Perhaps the most important set of skills for a student in any discipline is the ability to monitor one’s own progress and adapt accordingly. To know when you are succeeding and when you are struggling, and more importantly what to do about it, are essential skills for a rounded and self-aware learner.
Consider a typical primary or high-school class of 30 students (still a small class in many countries). In a class this size, one teacher cannot realistically keep track of every student’s performance as they complete tasks and give their answers to the front of the room individually. Reducing student output to single words and phrases, in response to very restricted prompts, simply does not give a broad enough view of what a student can or cannot do for themselves.
Typically, a student who begins to fall behind in that kind of classroom has little chance of recovery without extra study provided by the school or significant amounts of remedial self-study. However, if the student does not realise the problem until the end of term, when the exams are approaching, and if they have no strategies to make the situation better (which most primary and high-school students have not yet developed), the situation can quickly become irresolvable.
Bringing self- and peer-evaluation checks into the discourse of the classroom, as we saw in the ‘disrupted’ IRF sequence in the last article, can start to provide questions for students to answer about their own study: the teacher prompt ‘are you sure?’ encourages the students to ask themselves: ‘wait, am I sure?’. Even if the answer is demonstrably correct, this teacher prompt can help the strongest students check their own workings and justify their responses. Similarly, asking for peer comment on student responses as part of the post-task routine in the classroom encourages students to check their answers - after all, if everyone is going to think about your answer to a question, wouldn’t you want to be sure it was right? Again, asking students for justification for their answers: ‘how did you find that answer?’ / ‘is there a better way to get to that idea?’ focuses them on their processes and defines not just what they are saying in class, but how they are worked with the content they are studying.
In conclusion, this article series has aimed to demonstrate the relationships that classroom discourse has with different areas of language use and cognition, and the importance of the teacher’s part in it all - remember, the more you dominate interaction, dictate accuracy and step on student ideas, the less room they will have for free, higher-order thinking and output. This limits their performance and therefore their development in a second language. Plan your teacher questions, and think about disrupting the teacher-centred interaction which can creep into the classroom all too easily.
In the next month, monitor the way you discuss answers with the learners in your classroom. Identify a couple of good routines and a couple of prohibitive ones, and think about how you can develop a more dialogic, critical environment in your classroom with the time and resources you have at your disposal.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the new RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on specific contexts within ESOL, including exam preparation and assessment literacy.