Choral Response: an in-school case study, and the research behind it

This blog is jointly written by Bradley Busch (psychologist at InnerDrive) and Alex Richardson (teacher and professional learning mentor).

In the first half, Bradley covers some of the research on Choral Response. In the second half, Alex uses his school as a case study as to how they have implemented this strategy this year.

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What is Choral Response?

Choral Response is a technique designed to check understanding and promote knowledge retention, where the whole class is asked to recite a key piece of vocabulary or an answer to a question in unison.

The typical scenario for its use is where a teacher wants to check whole-class understanding through a short answer rather than extended understanding from individual students (which would typically be done by Cold-Calling or circulating).

What does the research on Choral Response say?

Despite the surprising lack of depth on research done specifically on Choral Response, there are some very encouraging studies covering a large range of students across different countries.

For example, this study looked at the use of Choral Response in 22 high school mathematics classrooms from all over the world (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, Berlin, San Diego and Melbourne). They found that Choral Response could be used in a wide range of ways, such as “approval or agreement to the completion of mathematical propositions and the identification of mathematical procedures”. Some of the most frequent uses of Choral Response were yes/no answers, numerical responses and mathematical terms. The researchers concluded that “it is clear that the function of Choral Response in many mathematics classrooms goes far beyond the simple recitation and memorizing drills suggested in the literature”.

Another paper reviewed an array of Choral Response literature and investigated whether it is effective for students who have Special Educational Needs or emotional and behavioural disorders. The researchers found that these students displayed more on-task behaviour, responded more frequently and had a slight improvement in correct responses using Choral Response compared to those who raised their hands to respond individually. Specifically, Choral Response supported students’ ability to recognise high-frequency words and pictures.

Instead of directly measuring Choral Response in a classroom setting, this study describes techniques that increase students’ opportunities to learn. Choral Response achieves this because more students get to actively respond during a lesson and can respond more than they usually would, compared to being picked to answer one at a time. However, they note some minor limitations to this strategy – for example, it can become very loud or difficult to monitor individual learning if a small number of students make errors in their responses or refrain from joining in.

How we used Choral Response at our schools – Alex Richardson’s perspective

Some months back, I asked on Twitter about the research base for Choral Response as a teaching technique. It turns out, there’s possibly not much! The only bit of evidence I’m really aware of is Project Follow Through, which maybe gives us indirect positive evidence since Engelmann’s DI uses it heavily, and DI had excellent results.

Bradley from InnerDrive suggested a collaboration where I would trial the technique at school, and he would dive into the evidence. What follows is my N=1 findings of how it went, working with another teacher from my faculty, Ross Pizzey.

We decided we would test the technique with two very different groups: a Y11 exam class and a Y7 group, both mixed ability. Before we observed each other and fed back on how it went, we first sat down to thrash out what we thought the benefits of the technique could be, along with challenges and drawbacks we might encounter. We predicted that:

  • It would work well as a tool to promote key vocabulary retention – saying it out loud, with the unusual element of lots of other people saying at the same time, would add additional firepower to the memory encoding process VS only writing it down.
  • It would act as an upper to mood and momentum in the room, in the same way that a silent quiz can act as a settler.
  • It would be a high ratio activity – it’s hard to hide or to daydream when everyone has to say something in unison.
  • There would likely be at least some embarrassment or resistance from the Y11 group, since there’s a degree of cheesiness to Choral Response.
  • The Year 7 group would be eager by contrast.
  • In his book Reconnect, Doug Lemov argues that Choral Response can promote social cohesion and belonging. We saw this as plausible but were agnostic about whether it would be the case, and unsure how much we’d be able to tell one way or the other with a relatively short trial using just our two classes. Nonetheless we kept it on our minds, and hoped we’d see something that made us optimistic on this score.

We also spoke to some colleagues in our MFL department, who gave us some excellent tips on how to ensure full engagement through classic TLAC techniques like narrating the positive and said the students would likely mirror our own energy and rhythm when speaking back an answer, and to be mindful of that.

How it went with Year 11

In the Year 11 group, I started by explaining openly what we were doing, and what we thought the benefits would be (I left out social cohesion as this would have felt a bit too behind-the-curtain). I also combined it with a long-standing technique I use with GCSE groups, which is that they are split into Team A and Team B for the duration of a half term, and accrue points for good performance and engagement in various class tasks. I explained to them that the team who did this most enthusiastically and clearly would get the points for that lesson.

We found that use of key vocabulary went well, as predicted (although it’s difficult to benchmark this precisely against more typical techniques). Our prediction that they would be a little embarrassed or resistant was also true, although less than we thought – Ross felt that selling the benefits at the start helped with this. Ratio was high, although this is a class I have a good relationship with – so, again it’s hard to say whether this was wholly the technique itself or just willingness based on prior rapport. In our feedback discussion, Ross suggested using precise praise for those students doing the Choral Response really well and this seemed like a great suggestion we could carry forward for his Y7 group.

How it went with Year 7

Engagement with the technique in Ross’s Y7 group was off the Richter scale, to the point where we were both laughing, and a couple of classes doing assessments down the corridor asked if we could do the Choral Response more quietly. To me it seemed like the technique resulted in crystal-clear recall of the key learning points of the lesson.

One small obstacle we noticed was that the class was so eager to “win” the task that students were whispering the answers to each other before the signal to chorally respond. Obviously, this is a nice problem to have in the grand scheme of things! But we felt it could limit the power of the technique as a form of AFL. If you get a patchy or uncertain Choral Response, that’s a nice bit of evidence that something hasn’t landed – but if students quickly whisper the answer to each other, you’d never get that read.

We remedied that with some on-the-spot improvisation, using the Team A VS Team B technique, and saying we were looking for students cheating by helping each other before the question, and that the other team would get the points if we saw this. We also reassured them that getting it wrong or not knowing is fine, because that’s what we’re here for. As soon as we introduced this, the “cheating” seemed to fall to zero.

On Doug Lemov’s argument that it promotes social cohesion, we still feel a small observation cycle isn’t enough to comment on it – but we both felt it to be likely, in that it generated buzz and warded against the phenomenon of students being physically present but mentally elsewhere. Overall, we were big fans of the technique and are keen to keep exploring it.

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