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.

30 comments

  1. Sputnik

    A very thought-provoking entry. I have no answers but I wonder if the question isn’t initially asked in that ‘stop me if you’ve heard this one before’ vein, so as to avoid explaining something the students already know, or at least getting them to clarify it. Once you go down that route, however, the whole panoply of elicitation strategies kicks in and it inefficiently turns into a major exercise of the kind you describe above.
    Perhaps, getting teachers to focus on teaching learning strategies as opposed to just teaching vocabulary or grammar is a way of curing it. If a teacher knows his students are confident and well-versed in context-deduction strategies, for example, he may well worry less about individual pieces of vocabulary, and thereby stop holding the lesson up with such questions, and instead increase the student’s exposure to a greater amount of language.

    • AG

      I am sure this is a major reason why the question gets asked – and it is perfectly reasonable because in real life we ask this type of question a lot. Of course, we are usually dealing with people for whom the linguistic gymnastics of defining, glossing, paraphrasing and so on are technically unproblematic (usually!). In this, they forget that their learners may have knowledge but not the requisite linguistic skills to do the job required clearly and efficiently, which is usually necessary as the teacher often wants to “move on” (a problem in itself). It seems to be that there are three basic things for the teacher to decide on before choosing to ask this question:

      1) Do I have reason to believe that a learner in the room knows what this means?
      2) Do I have reason to believe that the same learner is linguistically capable of expressing this knowledge?
      3) Do I have reason to believe that the other learners are likely to be able to understand this student’s expression of their knowledge?

      Recent experience and conversations with trainees who have encountered trouble after asking this question usually feel that while they had considered question 1 most of the time (though not always! Sometimes the question is an unreflected knee-jerk to pass the buck!), they never consider question 2 or 3. They notice the problem when low-level learners say “I know but I cannot say it” with a look of embarrassed consternation 🙁

      When I revise this piece I’ll be sure to add this detail – thanks for prompting me to work it through more. I think you are quite right about the need for more awareness of word attack skills as well!

      Anthony

  2. Chris Miner

    “…teacher-trainers may need to invest more time in engaging in dialogue to uncover the tacit beliefs…”

    Perhaps you are over thinking the issue. When it is clear what the teacher-trainee is trying to accomplish with this silly question, it could be teacher trainers simply need to provide alternative ways to achieve that same purpose.

    On the subject of meaning, I don’t remember my CELTA teachers covering much more than realia and grab a photo from google[1], as a way of avoiding the dreaded question. In fact, there was precious little presented in the way of concrete in-class teaching techniques. We seemed to learn a lot of theory, but no real practical application of it. Certainly experiential learning bridged the gap, but I can’t chalk that up to the course.

    And honestly which is more painful to observe: a) they ask “Do you know what X means?” or b) They struggle 5 minutes to elicit a word. I’ve seen the 5 minute elicitation attempt. I admire the teacher’s persistence, but didn’t find it a good use of time. I wish they had asked the awful question on the off chance someone did know the answer(s).

    [1] Be sure to include a citation they always said, as if that was free pass to infringe copyright. But that is another story.

  3. AG

    Chris said: “Perhaps you are over thinking the issue.”

    Perhaps I am, Chris, perhaps I am! What I have found interesting is the fact that trainee teachers often retain this option as a default long after they have been provided with exactly the “alternative ways” to which you refer. The fact is, providing alternatives does not seem to make an impact. So I ask myself: “what is going on ‘under the hood’?”, so to speak – what is driving this default choice when other options are available.

    Asking “What does X mean?” is a perfectly natural question for a learner to ask a more competent speaker. As such, it is not surprising that this question comes to mind. Problem is, the trainee teacher is overlooking the fact that – in this moment – they are the more competent partner!

    As for conveying meaning, perhaps we need to get away from this idea of presenting new language in isolation. If language needs to be taught prior to a reading or listening exercise (“pre-teaching lexis”), then why not introduce it in a short context which makes it clear? Then it may be easier to come up with questions which guide learners to uncover the meaning for themselves, even if they haven’t encountered the word before. Hugh Dellar (author of the Innovations coursebook series) has a good essay on this called Setting a Good Example (anyone found it online?)

