Wait Them Out

What a long and fascinating journey! Teaching using comprehensible input is a Long and Winding Road that leads me home, finally, from all that shitty teaching that is now, thankfully, years behind me.

New idea du jour: what  we have to do is insist on responses! Our mistake – a big  one – is to think that we are armed and ready with only:

  • Slow
  • Staying in Bounds
  • Checking for understanding by asking millions of yes/no questions

Let’s turn a focused eye on the third of those three things. It’s the one that needs the attention. I first addressed it after NTPRS when Von really helped me see something about what I was doing in this article:


The third one. Checking for understanding. The culprit. What does that mean, the culprit?

It means that we need to check for understanding COMPLETELY. What does that mean? It means what Blaine has said all along and we never listened to him – get a good choral response. Ahah! That is where we fall down.

Admit it. You don’t get a strong  choral “YES!” or “NO!” from your classes  on  every question. Come on. Admit it and feel the truth flow in: “It’s true! I don’t get a good  choral response on my questions!”

Good, you said it, and I totally admit suck at it too. But let us go deeper into this. Why don’t we get a good choral response on our questions? Here is an answer.

We don’t get a good choral response on our y/n  questions because we lack spine. We are afraid to make a group of surly kids who are used to being allowed to not show up for class answer us loudly and with enthusiasm. Well, at least that is why I suck at it.

But yesterday I had just had it with the weak responses. I just wasn’t going to let them get away with being cardboard cutouts of students anymore. I was in one of those moods, and I was armed with the rigor posters, which sit on one of those triangular rolling whiteboards, like an easel, right next to the kids and which I am starting to refer to more and more. Thank you Clarice and everyone who worked on those posters! (available on the resources/posters link of this site.)

The best poster is the main rigor poster that talks about what  it should feel like to them inside and outside. I really focused on the outside piece, what is looks like to ME when they are learning. I told them that unless I see those four behaviors FROM THEM IN CLASS ALL THE TIME, then we are not really acquiring the language. I told them that this observable behavior is exactly what the national standards (the Interpersonal Mode of the Three Modes of Communication) require me to do, to see in their eyes if they understand or not.

I told them again about the jGR and how WHAT THEY DO in class in OBSERVABLE TERMS and in terms of NEGOTIATING MEANING with me (I didn’ t use those terms) would determine a full 50% of their grades. In short, I gave them “the lecture”.

At the end  of pointing to and using all four posters, all of this in English over a period of about twenty minutes, the second such lecture of the year, I told them that I was now going to return to the story and ask a bunch of easy y/n questions and I EXPECTED TO HEAR AND SEE THEM RESPOND TO ME IN THE WAY I REQUIRED.

It worked. They did it. I was so happy. These are  children and unless we tell them  what  want from them in terms of  behaviors, they won’t know what to do.



16 thoughts on “Wait Them Out”

  1. This is very important, Ben. It really ties in with the “mind meld” idea that you were talking about at NTPRS (to a somewhat confused audience!). Teachers need to understand that we’re going beyond traditional expectations (as with your post on Jen’s Great Rubric). This is about getting total buy-in, and therefore total comprehension and acquisition. Doing the “broken record” until they all play the game seems like a great way to tap into peer pressure, but in a positive way which makes them all feel responsible for each other, especially the clowns who desperately want our attention, but don’t know how to get positive attention.

    This strategy also strikes me as helpful because it ensures that the classes that need more CI get it, through the repetition of the question until everyone is on board. The class is in fact indicating how many additional reps it needs, and the teacher is simply responding to that need by refusing to move on until they are ready.

    On the topic of students feeling responsible for each other, I made a change to my “don’t understand” gesture policy. When I was reviewing this with the students, one student asked: “what happens if a student is making the gesture, but you don’t see it?” I responded: “If you see a student making the gesture, and you see that I don’t see it, I want you to do it too, because we are all responsible for our learning, as a class.” In order for kids to actually do this, however, I think we have to be very explicit that saying you don’t understand is never a bad thing. I can see the looks on my kids’ faces, they are ashamed of not understanding something, so there’s a lot of re-programming that needs to take place. Ben, at NTPRS, when a “student” made the sign, and was the only one brave enough to admit he didn’t get it, you looked at him and said: “You know what? You just got a 100% on the next quiz. You don’t even have to take it. Just write 100% at the top.” There is the incentive right there.

  2. I, too, suck at insisting on a strong choral response. My conundrum is that I think just because they give me a loud, enthusiastic response, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand. Is it not possible that the kids who don’t understand (and still haven’t gotten the message that this is o.k.) can now hide behind their loud classmates and just mimic what they hear them say?
    My plan for today is also to take a few minutes to go over Jen’s GR again before this current group of 8th graders gets away from me.

