Responding Convention

Responding Convention

Practice helps.

I knew about paraphrasing. I knew what it was and knew it was important to use in facilitating deeper discussions, but it wasn’t until after three years of daily practice, five days a week, that it began to come easy. I began to listen for the deeper thoughts under the words being said rather than thinking about my own experience or my own rejoinder.

In my cultivating conversations course I set aside a hunk of time to practice all the steps in the Responding Convention, co-construct what makes one phrasing better than another, and play card game for additional practice. I can offer a bit of that here.

Paraphrase Practice

It helps to have a context in which to practice paraphrasing, so I offer video clips and assume the quality won’t kill you. This recording is from the lab school at North Seattle, where I taped students so they could watch themselves as we discussed what happened. This particular session was memorable for me, because I captured this teacher shift from being demanding to being totally responsive; it was as if she flipped a switch. Immediately one could see the difference it made in the eagerness of the children to share what they knew. I won’t show you the whole thing, just three pieces.


This first clip occurs at the end of her demanding lead-in. The topic is pet grooming, this teacher’s hobby. She had just finished showing dog grooming magazines to these five-year-olds and was turning to get the first of the dog grooming tools she brought to share.

Neato is the name of this girl’s small dog, who often looked like this.

One time my mommy and daddy cutted Neato’s bangs because they were too long and she couldn’t see.

Here is a list of things class participants offered as possible paraphrases of this girl’s statement.
Which do you think would be good examples of paraphrasing?

  1. Neato’s bangs were too long so they got cut?
  2. Your parents thought Neato needed a haircut.
  3. You said your dog’s bangs got too long, and she got them cut.
  4. Many dogs have hair in their eyes and need it trimmed.
  5. Your dog couldn’t see anymore so your parents removed the hair that was falling in her eyes?
  6. She was blind, huh?
  7. So, you’ve seen this happen?

#4 is not a paraphrase; she was not talking about dogs in general.

#3 is an example of the “I heard you say…” kind of response, which I find disingenuous and self-important. Of course, she said that. The purpose of a paraphrase is to restate the underlying thought to confirm “I got the message,” not beat the person with it.

The rest are satisfactory paraphrases, but the better ones are restatements of the message, not restatements of the words used. The best paraphrases don’t use any of the words in the child’s statement.

#1 uses hardly any new words. Not so good.
#2 repeats only Neato. Pretty good.
The last three examples, #5, #6, and #7, all use different vocabulary, so they are better paraphrases. However, shorter is better. After all, a paraphrase is not your turn to restate the superficial; it is your turn to prove you are tuned in to the deeper thought.

#6 and #7 are the best paraphrases. They differ in what the listener thinks the girl was trying to convey. Was she talking about that one event in her life (#6) or her own familiarity with the topic of dog grooming (#7)? Who knows? I like paraphrases which are short, pithy, and warm.

Task Eight

With that in mind, here’s another child initiation from later in the tape. The electric clippers are turned on and make a delightful noise.

I wish I had one of those to do it to my dog, but he doesn’t have long hair.

Which of these meet the criteria for better paraphrases?

  1. These won’t work for your dog, huh?
  2. You have a dog, too?
  3. You wish you could use the clippers on your dog?
  4. What kind of hair does your dog have?
  5. You want to try it at home?
  6. Your parents never bought clippers.
  7. Out of luck, huh?

The challenge here is to match the child’s message accurately, which is why paraphrasing takes so much practice. I think the boy is saying that the clippers are attractive, possibly fun to try, but don’t match the needs of his own dog, so he’ll never get a chance to use them—ever. If that is the case, then the odd numbered paraphrases fit.

In summary, good paraphrases use different words entirely, exactly match the message, restate that message in other ways, are as short as practicable, and have a rising inflection implying that one is checking for accuracy rather than declaring what the other person meant to say.

Parallel Personal Comment Practice

We could try this on the same statement.
I wish I had one of those to do it to my dog, but he doesn’t have long hair.

Which of these are parallel personal comments?

  1. What kind of dog do you have?
  2. I have a short haired dog, too.
  3. I cut my finger on it once.
  4. I am stuck with a cat.
  5. I take my poodle to Posh Paws.
  6. I use one on my beard.
  7. I wish I had a dog. I’ve been visiting shelters now for over a year and haven’t found one for me.

