Using no opt-out and its limitations with ELLs (and others)


Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion, seems to be the hottest thing in teaching since the risograph. Some of the strategies can be problematic with EL students. The “no-opt out” strategy, in particular, is problematic with ELLs. “No opt-out” is essentially not allowing the student to give a non-response to a question you pose to them in front of the class. In other words, if you ask, “What did we just learn?” They can’t say, “I dunno?”

We had a good training the other day that was about some ways to adjust the getting oral responses from students in cultural groups where responding orally in front of the whole class is difficult. I got some good ideas there,  I have some of my own that I’ve used over the years. All of them still do not allow an opt-out, but give students a way to respond that is more culturally/personality congruent. Here they are:

  1. Have the student write their response on a post-it or note paper they have on their desk. This is suitable for higher level students who are just shy about talking in groups. You will still need to have them do oral language development, but start with low/no risk situations like podcasting/Voice Threads that they can do privately and correct.
  2. Have them whisper the answer to another student who will say it for them. This is suitable for students who are shy, but know the answer. You can also do the opposite with non-shy kids who have a hard time with the question by allowing them to “get the answer” from a peer, and say it. This is suitable at all levels, and not just for ELLs, but also for special education students.
  3. Give them a “dichotomy”, which is a fancy way of saying, word the question so they can give a yes or no answer. This is best for primary students at a very low level. This is also a good one to use with students with language development issues (ASD, etc.).

There are caveats. You should not be doing these forever, and when kids are up at Intermediate/Advanced, they really do need to be developing the skills to respond orally in class. You are better off starting with low-risk activities, like one-on-one interviews, so they can build confidence with those students. Other caveats, some African American kids are shy too. Not every black boy is a budding Chris Tucker. Attributions of loquacity and verbal fluency to a culture are ALWAYS generalizations, and there will be exceptions (I also have some real Hmong chatter-boxes, go figure). If they are special education students, whatever their race or culture, they will have issues about responding, and you will need to build that same safety net that ELLs need for them to participate.

Do you have any suggestions to add to this list? I’d love to hear them, and so would readers.

by posted under practice/pedagogy | 5 Comments »    
5 Comments to

“Using no opt-out and its limitations with ELLs (and others)”

  1. February 9th, 2011 at 1:58 pm      Reply Heather Says:

    Thank you for addressing this topic because I am a pre-service teacher and allowing students to opt-out was something I believed in fully until I took my first ESL class.

    I’m learning how important it is to provide speaking opportunities in class for my ELL students, but I have been wondering what the actual goal of calling on individual students is?
    • Do we do this so we feel like our direct instruction is actually ‘interactive’?
    • Do we do this to keep learners engaged? Does just knowing you might call on them ‘make’ them pay attention?
    • Do we do this so individual students can show off what they know? If students are instead, asked to tell a partner, doesn’t this give more kids a chance to show off?
    • Do we do this so students will get practice public speaking? If so, isn’t it better to do something like the ‘think-pair-share’ activity because more ELLs will be encouraged to speak up?
    Like I said, I don’t have any experience, so please share your insight….
    Thank you

    • February 13th, 2011 at 11:17 am      Reply alicemercer Says:

      Sorry for the slow reply. I think you’re seeing things pretty clearly. This is good to hear from a pre-service teacher because I think Lemov’s book is aimed being picked up on by that demographic. This is mostly because you all are in the greatest “need” for practical solutions. My only advice, is what I said in the article, read these books, take what works, but realize none of them can cover it all, and you will have make adjustments and choices. Good luck to you in that, and one last bit of advice, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

    • May 13th, 2011 at 2:39 pm      Reply Colleen Says:

      I think the question is a great one — what is the purpose of calling on individual students? I think one main goal is:

      1) ongoing assessment: to gauge how your students are understanding the material you are presenting. Pay attention to their answers: can you see evidence that they are meeting your learning goals? If not, they may not have gotten it or you might need to ask a different question. Try one day where you plan out as many questions as you can in advance. Record student answers. Listen. Analyze. We can’t do this all the time, but with some practice, you can start to see what’s going on in students’ heads –or realize you need to ask different kinds of questions to get those answers.

      Engagement and accountability are certainly parts of questioning individual students. However, unless you are giving the students something meaningful to think about and getting answers that help you know where to go next, both you and your students will soon tire of questioning just for the sake of questioning.

      Good luck!

  2. June 3rd, 2011 at 11:08 pm      Reply ddeubel Says:


    Many good strategies you suggest. But I wish you’d of taken to task such an “assinine” notion of no opt out.

    Teaching is not drilling or bootcamp. It is about trust and relationships. One thing I advise all teachers is to treasure and use the word “pass”. It is a human right in the classroom. If you need to teach with such strict rules as “no opt out” – you really should question your role and purpose as a teacher and also the very nature of the thing we call “schooling”. Students aren’t dogs that should come when called.

    I love America but at the same time, seems America is fixated with the “fast cure” and also the need to control and educate in a behavioral and may I say, puritanical fashion.


    • June 4th, 2011 at 8:31 am      Reply alicemercer Says:

      David, I thank you for sharing your perspective on this, since I it is a different approach than my own in some ways. I wish that Heather could see this so she understands the different points of view on student participation. My biggest worry with this book (and others) as that they seem to offer a classroom management system in a box, and new teachers will find themselves boxed in to whatever it is the book says. I’d like new teachers reading Lemov to understand they don’t have to use it period (your point) even if their district insists it’s the best thing since sliced bread, or if they like some aspects, they can make it their own.

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