Call and response

//Call and response

Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time visiting schools to talk about literacy. One of my stock nuggets of advice is that it’s worth spending lesson time scaffolding students’ speech in order to help them become fluent in academic language. My contention is talk is a powerful cognitive lever and that by getting students to speak in academic language it changes the way they think. If you can think in academic language then writing becomes straightforward. I call this my simple theory about writing.

Amazingly though, I’ve very rarely seen this done well. Teachers are very keen on making speaking frames to decorate their classrooms but I’m continually struck by how poorly these are often used. After I’ve watched lessons where teachers had intended to develop students’ academic language my feedback has often been that they need to make students repeat what the teacher and other students say in order to remember it better. Because this is how my own teaching evolved it’s seemed intuitive to me, but clearly that’s not the way most people see it. It’s often not until I show teachers what I mean and give a demonstration lesson that it clicks.

A few weeks ago I visited Nigeria. The highlight of the trip was visiting the Muyiwa Bamgbose Academy in Ibadan for the day and watching how lessons were taught. The most striking difference between Nigerian and western schools is the number of students in the class – it’s not unusual to see classes of 50-60 children! Clearly this means students get far less individual attention from teachers, but despite the obvious drawbacks there are, I think, potential benefits too. Teaching is very fast paced and uses and lot of call and response. This is a mode of communication which permeates African cultures: a speaker calls for audience participation and the audience respond appropriately. I saw this not only in classrooms but church services and public meetings as well.

In the classroom, a teacher will often make a statement and then expect the students to repeat it. Sometimes they ask a particular student to speak and then expect the rest of the class to repeat what was said. Because there are so many students, there’s no time to mess about. When the teacher asks a question, students shoot out of their seat and give an answer. The confidence and articulacy of these answers was remarkable. Don’t forget, English is these children’s second language but they spoke it beautifully. Compare this with the way children often answer (or don’t) questions in England: they mumble, they’re hesitant, they don’t know. Students in England are not used to the expectation that they should answer questions clearly, confidently and articulately.

This is how I tried to teach. I called it ‘speaking like an essay’. If students didn’t know, or couldn’t give, a reasonable answer in academic English I would give them a frame to help them turn their ideas presented in everyday English into something more academic sounding. I would get them to repeat it until they’d said it perfectly and then get other students to repeat, adapt and add to what they’d said with the aim that everyone had spoken like an essay. This can be exhausting and often 10 minutes was plenty both for me and my students, but in Nigerian classrooms they keep it up at a relentless pace for much longer with the result that students brim with confidence.

When I demonstrate this type of teaching to English teachers I can get a mixed response. Some teachers love it, others are repelled. They’re squeamish at having children repeat expertly crafted sentences out loud because it all feels a bit too… Victorian? I understand this squeamishness – after all, this way of teaching runs counter to the way most teachers are trained and clashes with the social norms in most schools – but I’d argue that if we always allow children to choose how and if they want to participate in lessons the result is predictable: children who lack the confidence to speak in public and who cannot communicate in the language of academic success. You may feel reluctant to drill children like this but it can be liberating for them. Our preferences ought not be a barrier to students’ academic success.



  1. Michael October 5, 2016 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    You gotta ‘gat’ in there.

  2. Catherine Merrick October 5, 2016 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    Great blog, thank you. I tried something like this last year when trying to get my yr7s to explore poetry in more detail- during lessons, sometimes randomly, I’d call ‘tentative language’ and they’d have to respond audibly with a phrase they’d learnt such as ‘it could be argued that’ or ‘this might suggest’ etc. Having read your blog, definitely going to get this back in my teaching repertoire for this year!

    • David Didau October 5, 2016 at 2:10 pm - Reply

      Thanks Catherine. Yes, ‘tentative language’ is a nice phrase – I’ll be nicking that 😉

  3. mainstreansen October 5, 2016 at 8:17 pm - Reply

    I like this – we concentrate on writing like a scientist, reading like historians etc and I’m working with some Science and History teachers on this. Doing assemblies on oracy from Tuesday – have you got any ideas? Was thinking of giving examples of student speak in essays and turning it into academic language. Maybe I’ll get them all to repeat after me? 450 students each time – not sure if I’ve got the bottle …

    • David Didau October 5, 2016 at 8:36 pm - Reply

      Assemblies? Blimey! How good is behaviour at your school? This works in Nigeria because behaviour is perfect. That said, if you think students will go along with it, it’ll work well.

      • mainstreansen October 6, 2016 at 10:01 pm - Reply

        Their behaviour is excellent but not sure if they’d speak ….I’ll let you know

  4. Simon OW October 6, 2016 at 8:13 pm - Reply

    Could not help thinking of the Rassias Method (out of Dartmouth College) when I read this. Commonly used in language and theatre departments in some parts of the US.

  5. Robyn Dalby-Stockwell October 9, 2016 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    Skill in public speaking and organising their ideas is a precious gift for a child. It is likely to impact upon their future career and should be taught in all schools. I find that many of my children have a small vocabulary. That also should be addressed.

  6. Rijul Saxena January 14, 2018 at 8:10 pm - Reply

    I get how this method might work but don’t you think this method would also be detrimental for creative thinking? I mean rehearsing the same way, getting all students to talk the same way, is like forcing squares out of different geometrical shapes. Well surely they would easily learn how to speak/write in academic language but at the cost of what? I am from India and here we are expected to follow a particular set according to the teacher’s/professor’s expectations and this practice has been carried out since a long time but to what end? The students going through this often find it really hard to express creatively and end up being ‘creatively handicapped’. A lot of researches are published in India but their impact factors are very low. While the raw numbers of the researches published is very high but original researches contributing to their respective fields is very low. I realize that people speaking in a similar fashion enables easier communication but I believe that people thinking differently is also very important for us to grow as a specie.

    • David Didau January 15, 2018 at 5:01 pm - Reply

      NO, I don’t think it would be detrimental for creative thinking. The ability to think creatively is dependent on having automatised foundational knowledge.

      I don’t know why you would use a pejorative term like “forcing”. I see it as giving children access to opportunities they would otherwise not have. This is question of social justice.

      Obviously though, this is not *all* one should do. Once children know things they should be encouraged to critique, combine and refine them. You might find this post interesting:

  7. […] that’s the student who will be least likely to remember it. The answer is to use fast paced call and response whenever you want students to pay special attention to memorising a particular idea or […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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