Teachers are concerned about making sure everything is crystal clear for students. But sometimes student misunderstandings can be just as important as student understandings. Exploring misunderstandings can be a crucial part of classroom discussion and learning.
“Teachers often guess what students will understand, and they try to pre-empt misunderstandings by making sure that everything’s very clear,” says Dr Rita Silver.
While this may seem like a good lesson from the teacher’s point of view, it may not be the best learning experience for our students. “They actually miss learning opportunities because the teacher tries to make everything very clear.”
Challenging the traditional pedagogy for reading comprehension, Rita’s project team explores how letting students talk more in class can improve language learning.
Challenges to Comprehension
“What we see so far is our teachers rely on explaining a lot, without necessarily knowing what the students did or did not understand,” notes Rita.
The problem with this, she says, is that students don’t have the opportunity to engage in negotiation for meaning (NfM).
“Within any conversation, there is always the potential for misunderstanding or lack of understanding. Often the meanings evolve as the conversation moves along, through people asking questions or making statements and rephrasing what has been said.”
This is true in the classroom as well, says Rita. Based on prior research in second language acquisition, she believes that NfM can help in language learning, especially in the reading comprehension classroom.
It’s more powerful if teachers prompt students to explain what they mean each time they ask a question or make a comment. Rita explains, “It helps learners comprehend better, and because it pushes learners to try to explain their ideas more, they have to stretch their language resources.”
Negotiating for Meaning
Negotiation helps address learners who may be at different levels in language development. “The learning isn’t dependent on the teacher explaining everything in the same way to everyone,” explains Rita. This approach is especially helpful in the Singapore context, where we’ve got students whose home language may not be English.
– Rita Silver, English Language and Literature Academic Group
Such conversations also give teachers a chance to find out what students are thinking, whether or not they truly comprehend the lesson.
“You get small bits of assessment throughout the lesson, instead of waiting till the end of the term for the formal assessment, or even waiting to the end of the lesson for the worksheet. By then it’s too late, the class is done.”
This process can further help students learn how to think more academically. “One of the things you have to learn, especially as you move into upper primary, is how to explain your ideas. And if teachers do all the explanations, students don’t learn how to do that.”
Managing Classroom Conversations
Rita points out that it is important to let the students’ thinking – and especially their misunderstandings – play a bigger role in classroom discussions.
“Teachers have to step back and sometimes let the students fail a little bit. There has to be a moment in the lesson where the teacher allows the student to show they didn’t understand it. And teachers have to make it safe for them to show they didn’t understand it.”
– Rita on the importance of student misunderstandings
The teacher can then pick up on these misunderstandings and help students work through them. Asking questions also helps them learn to think more academically and independently.
“Right now they are quite dependent on the teacher. The teacher is always telling them what information to look for and how to answer the question. But we need to push the students to become independent readers, and that goes along with becoming independent learners.”
The most important thing is how teachers manage the classroom conversation. “Keep the discussion centred on the objectives but open enough for the students to have the opportunity to speak.”
Transforming Language Pedagogy
The NfM classroom may look the same from the outside, but listen closely and you’ll notice a difference in the kinds of questions being asked, and who’s asking them.
Rita admits that this can be quite scary for the novice. “It takes a lot of preparation and a certain amount of practice. But you don’t give up control of the class, just some control of the discussion.”
We still have some way to go before we see a change in classroom culture.
“Right now, the teachers ask the questions, and the students try and answer what the teacher wants to hear. But if you keep working on this, what you hope is that the students will start to ask more questions, and the students will start to give more explanations,” notes Rita.
“Over time, what you hope is who’s asking the questions will change.”
For more on questioning techniques, Rita suggests: Improving Comprehension with Questioning the Author: A Fresh and Expanded View of a Powerful Approach by Isabel L. Beck and Margaret G. McKeown (Scholastic, 2006).