Teacher Echo

Classroom Management
Teacher Echo and IRF

An aspect of classroom management that often comes up as an issue in CELTA courses is where the teacher repeats back what a learner said to them. Do you think this is a problem? Watch this short video for some thoughts on ‘teacher echo’ and how teachers often respond to learners in an IRF (Initiation/ Response/ Feedback) pattern.


Hello, and welcome. This is ELT training.com and I'm Jo Gakonga. And this month's video is on another aspect of classroom management. We're going to look at classroom interaction patterns, we're going to look at teacher echo, and also what's called IRF. More about that later.

So let's start with teacher echo. So what we mean by this is when the teacher repeats something that's been said in the classroom, usually by the learners, I have one of my students to thank here, Lotus. She's been doing some research into this, and it made me think about it again, in a new way. And some of these examples of hers so thank you, Lotus.

So the first question really, is this one? Why do teachers do this? Sometimes this might be for clarity, the teacher might repeat what the teacher has said, to clarify things to ensure that learners have understood things. Here's an example: 'I want you to get into pairs, yes, pairs to together'.

And maybe you gesture and show them what you mean. So in this case, you could argue that the teacher echoes themselves, but there's a really good reason for it. Learners don't speak the language very well and you want to ensure that they have understood. Fair enough. Sometimes it's for very authentic use too; here's an example:

Teacher 'What did you do at the weekend?

Learner: It is grandma birthday, she 100.

Teacher: 100. Wow. And she's still healthy.

Now, here, clearly, you've echoed what the learner has said, but this is in a completely appropriate manner. This is very normal. You'd say this to your friends in exactly the same way. So I think this is really authentic use. And I think there's no issue with this for me at all. But there are also other issues, which are more teacherly, perhaps like this:

Learner: Stick,

Teacher: Stick? What stick?

Learner: Sick stick S T, E, A, K.

Teacher: Oh, steak.

So it's the teacher trying to negotiate meaning here, and this kind of negotiation of meaning, again, I think is completely reasonable, authentic and fine. Don't have a problem with anything like this. But there's another kind of teacher echo that's commonly found in classrooms that I do think is worth considering whether you do this or not, and whether it's a good idea or not. So this is what happens.. The learner says ‘on Tuesday’, and the teacher says, ‘Oh, yes, on Tuesday, good. Number five’. The learner answers ‘at six o'clock’, and the teacher repeats ‘At six o'clock. Good. And the next?’

This is the kind of teacher echo that I'm talking about that I'm suggesting is not good practice. Well, why not? There are different reasons why you might do this. I think one reason is that we often want to make the learners answers audible - perhaps the learner that we've asked didn't say it very loudly. And we want the rest of the class to hear. So we get this kind of conversation:

Teacher: (loudly) What’s the answer to number four?

Learner: (quietly) On Tuesday.

Teacher (loudly) Yes, on Tuesday, Good.

So in this case, what the teacher is obviously trying to do is ensure that the rest of the class, have (1) heard it and (2) heard it in a good pronunciation model, perhaps. But I think that there's a better thing to do here. If your learners are giving you very quiet answers, possibly because they're not very confident about their own answers, you could ask them to repeat it. You could ask them to repeat it again. You could gesture using a hand behind the ear. And I think if you get learners into the habit of saying things at a volume at which everybody else can hear, then that's better. And then if they don't say it correctly, then you can give them some correction that's helpful for them. I think there are good reasons to get them to, to repeat answers, so that they're audible to the rest of the class.

Another reason that teachers might repeat learners is to help them correct themselves. So a teacher says, ‘What did you do at the weekend?’ The learner says ‘I go cinema’. So the teacher says, ‘Oh, you went to the cinema’. Now this isn't exactly echoing, but it's what we call recasting. And it's very similar. This isn't clearly very natural language, it’s very ‘teacherIy’ language, and I think that there's a better way of doing this, which is when you get this kind of answer, which is clearly wrong. Do it in this way: Teacher: You GO cinema?

So this arguably is Teacher echo. But here we're emphasizing  ‘go’, we're emphasizing the mistake that the learner's making so that the learner can self correct hopefully.

Another reason that I think teachers echo is just simply habit, it can be one of those things that you fall into. And I don't know why, but it's a very easy thing to fall into. And this follows something that's called IRF, which stands for Initiation Response and Feedback. And this kind of pattern of interaction is very common in classrooms. Now, this isn't exactly the same as teacher echo, but there's a lot of crossover I think so it's worth mentioning at this point. So Tom Farrell in his 2011, I TEFL plenary, which is available on iTunes and well worth a listen, uses this example, to show what IRF is. So he says, ‘Somebody asked what's the time and somebody else says ten to two. At this point, it's a normal conversation. And then first person says, ‘Good’ at which point, this becomes a teacher conversation’.

So we've got the I, the initiation, usually by the teacher, the Response, usually by the learner, and the Feedback, usually by the teacher. And this kind of thing means that what happens is the vast majority of the teacher talk in the classroom is taken up with the teacher talking, and you've got this feedback of ‘Good’, which is not necessarily very authentic. It can lead to real problems.

So Thompson in his ELT journal article of 1997, (it's quite old, but it's, I think, really worth bringing up). This was a genuine example of teacher interaction in the classroom, the teacher asked, ‘What does your father do?’ to a trainee teacher? The learner gave the answer ‘He’s a teacher’, so the trainee said ‘Oh, he's a teacher’. Good’. Again, we've got this repetition, this teacher echo thing, which I was talking about before. Now the trainee asks ‘What does your father do?’ to the next learner? The next learner says ‘My father dead’ At which point the teacher genuinely said, ‘Good. What about your father?’ to the next learner. Now, clearly, this is really inappropriate, but I think it can get to that kind of IRF pattern where you don't really even listen to the learner’s question or the learner’s response.

So what you need to think about is not the IRF, but to think about how you can further the interaction by getting this learner to speak more. So if you've got this kind of thing:

Teacher: What's the answer?

Learner: On Tuesday?

Teacher: Good, on Tuesday, good.

We have IRF. This is not necessarily the best way to go about things. But better might be something like this. ‘Okay, you’ve got the answer? How do you know?’ So that we've got a bit more interaction from this answer? Here's another example. So your teacher question might be ‘Have you ever eaten snails?’ to which your learners all grimace and say ‘No’ Well, instead of just saying ‘Good’, perhaps then you ask some other questions like this:How could you cook them? Have you ever eaten anything unusual?

 So the ‘Have you eaten snails?’ question is what we call a closed question. There's really only two answers to that -yes or no. But these questions are open questions to which the learners can give much broader answers, encouraging them to be engaged more, and to interact more, which is definitely what we want.

So I hope that that's given you a couple of thoughts about teacher echo and about IRF. If you're already teaching, it's a really good idea to record yourself, sometimes just audio record yourself, you can do it with a mobile phone, it's very easy. And just listen to yourself and see these kind of interaction patterns. And if you do use them, you might be surprised. And it's a really good reflective tool, I think, to listen to yourself and see what you say. It's not very comfortable always, but it is very useful.

Anyway, I hope that that's been of some interest, and I look forward seeing you next time thanks very much for listening. Bye.

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