    As for your “What’s more painful to observe…?” question – I’m hard put to choose between them! However, I would propose an option “c” is missing: the teacher tries to elicit a word, recognises within 10-15 seconds that they are “fishing in a dry pond” and provide the word in a meaningful context, then test uptake: something like this:

    T: What’s another way of saying that you are under time pressure, you don’t have time to stop and chat?
    S: err, (10 seconds silence)
    T: OK, listen. I was going to the train station yesterday morning and saw someone I hadn’t seen for a long time. They wanted to talk but I looked at my watch and said “sorry, I’d love to chat, but I’m in a hurry, my train is leaving in a minute”. Now, I was in a hurry – did I have time to stop and talk?
    S: No.
    T: Good, now, what word goes with “a hurry?”
    S: In?
    T: Good. Now listen. “In a hurry” – repeat.
    S: In a hurry.
    T: Good. Now listen: “Sorry, I’m in a hurry – bye!” – repeat.
    S: Sorry, I’m in a hurry – bye!
    T: Very good.

    etc.

    Now, this may take a bit of time (though certainly less than the 5 minutes that you experienced!) but it has the advantage of actually involving some learning – on the levels of meaning, form and phonology. Notice also that basically the same thing could happen post-reading, just without the attempt at elicitation.

    And at the end of the day, the problem is not the question. The problem is that it gets used instead of working out a more supportive way of establishing meaning for more than the one learner who may actually answer the question. If teachers were prepared to take a different tack after this question of theirs “fell on deaf ears”, there wouldn’T be much trouble or loss of time; unfortunately, this tends not to be the case. Teachers ask the question and then are scuppered when they get nothing back – which is a real waste of time!

  4. Chris

    I doubt the alternatives are falling on deaf ears. I’m not sure, but I think the alternative you present may have been called “using an anecdote”. It is a fine example. I remember hearing such examples in my CELTA course. The teachers always impressed me with their apparently off the cuff presentations of words. Seemed like a magic trick. Like a magic trick, they only appeared to be spontaneous. The truth was they had delivered their off the cuff examples dozens of times in front of a live audience. Like a good magician, they also didn’t tell us how their trick was performed.

    Given a bit of lexis, for example ‘falling on def ears’, how do I construct an instance of “provide the word in a meaningful context, and test uptake”? What criteria does a good instance fulfill? I’ll give it a try:

    T: Okay I was talking to my boss the other day and he suggested we use electro shock therapy to fix students fossilized language errors. I argued that the geneva convention forbid this, but my words fell on deaf ears. He said he didn’t care what the Swiss thought, and promptly called a bovine supply house to put through an order for cattle prods. Now, my words *fell on deaf ears* – Did my boss listen to me?
    S: No
    T: Good, now, what word goes with ‘on deaf ears’?
    S: fell?
    T: Good. Now listen. “fell on deaf ears” – repeat.
    S: fell on deaf ears
    T: Good. Now listen: “My words fell on deaf ears” – repeat.
    S: My words fell on deaf ears
    T: Good. Now listen: “My suggestion fell on deaf ears” – repeat.
    S: My suggestion fell on deaf ears
    T: My advice …
    S: My advice … fell on deaf ears
    T: words …
    S: My words fell on deaf ears
    T: complaints …
    S: My complaints fell on deaf ears

    Right, now turn to page 21…. The present perfect. What does ‘present perfect’ mean? Anyone? Bühler?

    • AG

      Pity you don’t seem to have seen this done live (at least, if I read your comment correctly) but at least you seem to have grasped how to do it, judging from your own example above (I pause to smile…)

  5. Chris Miner

    I’ve seen it done live by an extremely skilled and practiced teacher. Probably not in front of a real live class of english learners. I think it was a class of CELTA hopefuls. In any case, it doesn’t matter how many times I see it live, I don’t still know how to construct an example for a given bit of lexis. Or maybe I do. I simply don’t know.

