How do you say what your kids say?

A few weeks ago, I was observing a student teacher. In our debrief, I said, “When you’re asking students for answers, you put those answers into your own words much of the time. What might that say to the students?”

We then had a conversation about the possible implication that changing the students’ words could be perceived as correcting them – that what they were saying wasn’t good enough to be repeated as stated or written on the board verbatim during class notes.

My thinking has been that such switching of language could lead to decreased participation from students:

When I speak, she changes my words. This must mean that my answers are wrong. I should stop speaking so I don’t sound stupid.

I challenged the student teacher to make an effort to repeat answers as given and start writing them on the board verbatim.

As I read the second essay in Eleanor Duckworth’s “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. I’m starting to question this thinking. Discussing the work of one linguist, Duckworth writes:

If the children were asked to repeat a sentence of a form that did not correspond to their grammar (for instance, “I asked Alvin whether he knows how to play basketball”), they repeated the sentence, but with their own grammar (“I asked Alvin do he know how to play basketball”). It was not the words they retained, it was the sense. Then the sense was translated back into words, words that said the same thing but were not the same words.

That sound you might be hearing is my brain bubbling with questions:

  • If we accept that children’s retention of meaning, but discarding of words is a valid communication of meaning, does the same hold true for teacher’s repetition of children’s words?
  • Given the power structure of the classroom, does the teacher’s re-phrasing of a student’s response mean something different (or negative) than a student’s re-phrasing?
  • When do we decided re-phrasing student responses is teaching and when do we decide not to in favor of letting students know they’re free to share and expand on ideas?

I don’t have answers here, and would definitely benefit from hearing how other people think about how they accept student answers.

What does this look like in your practice?

9 thoughts on “How do you say what your kids say?

  1. Some good advice. I hadn’t thought of rephrasing as sending a negative message all the time. I’ve viewed it more as showing or modelling how to improve their vocabulary, sometimes with course specific terminology (eg. Legalese in Law 12). You’ve provided some food for thought. I think I will ask my students their opinions. See what they are really thinking.

    • Valerie, this definitely makes sense. I’m curious what your students say when you ask. I’m also curious as to what might be the effect of making these decisions explicit in the moments we’re making them. Thanks.

  2. It depends. I think it’s important to put answers verbatim on the board in many circumstances. At other times, as part of my own mental process, I find it necessary to rethink their statements in my own language. This is a normal, authentic part of communication. True, the power differential makes that tricky, but better to reduce the intellectual power differential than to make communication of ideas unauthentic.

    • Mark, how do you decide? What you say makes sense, and I’m now struggling with where the line of differentiation exists when deciding whether to go verbatim or to re-phrase. I’m guessing the answer is that it’s a complex internal process that you’ve never had reason to make explicit. Still, I’m curious.

      • Two thoughts: first, I suppose it’s the nature of what understandings you are looking for in the conversation. For example, a quick whip around the room or brainstorming is very different than exploring a more complex issue, like say, how one should feel about a presidential speech.

        Second, being authentic in the rephrasing is key here – in an ideal conversation, it’s about reaching some sort of common ground. Often I need to rephrase something to make sure I (ME THE TEACHER/PARTICIPANT) understand what the other person is saying. The trick is making sure the other people in the room do not feel silenced when something is being rephrased – love the post Zac!

  3. I would accept students’ answers verbatim as long as there are no grammatical errors. When grammar is an issue, things are different. If you look at second language acquisition research, accepting a student’s answer and rephrasing it to correct grammatical errors will be interpreted by the student as “I had the correct answer and the correct grammar.” While it validates students’ thinking, it’s an ineffective way to improve students’ English since the teacher’s brain is doing all the work, not the students’. If we want students to correct their grammar, it’s best to let their brains do the thinking by saying something like: “You have the right idea but what do we say?” or “I asked Alvin…? What’s the correct verb?” So my rule of thumb is pick your battles based on the most frequent or most important errors students make.

    • Isa, that’s a great point, and similar to the last piece Rob picks up on in his comment. Are there times when you wait to do the correction? Would it be plausible to wait for students to be working and then talk to the student about what happened and how he/she might want to say things a next time? I’m not asking this with an answer in mind. I could probably make an argument either way, and am curious as to what you think. Thanks.

  4. I think so much depends on your relationship with students and the purpose of the discussion you are having. I tend to rephrase what students say as a means of clarification. I often phrase it in the form of a question. I realize that this can be taken as a way of correcting, but my intention is to understand what they mean. So actuality, I am trying to get at what they really mean, as opposed to writing down something that they may have said, but were unable to express as clearly as they wanted to.

    I think you need to know your students. I work with a large number of E.S.L. students, where working in English does not come as easily for them. They often don’t have the vocabulary that they need to express their ideas in english to the best of their understanding.

    • Rob, I agree. Relationship is key. Do you ever make explicit this thinking to the students? Is there a time, maybe at the beginning of a marking period, when you talk to your classes about what they might notice about how you respond to them? I suppose it would be to varied success. Not every student is going to be down with the conversation. Giving space for the conversation and doing it in a way that offers students an authentic space to consider how people talk with one another strikes me as a powerful learning opportunity. Thanks for the comment.

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