The Linguistics of Formative Assessment

We know from research how important formative assessment is to instruction and student learning. But sometimes questions and statements we make as teachers fail to elicit a verbal response from students. When this happens, we can try to use non-verbal cues to gauge student understanding for a response. We might also consider how the kinds of language choices we make may not function in ways we intend. Perhaps one of the most notorious phrases that fails to adequately assess students’ formative knowledge is:

(1) Does that make sense?


On its face, (1) seems like it should be a good candidate for a formative assessment question. If we analyze (1) syntactically, accounting for movement, we get an intermediate structure That does make sense. From a functional perspective, we would consider the verb making sense a Mental Process, because making sense describes a process that occurs in the mind. The word that describes the Phenomenon that is understood through the Process of making sense; in the case of classroom discourse, the Phenomenon is whatever the teacher had been talking about. We would expect to have a Senser, or an animate participant who undergoes the mental process, but it seems to be missing. We can assume that the Senser is the student because, of the interlocutors in the situation, it fits the function of the question (which I explain later). The active form of the sentence, then, would be:


The student makes sense of that
Senser Process: Mental Phenomenon

Because in the classroom I am moving the elements of (2) around into the yes/no question in (1), the clause functions as a request for information. What information? I want to know if the student (Senser) can make sense (Process) of what I have explained (Phenomenon). On its face, this seems like formative assessment. Semantically, the question should function as a request for information about student understanding. So why do I get blank stares?

The Power and Language Dynamic

The lack of verbal response only makes sense if I put myself in the student’s shoes. What are the possible answers to this question? Yes or no. No is highly unlikely for three reasons.

1. It’s a threat to the student’s face. Admitting that they do not understand something makes their public image of lesser stature. And they are already in a disadvantaged position in the classroom, which makes the threat to face even more severe. Couple that with the developmental issues of different age groups (especially middle schoolers, for whom face is a major concern), and the resulting non-verbal response is appropriate.

2. It is an implicit threat to the teacher’s face. If the student did not understand the material, it is possible the teacher did not explain it clearly. If a student says this by answering no, whether implicitly or explicitly, it disrupts the power dynamic by forcing the student to critique the teacher, reversing the power status of both. Some students are not comfortable with this reversal and will elect for no response or an acquiescing yes to preserve the existing power structure.

3. It is an unfamiliar question. We know from Heath and others’ work that home background predisposes children towards certain kinds of linguistic interaction. A request from information from an adult about the child’s knowledge may not be a part of the child’s linguistic background. It is possible that through experience, older children, young adults, and adult students may not find such questions unfamiliar. If that is the case, then reasons 1 & 2 still apply.

If no is unlikely because of the power dynamics and the linguistic background of the student, then this question fails to accomplish its task. We need accurate data in formative assessment because it drives instruction. So what can we do?

Teachers Need Meta-Linguistic Awareness

In my own experience, Does that make sense? functions like a tag question (e.g. Sometimes you just really want ice cream, right?). As such, it is difficult to avoid using the phrase; I have to make a conscious effort not to say it because it is so much a part of my teaching store of commonplaces. But when I do use the phrase, it usually occurs at a moment in instruction when I recognize I need to do formative assessment. Since (1) fails to accomplish the task of formative assessment, I might add to (1)  a semantically-related Wh-question. For example,  in my First Year Composition class, I might ask:

(3) What is ethos? How might a writer create it in an argument?

I can also request a summary from students to assess their formative understanding:

(4) Can someone summarize the Toulmin model of argument? What about Rogerian argument?

These are two linguistic-based strategies of formative assessment, and obviously there are many more. What matters more than the strategies is the ability to recognize the linguistic basis of classroom discourse failure. We know that formative assessment is important, and we know how to do it. But we are not always aware of the ways our language choices construct meanings we do not intend or that defeat our purposes as teachers. Consciously making the choice to pay attention to our phrasing is one way we can improve our instruction and, by extension, our students’ learning.


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