    I suspect your CELTA students do “ask the dreaded question” because they don’t know how to do “provide the word in a meaningful context, and test uptake”. Perhaps some can fake it after listening to enough anecdotes. I bet most aren’t able to judge a good example from an okay example or a really good example. Even if they can judge the quality, I bet they can’t write up an example that passes muster. Even if they can, I bet they still need practice delivering it.

  6. AG

    I think they can, which is where we perhaps differ; and I have some grounds to think they can because I’ve seen them manage it, for example yesterday. I was watching some trainee teachers on our current course trying their hand at “doing a listening” – they each had a story or anecdote of their own to share with the class, for which they had thought of a short warm-up conversation for the learners to have together, then a basic listening task. Some of them had decided to clarify some lexical items in their story in advance, others had chosen to do it as they went along.

    Incidentally, at this point it may be worth mentioning again that I am mainly interested here in how teachers deal with the meaning of lexical items that they themselves planned to bring up in the classroom, not incidental questions from learners that couldn’t be anticipated. So from that point of view, teachers don’t necessarily need to come up with their own examples because they can simply use the contexts given in the texts they are working with: what they need are the right questions (of which I personally would not count “do you know what X means?”) And how to come up with such questions can and should be a part of basic training for teachers, which is why we spend time on it (as do many course, albeit mainly focusing on grammar and sadly ritualised under the heading “Concept Checking Questions – CCQs for short but don’T get me started on that chestnut…)

    Anyway, this teacher gets up to do his thing. After asking his learners to chat for a minute or so about what makes shows like DSDS (a casting show like American Idol, for our international readers!) popular with viewers, he moves on towards his story. His opening was almost exactly like this:

    “When you want a new job, you have a meeting with the employer, right? That’s an interview, But when a musician or an actor wants a new job, do they have an interview? (students say no) Right, they have to play something or perform: what do you call that? (students say ‘performance?’) No, it’s an audition (teacher gets up from his seat and writes ‘have an audition’ up on the board) You HAVE an audition, OK? It’S also a verb, TO audition FOR something (emphasising the grammar words and writing this up on the board as he goes along, then he sits down). Anyway, I wanna tell you about a time I auditioned for something and how it went…”

    Now, I think this beginning teacher knew exactly what he was doing, and his total prior teaching experience? 35 minutes during the previous week. He watched me teaching the students he would be taking over a couple of times, during which he will have seen me, amongst other things, doing something similar; he took part in conversations about these lessons during our input sessions, where we talked about ways of conveying meaning; while discussing his plan for his lesson with me, we talked about whether dealing with potentially new words in advance or on the go would make more sense etc – but at the end of the day, with virtually zero experience, this teacher did it. And he was one of three trainees that day who showed themselves admirably capable of attacking meaning in helpful ways.

    Of course attempts will be hit-and-miss, and of course that is what practice (and the course) is for. What interests me is not the fact that it may be hard or that it may not be instinctive, rather why for some trainees (and for some long-experienced teachers, for that matter) it remains a default to simply throw a potentially unknown word at the learners and hope it sticks!

    And despite your potestations, you have submitted here prime evidence (albeit facetiously) that you are more than capable of conveying and checking meaning in supportive ways, so learn to appreciate your obvious procedural knowledge!

  7. Chris Miner

    As I see it, in the context of teacher training, the question isn’t whether or not teachers in training have ever successfully employed “provide the word in a meaningful context, and test uptake” (PWMCTU).

    If the teacher in training can’t evaluate and diagnose examples of PWMCTU then something is missing from their training. While I’m not surprised that your 3 student teachers successfully employed PWMCTU, I would be surprised if they knew how to evaluate, diagnose, & fix another trainers PWMCTU work.

    Given good and bad examples of PWMCTU, can they identify them as such, spot the problems and correct them in a minimally invasive way?

    • AG

      Interesting perspective, Chris. At this stage of their development (i.e. right at the very beginning) I am happy with their being able to do it, even if their success is more intuitive than principled. And I think it is an important question whether they have ever successfully employed such a technique, because, as I see it, their chances of appreciating a technique’s value increase if they have lived positive experience of it themselves – hence the emphasis on experiential learning on training courses nowadays in many fields.