  3. I have found this all very true. I’ve begun telling my classes that when they are silent, I will think that perhaps I wasn’t yet understandable to them, so I should repeat and pause & point more, and slowly re-ask. When I only get one or two students responding, I ask for someone to tell what my question meant. Then I repeat again so that the whole class, or at least all those now on board, can hear & respond to it. I’ve told them that a big way they can show they understand is to respond to questions that way.
    Another benefit to the choral responses: I think it will build a sense of class camaraderie. I sense they’re all together in this, and each one matters, not just the fastest processors in the class.

    1. The camaraderie point is a good one. Some of my kids try to out-clever each other and quiet students seem even more reticent to speak. The choral responses from everyone may help.

  4. Last year I was so upset with my 4th graders (the beginners in my school). They were like bumps on logs. It was a frustrating year, watching them drown in a sea of words, as I jumped around like an idiot trying to get them to understand. (Contrarily, my 5th and 6th graders were like little TPRS machines, eating everything up that I threw at them.) This year, I have really made circling my priority, which is forcing me to go slowly. I have almost 100% engagement in every one of my 4th grade classes; I suppose having classes under 14 doesn’t hurt (yes, the school board is kicking itself for hiring that third teacher). However, I have found that my 5th graders (last year’s immobile 4th graders) and so much more engaged now that I am going slowly. It’s incredible. It’s like someone flipped a switch. Everyone is so very happy: students, me, parents. It’s like I’m walking on clouds, all the time.

  5. Absolutely SLOW counts as does Staying in Bounds, but the most important thread here of the past month, among some really important ones, in my view, is found in this sentence here my:

    …then I repeat again so that the whole class, or at least all those now on board, can hear & respond to it….

    Key word being RESPOND. (see link below on the importance of RESPONSES from everyone in the class). This is Blaine’s constant message over twenty years and I have noticed as I observe CI teachers it is by far the most ignored one that only took me 12 years to get.

    But the part that I must disagree with in that sentence is this:

    …or at least all those now on board….

    I disagree with allowing some to be on board and other not. I insist that they all be involved. It is not a choice. Just my opinion. So for those trying to do the cardboard cutout student thing (bc it works for them in so many of their other classes but NOT IN MINE) and this is the second most important thread here recently, I use jGR to make sure that they get a max 2 of 5 (this can devastate a grade and SHOULD) until they SHOW UP for class for the simple reason that they have chosen to take my class and my class is all about SHOWING UP and that is what I insist they do.

    So the two links in support of both points I make above, both listed now as categories for ease of reference bc I personally need to read them over and over and over, and which I have time stamped for republication here in a the next few weeks, are:

    1. on the topic of getting ALL the students to chorally respond:


    2. on the subject of tying observable behaviors (choral responses) and the ability to negotiate meaning in class to ALIGN THOSE BEHAVIORS WITH THE NATIONAL STANDARDS:


  6. Are we still in agreement that a strong choral response is key? I think strong responses from everyone will be one of my few main objectives in starting the year next time I’m teaching French. I had a little mental break-through during my French 1 class yesterday. It’s 32 kids and several of them are VERY chatty. I stopped class for the umpteenth time yesterday to wait for silence. I waited literally about 2 whole minutes for chatting and fidgeting to stop. I opened the blinds so I could stare out the window at the sunny courtyard. Those two minutes were a gift though, because as I stared out the window listening to the chatting slowly die down for the 100th time that period, I realized that I will NEVER have a class like this again. I will train them right from the beginning. We will practice strong choral responses and when they get weak I will stop class like Ben did above and we will practice again. Engaging in the big class “conversation” will be the only talking going on, mostly in choral responses.

    Ben’s reasoning on why I don’t do this already is spot-on:

    “We don’t get a good choral response on our y/n questions because we lack spine. We are afraid to make a group of surly kids who are used to being allowed to not show up for class answer us loudly and with enthusiasm.”

    Is anyone else having to step up their game in enforcing strong responses next year?

      1. “It’s your job to know and it’s my job to know that you know. I can’t move on until I know that you know.”

        This is going on my wall. Short, direct and to the point.

    1. Certainly something for me to work on again at the beginning of next year. It really does matter. Kids try to hide that they don’t understand, or they shout random answers, rather than focus and respond to each question.

      I subbed for a math teacher for one period Tuesday. The kids were working on math problems the whole period and constantly chatting with their classmates, sometimes about the problems and sometimes just randomly. I think that it the norm in other classes. So when we ask all students to think all the time in class, it’s much more rigorous than their other classes. That’s what I think. Some of them don’t like that feeling and fight it with chatting in English or passively not responding to questions.

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