When the time is right to echo the voice of students

28th September 2007 at 01:00
Andy Buck is head of Jo Richardson community school in Barking and Dagenham, east London, and is on the board of the Training and Development Agency for Schools

Every teacher does it: question asked; student replies; teacher repeats. There are lots of reasons why this happens. Repeating what pupils say helps to make sure everyone in the class heard the reply. It can also validate a child's response. It can contribute to classroom control as well as serving to reinforce a good point.

It's an approach that is so deep-seated in the way teachers have worked for generations that I suspect many aren't even aware they do it.

However, there are a number of compelling reasons why we should try not to repeat what pupils say without first thinking about whether it is a good idea. First of all, if teachers always repeat what pupils say, then they stop listening to each other and just wait for the teacher. Given that the whole basis of quality classroom talk is centred on the pupils being at the heart of the dialogue, genuine debate and discussion between pupils can never happen if they don't listen to each other, or are always waiting for the teacher's interjection.

Second, teacher repetition tends to encourage pupils to mumble. Part of our role as teachers is surely to ensure that we turn out confident and articulate individuals who are capable of speaking up in front of others. A teacher who asks a pupil to repeat an inaudible answer is not being unkind to that pupil. What they are doing is helping them to develop confidence in a really important skill.

The chances are that the next time a pupil is asked to respond, they will be louder, even if only because they want to avoid being asked to repeat what they said.

Third, many teachers do not actually repeat what pupils say. More often than not they inadvertently make subtle changes designed to improve the answer. This is meant to ensure that the class gets to hear the "correct" answer. The trouble is that this means teachers often miss a valuable assessment for learning opportunity. It is precisely these small changes to vocabulary, meaning or sentence structure that are often at the heart of the pupils' areas for improvement, not just for the individual concerned but for the whole class. By glossing over the improvements, the learning opportunity is lost.

It is much better for the teacher to respond with "Good answer. Now, can you improve it by..." Suggestions could include: the use of key vocabulary introduced earlier in the lesson; more clarity around a particular point of explanation; greater volume; or simply asking for the response to be in a full sentence, as if being written as a formal answer. If pupils are able to speak in well constructed and grammatically correct sentences, we are already well on the way to getting them to write well.

There are times, though, when repetition of the correct answer can be helpful, particularly in modern foreign languages, in which the development of accent is important, or where there are pupils in a class with a hearing impairment who rely on the microphone around a teacher's neck. This should not, though, be seen as some dogmatic rule to be obeyed. The key point is for teachers consciously to decide whether they should repeat an answer because there is a good reason to do it, rather than just to do it through habit.

Andy Buck is writing here in a personal capacity. His book, Making School Work, is published by Greenwich Exchange

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