541. “What?”

Most people are pretty used to repeating what they’ve said if someone says, “What?”, “Huh?”, or more politely, “Excuse me?” They forgive listeners if it’s their fault that they didn’t hear, and they leave room for the possibility that the message wasn’t spoken clearly. It’s often simpler to just repeat a message than to make a big issue about the importance of listening well the first time.
But some children who are just learning how to communicate have trouble processing what they hear, and they ask for repetition when that’s not what they need. That can be annoying to people who don’t know what’s going on. Some adults think that children who ask for repetition a lot have hearing trouble. While that’s
possible, more often children are slow to process what they hear. And since they want to know what was said, they say, “What?”
Today I spent some time with a five year old boy who kept asking me to repeat what I said. At first, I wondered whether my diction was the problem, and I worked to enunciate each word I said. But he continued to say “What?” after most things I said. Then I started thinking like a teacher, and I decided to experiment a little.
I was eating lunch, and I decided to use my full mouth as an alibi for not repeating things as soon as he asked. So I’d say something, then take a bite of food. When he said, “What?”, I motioned to him that my mouth was full, and I’d be free to talk in a minute. He was impatient, as five-year-olds often are; he didn’t want to wait until I’d finished my mouthful. So he guessed what I’d said.
Every one of his guesses was correct. He was quite able to repeat each of my messages verbatim. I felt as if I’d made a startling new discovery (though I’m quite sure many people who parent or teach children that young have made that discovery before).
I’ve already written about the importance of wait time – the time teachers allow children to process what they’ve heard. Impressive improvements happen when teachers allow that wait time. But the children who are just learning to communicate are often the very same children who are just learning how to wait. So if we don’t repeat what they ask us to repeat, we’re making them do two things they’re not too good at doing – process what they hear and be patient.
But I don’t think getting them to do that is cruel. It’s a kind of teaching. People have to learn to process what they hear, and they’ll learn it faster if they have to. And repetition doesn’t usually help them. It may seem as if it does, because they understand what we’ve said after the second or third time we’ve said it. But it may very well be that what they really understand is what we said the first time. The repetitions may actually get in the way.

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