a plan to do just that.
My rationale was simple: if the output verbally was improved, the quality of students’ written work would develop, and these high expectations would be reflected in all aspects of my classroom. So, I started by investigating what the research had to say about how to encourage better verbal answers.
The first issue I encountered was time. When we ask such a huge number of questions on a daily basis, we forget the simple fact that, in order for students to formulate better verbal answers, they need time to think.
Mary Budd Rowe made this the focus of her research career, and coined the term “wait time” in 1972. What she discovered was that when you have a wait time of three seconds after both teacher questions and student responses, “there are pronounced changes in student use of language and logic” (1).
Time and purpose
This does not fit what often happens in classrooms. Usually, we will ask a question, then pick the first individual who raises a hand – this clearly does not create an opportunity for much quality thinking around the room.
Instead, by first providing space for our students to formulate their ideas with a partner, or write down their thoughts before feeding back, we can help them to reflect more carefully – and ultimately improve what they might offer verbally to the whole class.
I had found my first change in practice. But as well as giving students more time, part of the responsibility for improving verbal answers would lie in what I did, too: in short, in the type of questions I was asking.
In 2001, Wragg and Brown analysed more than a thousand questions asked by teachers during classroom discussions (2). They deduced from this that teachers use higher-level questions (essentially those that ask a pupil to analyse, explain or interpret) only 10-20 per cent of the time. Instead, a significant number of questions are recall questions or test lower-order skills.
These questions do serve a purpose, but the lack of open-ended questions that offer genuine challenge is one clear reason why verbal responses often fall short.
So, I needed to focus on my questions. But work from Barak Rosenshine also highlights that we often miss opportunities to explain the process by which students have arrived at their answer, too (3). As well as asking the question, some modelling of the way an answer could be arrived at needed to happen at the same time.
And what about feedback? Deborah Stipek’s Motivation to Learn: integrating theory and practice (4) highlights the fact that praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low perception of his or her ability. Far too often, we fall into the trap of praising the first answer we receive, without increasing the expectation of length and quality of verbal answers. This creates an ethos in the room in which any suggestion is not only accepted but is also praised too quickly and too enthusiastically. This prevents our students from really striving to offer more in their verbal responses.
So I had my plan of attack, I now just had to put it into action. Here’s what I did.
The first step was looking at how I used my planning time. Rather than designing elaborate PowerPoints, I now spend time considering the type of questions I will ask to elicit better responses from students.
I plan out levels of challenge in the questions I ask, to encourage initial confidence, then deeper and more developed verbal answers. This has also improved my own content knowledge, as I find myself carefully reflecting on the answers I might encourage from students.
Rather than offering praise for the first answer, I now employ a pugnacious probing technique. Instead of a superlative for an initial attempt at answering, I ask for more, or ask why, or cajole the student into rephrasing and improving the quality of their initial answer. This has to be done with sensitivity and a light touch but, more often than not, it encourages much more detail and thought. Ultimately, it also increases the level of challenge in my classroom.
‘Write it first’
Using wait time can appear unnatural and stilted at first – students are somewhat baffled by the silence and breaks in dialogue. I have found, however, that explaining the reasons why I am leaving thinking time has helped my students to see the value in it.
“Write it first” has become a repeated phrase in my classroom, with students being given short bursts of time to write an answer in silence before sharing it verbally. This has increased both the expectation of thinking in the room and the depth of students’ answers. An added bonus of this is that my more introverted students are now more inclined to share answers, having had the time to rehearse and clarify their thinking.
Does all this mean I have reached the lofty heights of Ancient Greek debates in my classroom?
Not quite. There are still times in which the responses seem to be infuriatingly brief, or completely off the mark. I am, after all, dealing with the capricious nature of adolescents.
Rather than falling into my previous habits of berating students and growing frustrated, however, I now have a series of strategies that I can employ to encourage better answers. Creating the right thinking conditions, asking more open-ended questions that will enable reflection, and increasing the levels of challenge and expectation are certainly beginning to make that infuriating “dunno” a thing of the past.
Jamie Thom is an English teacher and author of Slow Teaching: on finding calm, clarity and impact in the classroom
This article originally appeared in the 5 July 2019 issue under the headline “How to beat the dreaded ‘dunno’”