#1 is not a comment, so it’s out. My vote is the even numbered ones qualify. The best parallel personal comments get another comment from the child, which is proof it works. A danger is to have it be so interesting that it changes the subject to your own experience. I’m afraid my comment about my beard would cause such a shift, so I’d cross that one out, too, leaving #2 and #4 as satisfactory examples.

Most people seem pretty good at these, sharing something from one’s own experience that matches the other’s message, keeping it brief and simple. It’s probably what most people do when they are talking with their best friends.

Now to the tough one.

Leading Query on Child’s Topic Practice

Let’s try this on the same statement.
I wish I had one of those to do it to my dog, but he doesn’t have long hair.

Which of these are queries, questions you don’t know the answer to, that exactly match what the child is saying?

  1. Why does that matter?
  2. What do you want instead?
  3. What kind of dog do you have?
  4. Would your parents ever buy clippers for you to try?
  5. Is there something at home that you could cut with clippers?
  6. What could you do?
  7. Would they work anyway on your dog?

Tough, huh? First off, it has to be a query not a tutorial. #1 and # 5 are tutorials. If you know the answer, it’s a tutorial question; that doesn’t mean it’s an awful mistake, but it means you have moved away from a conversation where the adult and child are sharing of their lives. You have switched from equality to an adult privilege, making a demand to get the child to “think”, kind of like a test. I’ve seen this justified almost everywhere in the early childhood literature, unfortunately, calling these “thoughtful questions at a teachable moment.” That might be fine for a small group like the one in the video, but not for the Responding Convention and not for a Mutually Enriching Conversation.

Often I read in the early childhood literature the suggestion to ask open-ended questions rather than closed-ended questions. The closed ones can be answered in just a few words or a nod of the head. Yes, that may be desirable, but it’s not a useful distinction. For example, we have three closed questions in the set above; #3, #4, and #7. The last one #7 is a good one, a leading query on the child’s topic, and it can be answered yes or no. However, it is unlikely to be answered yes or no, because it’s so pointedly suggesting further clarification. One’s life is full of closed ended questions that work, such as those little things we insert when we ask for a missing piece we need: “Where was this?” “Did she hear it?” “Would she have known?”

The more significant problem for the closed-ended examples #3 and #4 is that they are off topic. Neither the-kind-of-dog nor parents are what the child is talking about in his statement. Going off topic is probably the most common misstep I see.

Since I find these hard to generate on the spot, I like guides that help me think. The best I have found are the journalist’s questions, “the 5W’s and an H:” who, what, where, when, why and how, like #2 and #6.

The Responding Convention Applied

  1. Out of luck, huh? (paraphrase)
  2. I’m stuck with a cat. (parallel personal comment)
  3. What could you do? (leading query on the child’s topic)

Task Nine

Now you have it, so this should be easy. Time to make up all three for this one:

My dog is dirty and he needs a bath.

    1. para
    2. ppc
    3. lq/ct

Task Ten

Responding Convention Card Game

coinrespCGLinked is a PDF master of a card game you can make for groups of 3 or 4 people to play together. I print this PDF on card stock, cut up the rectangle cards, and put each set in a coin envelope.

The yellow cards are group instructions and ROLE cards, so each player is assigned to one task. (One does all the paraphrases, for example.) After a few rounds those ROLES are rotated.

Responding Convention Card Game PDF


Active Listening

A related discussion exists in the Troubling Behavior section. In Active Listening The Responding Convention applies, too, when establishing closeness with a child in an emotional state.


I suppose the most important thing I have learned is how valuable it is to use paraphrases and parallel personal comments when talking to children. I used to ask a lot of questions believing that I was involving myself in their conversation. Now that I use them I realize what it means to be present to what the children are talking about. In order to paraphrase what they are saying and to be personal with them you have to listen fully. I have seen how my conversations with my nieces have changed with fewer questions and more focus on following their lead. Asking questions had been my crutch, I guess because I didn’t know any better. Unfortunately, it is hard to talk about the benefits of this work with others who have not experienced it firsthand. I wish I could magically encourage all parents and teachers to study conversations. — Brigit Laurent

It’s hard, as teaching professional, to avoid being pushy with my words, so the most valuable thing I have learned has been the responsive techniques. It was interesting to look at children’s conversations with other children to see that they were already using them! — Veronica Beverley

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