Is asking “do you know what X means?” a waste of time?

Novice teachers on initial teacher training courses all around the world at some point will ask their learners during teaching practice “do you know what X means?” and subsequently in feedback be told by their tutors never to do this again.  The chances are that the novice teacher will continue to employ this question for some time, perhaps never giving it up, despite the unequivocal and often strongly phrased request from their tutors to shed this question from their teaching routine.  The novice teachers must have some reason for clinging so faithfully to something when their tutors – who have the power to punish through downgrading – seem so disapproving of this.  The question is: what possible reasons can there be and how can trainers better understand them?

The case for

Novice teachers receive several strong messages while on initial teacher training courses rooted within a communicative approach: involve the students in learning; meaning is primary; avoid teacher talk; check understanding and so on.  It is easy to see how these messages can lead a novice teacher to the following train of logic:

“If I ask students to tell me what new words mean, I am involving them in their learning more than if I give them definitions.  If I ask students to define words, I am focusing them on meaning.  If I ask students to define new words, they are doing more talking and I am reducing TTT.  If I ask students to tell me what new words mean, I can see what they know…”

From the novice teacher’s perspective, then, the question “what does X mean?” serves several reasonable pedagogic purposes which would seem to be fully coherent with the principles of the communicative approach.  Small wonder that they are so often non-plussed by their tutors sense of anathema towards it – what issues are the novice teachers missing that the trainers see?

The case against

Trainers on initial teacher training courses often speak negatively of a novice teacher’s attempt to convey or check meaning, with statements such as “they just put the words up on the board and asked the students what they meant”, “they asked ‘what does X mean?’ at least a dozen times”, “They brought a new word into class and asked the students if they knew what it meant – what answer did they expect?” These comments may contain some clues to why experienced teacher-trainers seem to feel so negatively towards this oft-employed strategy.

“They just put the words up on the board and asked what they meant”

The act itself seems reasonable, on the surface: if you want to introduce a new concept, you present it clearly to whoever needs to know about it.  This is what novice teachers may be doing when they write new lexis on the board.  By asking the group if this new concept is in fact actually known by anyone present, they may save valuable time and effort if the teacher does not need to go further; in addition, the novice teacher is allowing for student prior knowledge to shape the language focus, and this is generally viewed as a positive thing.  So far there seems to be a strong case for the novice teacher’s actions.

A different tenet of the communicative approach is that language is a context-embedded phenomenon – in other words, language always occurs within some form of situation with helps give it meaning.  The word “draw” uttered in an art class by a teacher has a very different meaning when uttered by a gunslinger in an old western, for example.  This difference in meaning can only be established through reference beyond the word itself to its surrounding context.

Now, in the classroom there is a clear context at work – the classroom environment and the teacher-student relationship are aspects of this.  The problem is, this context rarely has anything to do with the language being used or studied within it.  Students may, for example, be getting to know a set of words related to getting up in the morning (which they have already done that day but is not part of the classroom context), or lexis to describe ethical issues such as euthanasia, abortion, etc (which are equally not routine events in a classroom).  By putting a word such as “bubbly” up on the board and asking students if they know what it means, novice teachers are inviting a range of responses such as:

“I don’t know”

“Yes, I think so”

“It means like coke”

“It’s a word for champagne”

Of course, the first two responses are honest and the others may be appropriate within certain contexts – the trouble is, no-one knows yet which context is intended.  So when the teacher then says “OK, actually it means ‘a really happy, positive person'”, the students are left non-plussed (especially as the definition given here by the teacher would suggest bubbly here is a noun rather than an adjective).  This dislocation of form and meaning can, in these and other ways, lead to loss of time, focus and clarity: “negotiation for meaning” may occur; the question is whether it is an effective use of time here when working form context to meaning rather than in reverse would be more effective and easier for the learners.

If we take context seriously as a tool for supporting understanding, our approach to conveying meaning and checking understanding would need to be very different.  Instead of starting with the unknown concept or potentially new word and then attempting to work towards a definition, we would start by establishing a context which in itself was known and familiar in some sense, then develop a sense of what the new word or phrase may refer to in that context, thus creating a sense of need for a label, then we may try to elicit that label (i.e. the target word) from the students, and if none was forthcoming, we would introduce the word.  How is this approach different?  More importantly, are any differences significant?

One way this approach differs from the novice teacher’s version is that it starts from the known and moves towards the new, which is a sound educational principle found across traditions from Socrates to social constructivism.  By developing a known and understood context, the meaning and function of the new item can be anticipated; it may then actually be recalled by a learner who has already been exposed to it (and whose memory is triggered by the contextual clues provided) or it will be readily comprehended when provided by the teacher.

“They asked ‘what does X mean?’ at least a dozen times!”

Repetition and routine are common features of classrooms and so it may seem strange on the surface to criticise a teacher for using a regular and predictable strategy.  However, there are very good reasons for not relying on one approach to doing anything, especially conveying or checking meaning.

For a start, as we have noted, the strategy of asking “what does X mean” is time-consuming.  If the teacher’s aim is to either ensure that everyone in the room learns what a certain word or phrase means, then this routine may be costing them time.  Consider the word bicycle: asking a student to define this thing in words may take some time whereas showing a photo of one and asking students to name it is quicker.  Assuming that this time saving can be invested in learners actually trying to use the new item for some meaningful purpose, it seems reasonable to try to select the most time-efficient means of getting meaning into the classroom as possible – and asking “do you know what X means?” seems slow in comparison to other approaches.

“They brought a new word into class and asked the students if they knew what it meant – what answer did they expect?!”

Very often, teachers cause new language to enter the classroom; indeed, this is one reason why the teacher is there.  This being so, it would seem to be the teacher who is in the best position to worry about getting the meaning of such language across, leaving the student to do the important work of learning the new item and trying to use it purposefully.  Novice teachers often bring new language into the classroom and then ask their students to define it for them instead.  This indicates that the novice teacher does not appreciate that they are the person in the best position to create the conditions under which learners can make sense of new language.

Is the jury still out?

It is clear that novice teachers who persist in asking variations on “what does X mean?” when their intention is to check learners’ understanding of a new lexical or grammatical action may be doing so because they have not yet considered and internalised the arguments against doing so.  Why some novice teachers internalise these arguments earlier than their colleagues is unclear: previous learning experiences, cultural expectations of the role of teacher and student (connected to previous learning experience) and ability to empathise with the challenges of being a language learner seem to be powerful factors.

As a result, teacher-trainers may need to invest more time in engaging in dialogue to uncover the tacit beliefs held by the novice teachers with whom they are working, before these, where necessary, can effectively be countered.  Equally, it seems that simple ‘cures’ like “never use that question again!” or “that’s an ineffective strategy” are unlikely to have the kind of impact desired, and threats of penalty may prompt compliance, but are unlikely to promote acceptance.


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