By Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD & Andrew Dryden

Editor’s Note: I published an Ed Week series earlier this year on “small teaching moves.”   This contribution arrived too late to include, but the authors gave me permission to publish it here.

Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. He is the author of Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom: An Equity Framework for Pedagogy (2019).

Andrew Dryden is currently a STEM teacher and coach. He is in his 10th year of teaching in Aurora Public Schools (CO), and has taught at both the middle school and high school level.


Small Teaching Move: “It sounds like…”

The inspiration for the “It sounds like…” teaching move comes from a book by a former FBI lead hostage negotiator, Chris Voss. Never Split the Difference is at its core about practicing intentional empathy in extraordinary circumstances. We have all experienced dramatic shifts in teaching practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic which certainly qualifies as an extraordinary circumstance, and “It sounds like…” has helped me to employ intentional empathy as both a teacher and an instructional coach. This 2021-22 school year also promises to be an extraordinary circumstance, as many students, teachers, and parents return to “normal school” for the first time in over a year, all while processing varying degrees of trauma.

What is it?

At its most basic level, the “It sounds like…” move is a sentence frame for paraphrasing what you have heard. You listen closely, and then say any of the following:

—“It sounds like you’re saying…[paraphrase]”

—“It sounds like you think…[paraphrase]”

—”It sounds like you feel…[paraphrase]”

You’ve likely already heard and read all kinds of reasons about why paraphrasing is important. What sets “It sounds like…” apart is what you listen for in response to your paraphrasing. After you offer your paraphrase, what you want to hear is “That’s right!” (or an equivalent expression such as “That’s it!” or “Yeah!”) — which is what you hear when you have conveyed a clear understanding of what your student is trying to say according to your student.

This is key in connecting our students to school in these extraordinary circumstances. We are not simply paraphrasing for the sake of paraphrasing. Ultimately, what matters is how the other person perceives our paraphrase, and that’s the power of listening for a “That’s right!” In his book Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Classroom, Adeyemi Stembridge writes that “it matters at least as much that our actions and interactions are perceived as responsive as it does that we teachers are acting in ways that we intend to be responsive to students. Ultimately, the success of our relationships with students is determined by their assessment of us as either responsive or not” (pg. 40).  In the extraordinary teaching circumstances of today, perhaps more than ever, our students need to feel understood so that they can perceive school as a responsive environment. Many of our students spent the majority of the last year more disconnected from school than at any other time in their lives. We need to be prepared to take deliberate steps to rebuild these frayed connections. Paraphrasing and listening for a “That’s right!” can help.

What if it doesn’t work right away?

What if you don’t hear a “That’s right!” after your first paraphrase? That’s the beauty of the “It sounds like…” sentence framing! The passive voice presents the paraphrase as an offered summary, inviting your student to correct you, after which you get to offer a revised “It sounds like…” paraphrase.  This keeps you, the teacher, present in listening while centering your students’ thinking. As you are listening for a “That’s right!” response, your focus is on what students are saying rather than your own point or suggestion or follow-up questions.  You saying, “It sounds like…” becomes a habit-cue indicating to your brain that you are in listening mode, perceptively collecting evidence of your students’ understandings; and then when you hear an expression of “That’s right!,” you know you can confidently move forward in ways that support your students’ thinking. Further, if we think of rigor as the opportunities for students to make meaning out of the concepts they are learning by drawing on their background knowledge and cultural fluencies, then listening for a “That’s right!” is useful in positioning the teacher for critical follow-ups to students’ thinking thus enhancing the potential for rigorous thinking.

Interestingly, Voss cautions that “You’re right” is the inverse of “That’s right!” What’s the difference? Voss explains that oftentimes “You’re right…” is what you hear when the other person wants you to stop talking and go away. So when I hear “You’re right…,” I know my student may be disengaging, and I either need to drastically change my paraphrase or disengage and return to the conversation at a later time.

When to use it?

This teaching move has all sorts of applications. It’s useful when a student is processing an emotion or conflict, either with you or someone else. It’s also useful when a student offers an idea, connection, or answer in class. “It sounds like…” compels us to be more certain of the interpretations and connections our students are making. When a student is thinking in truly rigorous ways, the entirety of their background is available to them in uniquely making sense of what they are learning. When we choose teaching moves that empower students to draw from their cultural backgrounds to find the correlations and similarities that are the building blocks of understandings, our students are profoundly more invested than when they are merely waiting for the next direction to follow.

“It sounds like…” ensures that you have a fuller understanding of what students are offering before responding yourself. I’ve even found it to be effective in my work with teachers as an instructional coach. Ultimately, “It sounds like…” is a simple technique that can be used multiple times every day to add to a rigorous and responsive learning environment in your classroom and school building.