Recently listening to Cecilia Lemos’ great talk on recasting as a form of correction, and how she had decided it was not always very effective, I started thinking again about teacher echo.
Recasting is repeating an utterance which is incorrect, in the correct way, hoping that the student will notice it. As a technique, it has its roots in the ‘strong’ communicative approach, and is based on what parents tend to do with young children, as they are learning. However, there is quite a lot of evidence that students rarely do notice recasts. For example, Havranek (1999) recorded 1,700 examples of recasts and found that:
- Half the errors were committed again shortly afterwards
- Less than a third of learners even remembered the correction (and if they did, it didn’t mean that they later produced the language correctly)
- Peers did not notice the correction of others
So, if repeating an incorrect utterance correctly is probably of quite dubious benefit, why would teachers ‘echo’, or repeat correct utterances?
The most common reason given is that it provides learners with another opportunity to be exposed to the language. This comes from the same roots as the notion of recasting, and assumes that learners learn a second language in the same way as children learn their first language. But, as we have seen, learners don’t tend to notice or respond to the teacher’s repetition, even when there’s something salient in it.
The second reason teachers give for echoing is that it helps other students to hear what the first student said, as students are often prone to mumbling. This may certainly be true, but does it encourage the students to speak up and make the effort to communicate with each other? Or, rather, does it give the impression that the only communication which counts has to go through the teacher?
Which brings me to my third point (which, to be fair has never been offered to me as a reason for using echo). Habitual teacher echo massively increases the amount of teacher talking time. Now, I’m not against teacher talking time, per se. Good quality input from teachers is a wonderful resource. However, automatically repeating every utterance like a parrot is not good quality input. It just takes up valuable space and time.
And furthermore, people do not actually communicate in this way in real life, so it gives the impression that the interaction is not real in anyway, that it’s simply a mechanical exercise.
So, in answer to my own question, I would say that teacher echo is very rarely helpful, and that, while it may be a deliberately contentious over-statement, it is quite controlling and greedy. There are also a lot of much better things you could be doing to provide high quality interventions (more on this in a future post).
If you do want to see how much echoing you actually do, it’s really worth recording yourself teaching. This is pretty easy to do unobtrusively with a mobile phone, and may surprise you. It’s also likely to improve the quality of your teaching, as raising awareness is the first step towards making conscious decisions about the kind of interactions you want your class.