Teacher echo, teacher echo: helpful, or greedy and controlling?

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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.

If you are currently taking CELTA, can I suggest my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, available from Amazon and Smashwords, containing everything you need to know for CELTA teaching practice.

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Filed under Speaking, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

23 Responses to Teacher echo, teacher echo: helpful, or greedy and controlling?

  1. Pingback: Teacher echo, teacher echo: helpful, or greedy ...

  2. I’d suggest another reason for doing it is that students often expect their mistakes to be corrected. I have had some object when I didn’t do it (so as not to slow the flow) so sometimes you can’t please everyone!

    • You certainly can’t please everyone! 🙂 But, if it’s a correction, then it’s really a recast, rather than an echo, isn’t it? I think there is some value in recasting, the problem is that it is so often not actually noticed. And, in fact, if you do use recasting as an error correction technique, then that’s all the more reason to avoid echo, as otherwise how will students know if you’re correcting or not?

  3. Brillantly summarised. I agree with all your doubts and do my best to not do it. It does come very naturally though. Looking forward to hearing your viewson effective alternative reformulating.

  4. Recasting is useful with very young learners but with adults it’s a total failure; Would you suggest as to how it can work well with them as well, keeping in view their low level of motivation.

  5. Pingback: Rachael’s post on Teacher Echo | The Cambridge CELTA Blog

  6. Hi Rachel, thanks for writing about this topic. This weekend I was in Hamburg visiting my cousin, his wife and their two toddlers. Interestingly, I noticed that they echoed their children’s words back to them all the time, which seems perfectly normal to let their children hear a correct model of the language from their main source of input for said language – it’s mummy-talk, right?

    Curiously, in feedback with a teacher I observed two weeks ago, I brought up the subject of her echo. It was a minor thing but it’s something I am a bit of a stick in the mud for and often raise the issue to encourage trainers to reflect on their practices a little more. Paradoxically, we ended up coming to the same conclusions as I did for my cousin’s children: correct model from their main source of input.

    To put things into perspective, the intention was not to try and quantify the echo, rather to try and find the source for this teacher’s classroom behaviour in an attempt to eliminate it. We hashed together a few arguments against echoing:

    1. Overuse can push teachers unknowingly towards negative interaction routines: Question – Response – Feedback; the echo is the feedback.

    2. It could unwittingly lead to ignoring valuable contributions to class which can be used and exploited.

    3. It is unnatural for an adult to have things repeated to them

    4. This one has also been touched upon a little. How does a student therefore tell the difference between echoing and reformulation; those who have caught onto reformulation may wonder what it is they keep saying wrong.

    What would be your advice to a teacher who wants to remove their echo from their practice?


    • Hi Dale,

      Thanks for commenting. I noticed myself echoing a lot when my kids were learning to speak as well. I guess, for me, the point is that learning a second language as an adult and learning your first language are very different, aren’t they? Amount of time and input, role of the teacher as opposed to parent of a toddler, the way the adult brain learns…
      It’s an interesting question though, whether this teacher behaviour is something innate transferred from our parenting skills, or whether it has come from all the SLA research which did draw parallels between 1st and 2nd language learning, such as behaviourism. It would be interesting to go back in time to 1900 and see if teachers were doing it then! Even if we weren’t trained to do it, I think teachers pick up a huge amount from their years of education, unconsciously modelling their teaching behaviours on the teachers they had. I have even found myself asking, ‘Do your parents let you behave like that at home?’ 😉
      As to your last question, I think far and away the best thing to do is to record yourself teaching. Doesn’t have to be a video, just your mobile will do. I have done it myself and it’s incredibly illuminating, not just for echo, but as a way of looking at all teacher interventions.In fact, I may do it again soon, and write about it!

  7. Good points! I remember a webinar I attended on dynamic assessment: http://eslcarissa.blogspot.com/2011/02/dynamic-assessment.html I don’t really implement dynamic assessment in my class but I do use some of the ideas the webinar discussed:
    First there’s the pause to see if the student self corrects (often with slips!).
    If not I can rephrase their statement as a question. (My sister and me like to swim?)
    Repeat just the part with the error. (My sister and me?)
    Ask: “What’s wrong with that sentence”
    Point out the incorrect word. (Can we change me?)
    Ask an either or question (I or me?)
    Give the correct answer (Use I)
    And finally: explain why.

