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Responsive teaching

Dylan Wiliam, the academic most associated with Assessment for Learning (AfL), aka formative assessment, has stated that these labels have not been the most helpful to teachers. He believes that they have been partly responsible for poor implementation of AfL and the fact that AfL has not led to the improved outcomes originally intended.

Wiliam wrote on Twitter in 2013:

“Example of really big mistake: calling formative assessment formative assessment rather than something like "responsive teaching".”

For the record he subsequently added:

“The point I was making—years ago now—is that it would have been much easier if we had called formative assessment "responsive teaching". However, I now realize that this wouldn't have helped since it would have given many people the idea that it was all about the teacher's role.”

I suspect he’s right about the appellation and its consequences. As a teacher I found it hard to get my head around the terms AfL and formative assessment. And I think it’s the word assessment which is the problem. For most of us ‘assessment’ implies ‘test’ and it’s this which has confused teachers about the difference between formative and summative assessment.

Look at this definition I found of formative assessment and you’ll see that, while it’s pretty good, it still has a whiff of testing about it.

“Formative assessment refers to a wide variety of methods that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course. Formative assessments help teachers identify concepts that students are struggling to understand, skills they are having difficulty acquiring, or learning standards they have not yet achieved so that adjustments can be made to lessons, instructional techniques, and academic support.” *

“Responsive teaching”, on the other hand, while not a particularly precise term, at least provides a clearer flavour of what AfL was always about: using what you hear and see from pupils to adjust your teaching to help the class move forward.

Writer and blogger Harry Fletcher-Wood came up with his own working definition of responsive teaching:

1. Setting clear goals and planning learning carefully.
2. Identifying what students have understood and where they are struggling.
3. Responding, adapting our teaching to support students to do better. **

That makes sense to me too, but what does this mean in practice for language teachers? Here are a few examples.

1. Suppose you are doing choral or individual repetition with beginners. You hear incorrect pronunciation and decide, for example, to do more practice or closer analysis with the class about how the sounds are produced. You don’t make do with second best and your class keeps better pronunciation habits in the longer term.

2. You have been practising the chunk “je suis allé”, for example in a narrow listening or reading task, through a set of oral drills or via a set of pictures or flashcards (“Je suis allé au parking, je suis allé à la gare, je suis allé au restaurant, etc). You then notice that pupils cannot use the phrase in a freer activity (e.g. an information gap task or free written composition). This leads you to review the structure in further activities either immediately or at a future date.

3. You do a listening comprehension activity from an audio file and observe that the class only got half the answers right. Rather than just move on, you respond to this feedback by doing further, more detailed work on the transcript of the source text. Or you decide to do less comprehension-based listening work and more modelling and decoding work, e.g. gap-fill, error spotting and chunk translation.

4. During a whole class question-answer hands-up session on a written text you observe that only a few pupils, the same ones, are offering to anawer. You respond in a number of ways, e.g. you get all students to write down answers on paper or on a mini whiteboard, or you use no hands-up questioning or the wait-time technique (i.e. you tell the class you will wait five seconds before asking for hands up).

5. You have set a written composition homework and discover on reading it that that the same errors keep cropping up. Rather than correct every one individually, you make a note of the error and reteach and practise that particular problem area in the next lesson. This use of whole class feedback, as well as saving you time, is more likely to improve future performance.

6. The class is doing a pair work information gap task. You let the class get on without much interruption because you want the focus to be on fluency. However, you hear the same errors coming up repeatedly, e.g. mispronunciation of a word or phrase or misuse of a verb form. You wait until the task is over then pick out one or two errors for a few minutes of reteaching or further structured practice.

7. Laying out at the start of a lesson or lesson sequence what you intend to do and why and what you hope your pupils will be able to know and do. In this regard, rather than tell them you are going to learn about adjectives, it might be better to tell pupils: “We are going to learn and practise how you describe your friends - what they look like, what they are like and what you think of them. By the end of these few lessons yo’ll be able to understand some descriptions, talk and write a bit about a friend.”


What about Wiliam’s observation that AfL is not just about the teacher’s role? Well, in his model of formative assessment he believes both peers and the pupils themselves play a role. Peers can provide sources of learning and feedback, while learners themselves can be “owners of their own learning”, providing, I assume, self-feedback. This is all no doubt important, but, that said, I still think “responsive teaching” makes more sense to teachers than the other labels.

To me this is the essence of responsive teaching: it’s about using your cognitive empathy to react to what is happening in your classroom by taking the necessary steps to help students acquire the language. It’s subtle, skilled, rigorous, demanding and enjoyable. It communicates to students that you care. It builds relationships. It’s just good teaching.

* Source: https://www.edglossary.org/formative-assessment/
** Source: https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2018/06/03/what-is-responsive-teaching/

Harry Fletcher-Wood has also written a book called Responsive Teaching (2018).


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