Total Response Signals in the Secondary Classroom

by Sally Barnes

As a secondary teacher, Step 4 from the 7 Steps to a Language-Rich, Interactive Classroom was always the one I was most “lukewarm” in implementing. The idea of my 16-year-old students collectively giving me a thumbs-up or standing back-to-back seemed unrealistic. In my mind, I felt like I would get the same students giving me a thumbs-up that would normally verbally tell me they were good to go, or they’d show me they were ready because they had stopped working. 

Here’s the thing: I felt like I couldn’t use total response signals with fidelity while simultaneously struggling with wait time. I always cut students short on time, saying, “We’ve got three minutes,” and then giving them two. I’d glide past moments where I could’ve asked students if they understood because I was excited about what was coming next or I assumed they got it. It wasn’t that I was uncomfortable with silence or that I didn’t have an awareness of time. To be honest, wait time wasn’t a priority, and it had become a problem. Being asked to “slow down” was something I both loathed and completely understood.

I was at a session with Paul Emerich France, and he had us utilize this graphic organizer to analyze our obstacles and make goals for overcoming them. First, we identified our obstacles; mine was the “processing time” piece. Next, we brainstormed causes—why is this obstacle there in the first place? Finally, we developed consequences that can, do, or will occur if we did not overcome our obstacles. 

Next, we transformed our obstacles into goals by rewording our statements, then identified steps we needed to take, as well as rationale—how will this help me and others (for example, my students)? 

So, I began a committed relationship to total response signals. I started easy, trying to build a habit for myself. (Hint: Put an extra slide after a topic to remind yourself to ask for the signals—it’s a lifesaver). 

The signals I focused on were… 

  • Hold up 1 – 5 to show me how well you understood _________.
  • Give me a thumbs-up if you’re ready to move on.
  • Show me how many minutes you think you need for this task. 
  • Show me how many more minutes you need. 
  • Put your folder divider down when you’re done. 

And guess what? Once we got into the habit in my class, students used it! The more we did it, the less protective students were of saying they were a two or three instead of a five, or giving me a thumbs-down if they needed to. It became low stress for them and was an easy way to redirect the class when necessary.

For me, the use of these signals truly slowed me down and helped me take the temperature of the room. Sometimes they’d tell me they needed five minutes instead of the two minutes I had planned, and I would adjust accordingly. Sometimes they’d ask me to slow down, not because they needed more time or didn’t understand, but because they just needed a moment to breathe. If their responses varied, I gave them time to turn and talk about what we had just covered to develop a better understanding and peer-teach. (Tying this into an activity like Expert/Novice as the way to review is super effective!) This not only increased my awareness of my students and their needs, but it also increased student agency and self-advocacy because I was consistently asking them for feedback. 

Reflect on Your Own Relationship to Total Response Signals

  • How do you use total response signals in your class? 
  • What are some obstacles you encounter, and what are possible solutions to these obstacles? (I highly recommend you use the format I used above to analyze your obstacles and turn them into goals!) 
  • How do total response signals help the students in your class, and how do they help you?

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