    I actually cut out echoing when I started cutting back on my TTT a while back. I find that other students tend to pick up the blank space and correct other students. I allow it if done politely (doesn’t affect the class flow/chemistry), and it is correct. If it isn’t correct then I step in to fix the sentence properly.

    Instead of talking I have used finger correcting, Herbert Puchta’s Third Person S on the wall that I can just look at / point to when they forget it. and other randoms. They seem to work pretty well.

  8. Mike Roberts

    Hi Rachel
    I do not agree that echoing is controlling or greedy because to say this implies that teachers who echo are doing it deliberately and consciously as part of making a strategic choice. In my experience of echoing, both personal and observed, echoing is automatic ‘natural’ involuntary behaviour. The very dubious intrinsic merits proposed by the pro-echoing lobby – to provide additional good models of the language, to enable all students to hear clearly what quiet students have said, and to increase TTT – are a red herring because they rongly pre-suppose that teachers choose to echo which they mostly do not. The merits proposed are just excuses to justify a mostly involuntary bad teaching habit.

    You say 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 why do teachers repeat correct utterances?

    Well, first I would point out that people do echo and communicate in this way in real life.

    Jack: I scored three goals in yesterday’s game.
    Bill: You scored three goals in yesterday’s game! Amazing!
    Jack: Yea. And then I drank 10 pints after the match.
    Bill: Wow! You drank 10 pints!

    Repeating utterances is one way of showing a high level of interest in what the other speaker is saying and encourages the speaker to continue and to say more. It is a way of bonding and closely parallels the imitation and mimicry of others’ postures and body language to signal solidarity and a desire to bond and strengthen the relationship of the participants in the interaction.

    Teachers certainly have a strong desire to be liked and to strengthen their relationships with their students, plus they want to encourage their students to say as much as they possibly can, so it is entirely natural, even instinctive, for teachers to repeat what their students say – to echo.

    But does echoing help students?

    No, because if the teacher is talking the student is not and too much TTT is a priori bad if the goal is giving students speaking practice. It takes up too much valuable class time.

    Keeping students talking as much as possible when the focus is on oral fluency is obviously very important for teachers. Plus any means of keeping another person talking as long as possible is a very important tool for a language learner wanting to practice spoken communication with native speakers and to maximise their exposure to comprehensible input

    Similarly keeping students talking and producing more increasingly extended utterances when the focus is on oral fluency is obviously very important for teachers.

    Repeating what the speaker says should be just one of a number of different communicative strategies students need to learn as ways of showing interest and keeping an exchange.

    These strategies would include for example: appropriate body language, quality of eye contact, using a wide range of pitch and tone in one’s intonation, and using specific linguistic devices we might call ‘Conversation Controllers’ such as:

    Oh really!
    Go on. Go on.
    Tell me more.
    That’s interesting.
    Your’e kidding!
    Oh how awful!
    Hmmmmm ..
    I know. I know.

    Using the auxilliary or modal like this is another way of showing interest and prolonging the interaction:
    Oh, are you?
    Oh, do you?
    Oh, can you?
    Oh, did you?

    This following list is a possible starting point for a taxonomy of Conversation Controllers:

    1. agreement
    Yes, it is.
    Yes, that’s right.
    Of course, it is.
    Quite right.
    I think so, too.
    I agree with you.
    I couldn’t agree more!
    No doubt about it!

    2. polite disagreement
    Well, not really.
    Not exactly.
    Not quite.
    I don’t agree.
    I don’t think so.
    I don’t know about that.

    3. doubt
    Is that right?
    Is that so?
    Are you sure?
    I’m not quite sure.

    4. expressing interest or disinterest
    Sounds interesting.
    Tell me more.
    I’d like to know more about that.
    That doesn’t interest me, really.
    I don’t care.

    5. positive feedback
    That’s nice.
    Really nice.
    Pretty good!

    6. negative feedback
    That’s awful!
    That’s not very nice.
    That’s not nice at all.

    7. expressing understanding
    I see.
    Got it.
    Alright. I’ve got that.

    8. expressing a lack of understanding
    Sorry, I didn’t quite get that.
    I’m afraid I don’t understand.
    Could you say that again?

