“Break it Down” is a method for correcting a student’s error or helping a student get the answer so that he or she can learn from the mistake and fill in the information that was missing beforehand. The technique works by guiding the student to the correct answer by providing hints in the form of examples, eliminating false choices, repeating the error back, providing a rule for the question, or providing context for the question; anything to help the student fill in the missing pieces without giving them the answer.
Why it Works
This is a good strategy because, first, it emphasizes student success over failure, which keeps the students motivated because they know that mistakes happen and you will help them get to the right answer eventually. This is a way to normalize error and help students to know that making errors is normal and the fear of making a mistake should not keep them from participating or answering questions, which will lead to a supportive classroom environment. By helping them get to the right answer, it shows that they can do the work, which is motivating according to the Expectancy x Value theory that says motivation is brought about by two factors: how well you expect to do in an activity and how much you value the activity. Finally, the Break it Down technique utilizes scaffolding (building up students’ abilities by making small steps in the right direction, much like the scaffolding on a construction site aids workers in getting to the end goal).
I plan on teaching high school English, so for the context of explaining the “Break it Down” technique, suppose I am teaching a unit on key literary terms and one of my students can’t tell whether rhyming, alliteration, consonance, or assonance is being used in the following example:
“Soft language issued from their spitless lips as they swished in low circles round and round the field, winding hither and thither through the weeds.” (James Joyce, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”)
First, I might ask if the bolded words rhyme with each other. When the student determines that they do not, I would ask whether or not the words all begin with the same letter, followed by, “which term would it be if the words did begin with the same letter?” After the student determines that the words do not begin with the same letter and that that would mean that the author was using alliteration, I would then say, “So we know that it must either be assonance or consonance. Are the sounds that the words have in common consonants or vowels?” If the student needs more help, I could ask what the vowels are, and the student would identify that “i” is a vowel. From there, we could determine that the author used assonance because he repeated the short “i” sound in the bolded words. Notice that I wouldn’t give the student the answer, I want him or her to have a series of smaller successes using information that he or she already knows to eventually get to the correct answer. This will build confidence and eventually teach them how to think through a problem without my help.