Takeaways from TLAC 2.0: Format Matters

In this blog series, we’re digging into Teach Like a Champion 2.0 and discussing what we feel are the biggest takeaways from the book. Collaborating on the series are Petra Claflin (former teacher and instructional leader turned lead writer for YES Prep’s communications & marketing team), Elisa Gibbs (Middle School Math Specialist & math intervention teacher), and Sarah Murphy Traylor (former teacher and instructional coach & now talent recruiter for YES Prep).

Today’s takeaways are from Petra Claflin.

Collegiate Format

In this Format Matters section of TLAC 2.0, Lemov talks about holding students accountable to speaking in proper format, specifically grammatical format, complete sentence format, and audible format. He goes on to introduce Collegiate Format, a new addition in TLAC 2.0 based on research from Basil Bernstein that has important implications for educators that we would be wise to pay attention to – both academically and relationally.  Bernstein theorized that there are two modes in which people communicate:

Restricted code: when the speaker assumes that listeners share their own context and perspective. For example, someone might say “It was great” if they can assume the listener already knows the context and what ‘it’ is.

Elaborated code: when the speaker makes a point of not assuming a shared perspective with the listener, even when there is good reason to assume one. When speaking in elaborated code, “It was great” would turn into, “The trip Chris and I went on to Florida was great.”

In Bernstein’s research, he observed class differences in the use of restricted versus elaborated code. To quote Lemov:

Bernstein found a strong correlation between its [elaborated code] use – between knowing when you were supposed to use it – and things like class mobility and future success. In the most economically robust segments of British society – in universities and white-collar offices – people spoke differently and noticed when others failed to do so.

Lemov goes on to connect this to the expectations that exist for how people speak in a collegiate setting, dubbing it College Format. It is the ‘language of opportunity’ and, for those of us working with lower income populations, it plays a huge role in whether or not our students are truly college-ready.

From a strictly academic standpoint, speaking more elaborately can have powerful positive results.

  • It allows for deeper processing. How many times have you called a friend or colleague to run an idea by them or talk through something? Or maybe turned to your journal to work through a struggle? In both of these instances, we’re elaborating on our ideas through spoken or written language in order to refine or better understand our ideas. Our students will benefit similarly by elaborating more on their ideas.
  • It can uncover misunderstandings. When Elisa, Sarah, and I were discussing this, Elisa pointed out the implications of elaboration in math class. She’s had many experiences where students would share a correct answer and she’d assumed they understood. When prompted to elaborate, though, it was clear the student didn’t really understand.

When I looked beyond the strict academics of teaching kids that format matters, though, I was struck by some troubling reflections.

The ‘ah-hah’ here for me was not that language matters. While Bernstein’s research was new to me, the idea was immediately familiar. As a former ELA teacher, I remember consistently giving my students feedback that they needed to write their literary essays as if I had never read the book. Of course, I had read the books, but I didn’t bother to reflect on why they illogically needed to write as if I hadn’t. I just took for granted that that’s the way it worked.

What did strike me when reading about College Format was the reminder that issues of class, race, and bias impact college readiness as much as academics do, if not more so. And that when we talk about making our students college-ready, we are also talking about helping to make sure they can negotiate the persistent and often unintended classism and racism that will consistently try to impede their progress. And language is a big part of this negotiation.

In Lemov’s words, “It’s a language you have to speak – and know you have to speak – to participate in academic discourse and have the fullest opportunity for social mobility.” I appreciate his candor and transparency around the ‘language of opportunity’ and would like to push us all to analyze our role in both the giving and taking of opportunities based on language.

As educators, we need to make sure we understand how language is impacting our perceptions of our students. While we need to teach our students the ‘language of opportunity,’ we also need to acknowledge the biases it may impress upon us and work to minimize its power over our perceptions.

Here are some ideas:

Address the content and format of answers separately. As Lemov rightly notes in his book, ideas can easily be dismissed if they are not formatted properly. So that we don’t fall into this trap as teachers, try assessing first whether or not an answer is correct and then whether or not the format is appropriate. For example, if a student shares a correct answer but doesn’t use a complete sentence, acknowledge that they are correct before prompting for a complete sentence. To keep the transaction time low, in response to the correct answer you might simply say, “Correct! Complete sentence now, please.”
For writing assignments, clarify the impact of correct format on the grade. When I taught tenth grade ELA a few years ago, I did a version of this where I would basically give them two different grades – a grade for their ideas and then a final grade once grammar and style were factored in. This was powerful because when I sat down to conference with students, it prompted me to start with their ideas, which should be what’s most important, but then also allowed me to show the impact that poor grammar or style had on their final grade. It was not rare for students to have the equivalent of an ‘A’ on content, but a ‘C’ as a final grade due solely to style or grammar mistakes. Now knowing about restricted and elaborated code, I could see talking about this directly, as well, or even including it explicitly in the rubric.
Spot check for language bias in grading. For short answer or essay questions, try pulling a few high- and low-scoring papers and jotting down students’ main ideas and evidence for those questions. Then compare the points or grades students earned on those answers. Did particularly strong or weak language skills sway how you scored their ideas? Did poor language skills maybe prevent you from even reading closely enough to assess the ideas fairly? If so, this could be a good area of focus moving forward.
Talk about it. Recent events across the country have shown us that we still have a long way to go in our country to achieve equality for all and that we have to be willing to speak openly about the biases and prejudices that impact ourselves, our schools, our communities and our students. Once you have explained the importance of using collegiate format and talked about the ‘language of opportunity’ with your students, allow them to talk about the idea, to reflect and ask questions about why that is the case. And as educators, we need to reflect on the ‘language of opportunity’ personally and discuss it with our colleagues. It is not an easy task we have all signed up for and brushing the uncomfortable realities under the rug won’t make it any easier.

And above all, keep your expectations high. While we don’t want to unfairly assess our students based on how they communicate, the fact remains that the format they speak and write in will have a huge impact on whether or not they are accepted into and succeed in college and beyond. And that’s the goal that will help usher in real change for our students!

If you missed the first 2 posts in this series, find them here and here.
Coming up in our Takeaways from TLAC 2.0 series:

  • Ratio – getting students to think more, write more, and discuss more.
  • Checking for Understanding – doing it well to get the data you need.
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