      Ultimately, however, you are of course right: we don’t want to breed performing dogs, we want thinking teachers. And so some form of transfer from the intuitive to the rational would seem to need to occur. So I think I’ll take you up on that thesis of yours and see how, now that these trainess have shown themselves able to work in such a way, we can explore what was going on “under the hood” and see if they can then spot weaker or stronger attempts at the same thing.

      Of course, the really interesting question is: will their ability to treat new lexis in class actually improve as a result of this “declarative knowledge?” And how could one measure this? Hmm…

    • AG

      Thanks for the link! Pity that placing it on Facebook makes such resources a “closed shop”, but I suppose I’ll have to register as a user sooner or later anyway…

  8. Chris Miner

    Okay… now that I’ve read Hugh Dellar’s excellent essay titled “Setting a Good Example”, I’d suggest you provide the following recipe to your problematic teachers in training:

    1. Invert the dreaded question. Simply replace the target word in the dreaded question with a simple definition:
    Does anyone know a word describes a really happy, positive person?
    What’s another way to describe a really happy, positive person?

    This gives the students more to work with. Perhaps they suggest: vivacious, ebullient, or exuberant. (one can always hope)

    2. No luck? Think of a popular collocation. “She has a vivacious and bubbly personality”.

    3. Work backwards from this co-text to a situation that calls for you using this bit of text. “Whenever I am sad or feeling tired about life in general I call up my friend Tera and arrange to meet her for dinner. She has a vivacious and bubbly personality that always cheers me up”.

    4. Read Hugh Dellar’s essay for the rest of the steps. I think what I wrote in steps 1 through three might cover the first two rules of his “Triple Ex Rule” (ie Explain & Exemplify). But as one can see from the essay, you really really need the 3rd Ex.

  9. kylieliz

    So . . . I’m still that novice teacher, and probably still ask the question too much . . . but my thoughts on the issue are that the question is perfectly fine in class, especially if you are teaching students who are taking the class for a second time, or you are going over vocabulary you expect the students to be familiar with. HOWEVER, that being said, I think that the question is fine only in limited use. For example, today I was teaching about hobbies. So, I write the word hobby on the word and ask the students if they know what it means. They begin by giving me examples and such. My next step was to show pictures and have them give me the names of hobbies. Throughout there were also times of elicitation of a different hobby that they were interested in but I did not have the picture of. I think that it is okay to ask that dreaded question as long as that is not your main method of teaching vocabulary. I did not continue the entire lesson asking the students if they knew what each vocabulary word was, but asking every so often gives them a chance to show that they already know the vocabulary and can give a boost of confidence.
    Also, along the lines of students giving an alternative meaning for a word, I often see that as a huge opportunity to 1) praise them for their extended knowledge of the word and 2) point out why there is a difference – maybe that way it is an adjective, and this way it is a noun, etc.

    I may still invoke some fiery comments from some teacher trainers, but that is my personal opinion on using this question in my class. 🙂

    • Anthony Gaughan

      Thank you for commenting, Kylieliz, and I certainly hope that no teacher trainers come breathing fire in your direction – I certainly won’t!

      I agree that there are many times when “the dreaded question” would be perfectly appropriate to ask; you identify several such times yourself. You are absolutely right that it is sometimes the most natural question in the world.

      …still, I wonder why it gets used so often when teachers are essentially bringing in lexis which they suspect will be new to the majority of their class, especially when the alternatives for conveying meaning may engage more of the learners.

      Thanks again for posting; I’m looking forward to reading more of your comments in future 😉

      • chris miner

        I’ll take another swing at “why it is used so often”. Before I arrogantly assume that someone doesn’t know anything about a “pentatonic minor scale”, and go on to explain what it is and how they can apply it in improvisation, I’ll probably ask the “dreaded question”. Otherwise I risk damaging a relationship in this “discourse community” (D1). The “dreaded question” is part of polite conversation among native speakers in symmetric relationships.