    9. encourage more information
    Is that right?
    No kidding?
    I see.
    Go on…
    What happened next?
    And then what?
    You don’t say…

    10. interrupting
    Sorry to interrupt…
    By the way…
    That reminds me…
    Excuse me…
    Sorry to butt in…
    Excuse me for interrupting you, but…

    11. conversation spacers
    So, you see,…
    And then,…
    Know what I mean?
    You know,…
    The thing is…
    It’s like this…
    How shall I put this…
    Hm-m-m, yes…
    Well, let me see…
    Well, now…
    Oh, let me think for a moment…
    That’s a very good question.

    Repeating what the speaker says – echoing – is another strategy that students should be taught to add to this list.

    Jane: I got up at 5.30am this morning.
    Pam: You got up at 5.30! Why so early?

    Teachers should teach students how to use echoing as one of a number of different communicative strategies available to them to advance their learning. Teachers should not constantly echo in an involuntary way themselves. We should make positive, controlled use of echoing and not be the unwitting victims of it.

    Mike Roberts

    • Wow. Thanks so much for such a full comment- really a blog post in itself. Not sure I need to write a follow up post now 😉
      Of course, you know I don’t really think teachers are being greedy and controlling, but I think your point about showing a high level of interest is right- though I still think it would sound odd to do it more than occasionally. I trained as a person centred counsellor, and was taught to repeat back what people were saying, so they could ‘hear’ it and to show I was listening- and I can definitely say that the counsellors in training all felt this was unnatural, and struggled with it quite a bit at first.
      But the main point, as you say, is that we need to be aware and conscious about what we are doing so that we can make appropriate choices about how to respond.

    • Hi Mike,
      I think you make some excellent points, but I have a few quibbles with your list of phrases. The idea is brilliant – to have a list of “useful conversational fillers” – but I wonder whether all of them are really the kind of things that native speakers actually use in conversation.
      As a lady who hails from the British Isles, I ask myself how often native speakers use the phrases, “I don’t agree” or “that doesn’t interest me really”. I would argue that we are much more circumspect when we have something negative to say and that such direct statements are probably very rare amongst native speakers.
      That said, not all non-native speakers will interact primarily with native speakers, so the norms of, say, the British Isles, may not be relevant to all learners. However, even in a situation where English is the lingua franca of a group of speakers with diverse backgrounds, it may be worth trying to find more gentle ways to express disagreement or dislike. As far as I can tell, in many other cultures besides the British one, it is not considered “the done thing” to disagree with your host.
      It would be great to hear other posters’ comments on this and some alternative phrases which might sound less aggressive.
      Off the top of my head, here are some:
      “Well, that is certainly one way to see things/way of looking at it”
      “Well, I suppose you could look at it that way”
      “I hadn’t thought of it that way before”
      “Interesting perspective, hmmm.”
      I certainly don’t think that adult native speakers who barely know each other would ever use the phrase, “I don’t care”.
      However, with a bit of fine-tuning, I think we could put together a wonderful conversational phrase book!

      • Mike Roberts

        Hi Amanda
        Absolutely agree with you that some of the ‘conversation filler’ phrases sound a tad forced and contrived and do not crop up frequently in spoken dialogue. The list I provided was produced by a teacher colleague and I am not sure if it was of his own making or if he found it in a published text. It was only intended to be a starting point for creating a taxonomy of conversation control utterances.

        I also use a list of my own as follows:

        Keep Talking 1

        1. Really?
        2. Oh really!
        3. No kidding?
        4. That’s interesting!
        5. That’s nice.
        6. Hey! That’s good!
        7. Cool!
        8. Great!
        9. Tell me more.
        10. Go on. Go on.
        11. Yes. Yes. Yea… Yea…. Yea …
        12. Uh huh … uh huh
        13. Ah!
        14. Mmmm ..
        15. I see. I see.
        16. I know. I know.
        17. Oh dear!
        18. Oh!
        19. Oh no!
        20. Oh how awful!
        21. Oh my!
        22. Never?
        23. No?
        24. Oh my god!
        25. How terrible?
        26. Wow!
        27. I don’t believe it!
        28. Get outa here!
        29. You cannot be serious!
        30. You’re pulling my leg!
        am I?
        31. Oh are you?
        is he/she/it?
        do I?
        32. Oh do you?
        does he/she/it?

