With a background in speech pathology and school-based intervention, Eamon Charles knows well the challenges some students are up against in the average learning environment.

The academic intern at La Trobe University's SOLAR Lab believes cold calling is one 'checking for understanding' technique that can allow all to contribute to the learning underway – and hand teachers greater control over their lessons at the same time.

And yet some common concerns hang over the practice, Charles flags.

“I think people can be worried about cold calling, it does sound like a practice that can put students on the spot.

“I know teachers have concerns … they might worry about not wanting to put [certain] students in an uncomfortable position in class discussions – this is something that they might find quite difficult.

“But it's important that we talk about all of the things that go into making [cold calling] work well and making it really ideally inclusive,” he tells EducationHQ.

Cold calling falls among the instructional frameworks and practices put forward by the likes of Doug Lemov, Tom Sherrington, and Dylan Wiliam among others, Charles notes.

“If you look at those frameworks, there's lots of things already built into them that are designed to be really inclusive, and we can just tweak things slightly, in a really simple way, to potentially have some powerful impacts for students with language difficulties,” he says.

“That's not to say that they’re easy things to do. They might be simple techniques, but they might take a lot of time for practitioners to really master.”

Eamon Charles says sharing a response in class is potentially going to be very difficult for many children with a DLD, regardless of the scaffolds you have in place. 

In a typical classroom where the teacher is using lots of ‘hands up’ prompts, there’s usually a select cohort of students that are quick to stick their hands in the air, Charles says.

Some might not even know the answer, but are powered by confidence. Meanwhile, a larger slice of the class will be hesitant to respond, he says.

“Students with language difficulties often fall into that category.

“So, when teachers create norms in their classrooms, where they're kind of calling on non-volunteers, or cold calling, it creates a level playing field that allows the teacher to control the environment in a way that can draw everyone into the conversation.”

Teachers can tap into a range of strategies to ensure their cold calling is effective, Charles says. One is by allowing for some thinking time beforehand.

“They can say, 'alright, I'm going to give you all 10 seconds to think. And then I'm going to ask someone a question'.

“Just by creating that buffer, that might be enough for a student with language difficulties to process what the teacher's said and start to think of a response.

“If we do the opposite, and just ask for hands up, usually the people who are going to get rewarded are those who put their hand up quickest.”

Over time, those children that need more space to process the question may learn that their voice isn’t as valuable, Charles warns.

“Teachers can also do things like prompt students to make notes. So, you could say something like, 'I'm going to give you 10 seconds to think, then you've got another 10 seconds to make some notes'.

“Students with language difficulties might also really benefit from practicing their response first in a ‘pair share’ or with a partner, before the teacher calls on them in front of the class.

“Teachers can selectively check in on those pair shares, too,” he says.

Cold calling in the instructional cycle

As part of a broader suite of ‘checking for understanding’ techniques, cold calling complements an explicit teaching model that follows the ‘I do, we do, you do’ modelling sequence, and sits in the second phase of the instructional cycle, Charles explains.

“You've got to have a pre-existing set of conditions. I wouldn't want people to walk away and just start randomly cold calling. It's really got to fit within the system that you're trying to set up.  

“Schools that do this really well, they would have an agreed understanding across their cohort for where checking for understanding fits within that instructional cycle.

“I think that's a really important place to start, because we can't just leverage cold calling into any type of classroom, you've got to actually set it up to work,” he flags.

Other checking for understanding techniques that support cold calling are using mini whiteboard routines or ‘pair shares’, Charles adds.

"Lots of people talk about 'curriculum should come before pedagogy'. So, you may also want to have done some work in terms of your curriculum and be confident that your content is rich enough, in sequence enough, for the pedagogy to work." 

A 'culture of error'

The culture of your classroom is another key element to consider when teaching students with language difficulties, Charles says.

“Something that Doug Lemov talks about is having a ‘culture of error'.

"So, over time, creating a culture where students are comfortable being vulnerable and sharing their responses –  recognising that they could get it wrong and taking that safe risk in order to learn something.

“And then it's [about] building student trust in those techniques over time.”

The expert recently delivered a presentation on the effective use of cold calling at a Sharing Best Practice event.

He says its use in the classroom really demands a ‘nuanced discussion’.

“As long as we're emphasising that this is a practice that could go wrong, potentially.

“Talking to teachers who are conscious about diving into this, most of the time it comes from a place of empathy … so, we're bringing the conversation back to the supports that are in place to help those young learners have success and feel confident sharing their thoughts, sharing their ideas, and having their diverse voices valued.

“And I think that's kind of the bigger picture for inclusive education.”

Nevertheless, it pays to remember that sharing an answer in front of a class is potentially going to be very difficult for children with DLDs, regardless of the scaffolds you have in place, Charles says.

“It's not necessarily going to make it easy for them all the time, but we're doing the work to support them.

“And for those students with developmental language disorder, it's a lifelong condition.

“So, there's going to be different points of their schooling journey where they're going to require ongoing support, essentially.

“There's obviously much more to supporting them than just [cold calling] practice. But hopefully, it's a piece of the puzzle.”