        The problem comes when I transfer this knowledge from D1 into the classroom (D2). I’ve overgeneralized the applicability of this rule of discourse and therefore use it in D2 for the same reasons I use it in D1. There are a few other rules/techniques, such as explanations and definitions, that we rely on in D1 that don’t work well in D2. Yet these are normal, efficient ways to convey information in normal D1 speech.

        So, I propose that they are just trying to be polite. The problem is they aren’t yet members of the classroom discourse community. To make up for this deficit, they apply what they know from other discourse communities in which they have membership. They overgeneralize. Imagine their surprise when their attempts at politeness are so poorly received by their tutors (who belong to yet another discourse community D3).

        Fortunately, it is easy enough to just stop asking the question. After all, since its politeness function is lost in D2, it doesn’t even need to be replaced.

        But I think the real question presented in this post is how to pre-teach lexis without photos or realia. Anthony, you provided a sketch with “…we would start by establishing… introduce the word.”. Would be nice to see how some of your novice teachers have implemented this or how your teacher trainers have taught this.

        • Anthony Gaughan

          Yes, Chris, I think politeness has a lot to do with it – and provides a powerful justification for asking the question. Your comment presupposes that trainee teachers (or any teacher using this question, for that matter) aren’t yet members of the discourse community of the classroom – but they clearly are: so the question for me becomes rather “who says that ‘the dreaded question’ has no place in this community?” People like me, teacher trainers perpetuating a hegemony of homogenized practice? Not something I would normally support!

          But your analogy with music is interesting, as Jeremy Harmer also used this in an argument on Scott Thornbury’s blog. On the surface your logic would hold: if asking a musician whether they know pentatonic scales is ok, then why not asking a learner of a language. I think the reason is this – normally, a music teacher would not ask “do you know what a pentatonic scale is?”; they would ask “do you know a pentatonic scale?” these questions are fundamentally different. The first question requires a technical definition which many accomplished players would be incapable of giving; the latter question requires a demonstration of technique.

          Further, the music student is in the business of learning the systems and skills of music; they are normally fully proficient in the language being used to mediate the lesson (though there are exceptions to this rule). A language learner is clearly in a different position. Their subject matter is language.

          That all said, your point about politeness hints at a very major issue for me – taking the learner seriously as an equal partner in their learning. Perhaps my distrust of this question betrays a fundamental distrust of the learner? Perhaps I don’t “practise what I preach” as much as I would like to think? A discomforting thought, Chris, and one which is giving me a great deal to reflect on!

          PS: I’ll post again later with examples as you request!

  10. chris miner

    There is something about a trainee teachers inability to fulfill their discourse role in the classroom that means they are not yet members of that discourse community. At home (D1), when I ask “Where are my keys?” I usually want to know where my keys are. As a member of the classroom discourse community (D2), I usually want to know something else.

    Until I’m participating in classroom discourse in this way, I’m not really a full member. Before that, I’m just a guy who walked in off the street. The others present are members by default. They’re all trying to learn English. I’m the odd one out. As long as I am linguistically unable to facilitate the learning process, I’m not a member of D2, and am prone to ask “the dreaded question” out of a misguided attempt to not insult anyone.

    By the time I’m a helpful member of the classroom, I’ll say things like “listen and repeat”, “he has *a* long hair?”, and “you have two childs?”. I’ll develop a strange habit of repeating what people say only slightly restated. I’ll ask people questions I already know the answer to. In short, I will have learned the typical lexis, genres, and forms used by a teacher in a classroom to facilitate the learning process.

    • Anthony Gaughan

      All very true, Chris – but it does raise the question whether the kind of behaviour that you posit as being the appropriate marked form for a teacher role in the classroom discourse community actually aids learning! Echoing and display questions come in for heavy criticism from some parties, and I would be very interested in hearing about research on their efficacy or not for learning 😉

  11. theLingoGuy (Stewart Tunnicliff)

    Late into this debate it seems, although been having the same discussion in other places.

    I must agree with Kylie as far as using this “dreaded question” as a review of vocabulary. However this may also not be effective if your students have:

    a) a poor system of recording vocabulary, and retaining it.

    b) a lack of effective uptake.

    But let me return to the “what does x mean?”