        33. Ditto for ‘have/had’, ‘was/were’, ‘did’ and all the modals.

        I issue these to students as handouts and then have them use these fillers to show interest and respond appropriately when they do conversation pairwork practices.

        I also use worksheets like this as follow up:

        Showing Interest in English 1

        Look at this example:

        A: He teaches English.
        B: Oh, does he!

        Now write B:’s answers to show interest:

        1. A: I like apples.

        2. A: She’s a very good friend.

        3. A: We’re English teachers.

        4. A: They’ve studied English for three years.

        5. A: It rained in Keelung yesterday.

        6. A: You speak English very well.

        7. A: He came here by bus.

        8. A: Mrs. Roberts wants to see you.

        9. A: Daniel and Christine are eating dinner now.

        10. A: His cat eats ten mice every day.

        11. A: I have been to Hong Kong.

        12. A: They were watching TV when I got home.

        13. A: You and your sister can watch the video tonight.

        14. A: Peter should do his homework before he goes out to play.

        15. A: Those girls always whisper in class.

        16. A: My father works in a large office.

        17. A: The new students are quite nervous and shy.

        18. A: Simon has eaten three hamburgers today.

        19. A: Peter went to Tainan with his mother.

        20. A: That car is twenty years old.

        21. A: Kyle saw Daniel and Christine sitting together on the bus.

        22. A: Simon and Joyce walked home together after school.

        23. A: The teacher will tell his students not to sleep in class again.

        24. A: Those icecreams were really good.

        25. A: The book you gave me was very interesting.

        I find teaching responses and how to show interest really helps to bring conversation practice alive making it sound and feel more naturalistic, and it helps avoid one student just sitting there disengaged, bored and yawning while the other student rattles away in a monologue drone. This way the dialogue becomes a more shared experience with both parties participating because the responder really has to listen carefully and take in what is being said if they are to make the appropriate responses.


  9. Hi Rachel,
    I seem to remember from my SLA reading (though I’m afraid I have no idea where I saw this), that some research has cast doubt on the efficacy of recasting from parental perspective in L1, let alone in L2 instruction. Children, it seems, respond to recasts for truth, but not for form.
    So if the child says “Mummy, I taked the red car” and the parent recasts taked to took, it has no significance for the child. But if the car is in fact yellow and the parent corrects this “You mean you took the yellow car darling”, then this will be taken in and processed.
    Some interesting implications for classroom practice….?
    Thanks for an interesting post!

    • That’s interesting. It certainly tallies with my own experience when my kids were learning to speak. Meaning is paramount. Thanks for commenting – and if you find the reference…

      • Zohreh

        Hi, Rashel ,
        May I ask you a question?
        What are differences among teacher echoing, recast and reformulation in SLA classroom interaction.

        • Hi Zohreh,

          Good question! First the easy bit..teacher echo is when the teacher repeats what the student is saying, exactly as they said it. This is, in my opinion, usually a matter of habit, sometimes because students speak quite quietly. It could, however be seen as a way of providing positive feedback if the student understands that you’re repeating it to affirm it was correct. Alternatively, (though I wouldn’t call this echo myself) teachers can repeat utterances, often with a questioning intonation, as a way of drawing attention to an error and promoting the student to self-correct. It’s precisely because I feel that the students won’t know for which of these reasons the teacher is repeating their utterance that I think teacher echo better avoided (and the fact that it takes up a lot of classroom talking time).
          Recasting and reformulation is trickier because for many researchers and commentators, there is no difference between them. They can both refer to the practice of repeating what the student says but in a more ‘correct’ version. So the student says, ‘I goed to the park yesterday’ and the teacher says, ‘You went to the park’ or ‘I went to the park.’
          However, Long (2006) defines a recast as a situation where the teacher makes this kind of change to the student’s utterance, but the focus is on meaning, not just form. So, a recast isn’t just didactic, it’s an attempt to clarify what the learner is saying.
          Hope that helps 🙂

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  11. Zohreh

    Hi Racheal,
    Your opinion was very helpful.
    I need your help for my dissertation. May I have your email addresse.
    Thank you,

  12. Pingback: To echo or not to echo? 🔊🔊 – The TEFL Zone

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