    Having mainly removed this from my classroom teaching phrases, and now experiencing mixed groups of “hochschule” (Uni) students who have diverse backgrounds I find myself hearing/ reading feedback from students such as:

    “we already did/learned that (X) in lessons from other teachers”
    “I learned X at school”
    “I knew a lot of the words (Xs) you taught beforehand”

    This can be down to the diverse lexi of the students, and also the subjects they study, interests they have outside the classroom.

    Which kind of proves a point I have mulled over for awhile, and that is teachers misjudging previously known words. Of which I can certainly stumble into this category.

    In my English classes before the “hochschule” experience this did not occur as often.

    So “what does x mean” had a different focus, and was dealt with accordingly.

    Now it has been modified and replaced with “who knows any of the words (the Xs) on the board”. With groups numbering ten and above it is an effective task, but let me elaborate some.

    After asking this and patiently waiting for a response, you can simply split the task into
    a) the ones who knew none of the words explaining the contextual meaning of the unknown Xs through use of their iPhones, lappis etc, and
    b) the learners who do know explain the contextual meaning of their known Xs.

    All done on the board.

    Maybe an unusual scenario, but one I find myself adopting, unless I deliberately use very challenging words, then that is an altogether different ball game.

    • Anthony Gaughan

      Hi Stewart, thanks for popping in – how’s everything going?

      I think you’re right that there is a lot of valid use for such genuine questions, when they are leveraged for active learning/enquiry by the students. When they lead to unproductive silence (and there is obviously such a thing as productive silence!), then they have outlived their welcome. Your approach here sounds useful and engaging: who do your learners feel about time spent in this way – do you ask them? What do they say?

  12. theLingoGuy (Stewart Tunnicliff)

    Everything is fabtastic.
    As you can see have moved into the world of the “hochschule”.
    This gives me the time to also work on my Leipzig Writers Organizationand do my Art.

    The Xs approach I mentioned in my previous post works well with all students who like being empowered and taking on the role of the mini-teacher. There of course are still those who see the teacher role, as a a knowledge provider or lecturer.
    But this has more to do with Professors, and guest tutors at some of the Unis using out dated systems of teaching.

    The students are now and gain reluctant to take on this role, but after seeing that they not only learn language, but teaching and informal presentation skills they see the benefit I hope.

    How to deal with unproductive silence is a skill in itself, as a teacher.

    Asking students to be creative or be a mini teacher at 7:45 a.m. is in my experience a no-go.

    • Anthony Gaughan

      Glad to hear that things are going well on several fronts, there, Stewart.

      Something you said piqued my interest, on the back of recent discussions about research and evidence-based teaching:

      The students are now and gain reluctant to take on this role, but after seeing that they not only learn language, but teaching and informal presentation skills they see the benefit I hope.

      Can you imagine a way of finding out: a) exactly what they think about this intervention of yours, and b) whether it does in fact lead to improved performance in the areas you suspect?

  13. theLingoGuy (Stewart Tunnicliff)

    Of course this only works with a group where you can be open about the feedback process and they do not mind giving it or are responsive when asked what they think.

    However even with a tricky group asking other trainers or course leaders, administrators to get feedback for you is beneficial. Especially as I have recently introduced my own guest trainers to do some of the units, not only for this reason but for observational purposes, as well as ideas exchange.

    As for seeing improved performance this only really works with a course that stretches over a considerable time period. And you can witness it by repeating similar tasks. Also recording the first sessions is good, and returning to these later down the line. If the group is not too self conscious at the outset about being recorded.

    Likewise some students have remained in touch with me after a course has finished, and if I am on the ball I will ask them about their skills development. This could bring up the topic of improved performance instigated by the lessons.

    • Anthony Gaughan

      Thanks for commenting, Stewart – though I have to say I am unclear about what aspect of my post you are commenting on!

      That said, you seem to be suggesting the benefits and issues involved in obtaining feedback from learners: is that right?

  14. theLingoGuy

    was giving some ideas about what is thought about my a) intervention and b) improved performance.

    And there is a focus in my musings on the benefits of feedback from learners in regards to presentation skills and the Xs approach as I call it

Join the conversation...