A recent article by NPR describes the difficulties that introverts and “quiet” kids face in traditional classrooms. It presents some reasons why students might be quiet in class and states the need for their participation.
The article is nice, but it doesn’t offer many practical solutions to the question posed in the headline. How can teachers actually get quiet students to participate in class?
I’ve got a few ideas.
Dealing with Blurters
You will often have students who are incredibly eager to participate.
They might be really excited about the material or just love getting attention for calling out answers. Let’s call them the “blurters“.
I love having blurters in class. If everyone is falling asleep, I can ask an open-ended question and the blurter will wake everyone up with their blurted answer. You’ll never have an awkward silence after a question if there’s a blurter in your class operating at maximum capacity. But they can also get in your way.
This situation is common:
Teacher: When was the Declaration of Independence signed?
Teacher: Good. And who wrote most of it?
Blurter: Abraham Lincoln! Wait no! Thomas Jefferson!
Teacher: OK. How about we let someone else answer this next one? Who was the U.S. declaring independence from? Sally can you-
Blurter: France! No. England! Britain!
Teacher: Is your name Sally?
Blurter: Oops. No. Sorry…
And it’s not the blurter’s fault! She/he is trying hard and answering questions! You don’t want to stifle that enthusiasm. But you also don’t want just a two-way conversation. Blurters are almost always natural extroverts, and that’s great. But they also often monopolize the class.
Call on the Student, then Ask the Question
If you really want Sally (a quiet student) to answer while still teaching in this format, try this:
Teacher: OK. How about we let someone else answer this next one? Sally. (pause) Which country was the U.S. declaring independence from? (quick turn to blurter, pantomime “zipped lips”)
Sally: (pause) England.
See the difference? You’ve got to create the space for the quieter students first. Take control by deciding who you want to answer the question before you ask it. Use a pause to create a little buffer of silence. Disrupting the tempo is important if you don’t want the blurters to dominate.
The strategy described above is useful for the traditional lecture plus teacher question and student answer format. You need to do a little bit of that sometimes as a teacher, but it can also end up looking like this:
No enthusiastic blurters in that class.
When I have a class like this, I quickly abandon this style of teaching. If they don’t want to answer questions in front of the whole class, they might be able to answer the questions in small groups.
Think/Pair/Share is a very common strategy used by teachers. But if you aren’t familiar with it, here’s the idea:
- Ask the class as question (not one with a simple answer; broader questions and brainstorms work better for this)
- Give students a minute or so to think and/or write down some ideas
- Tell students to get in a group and talk about their ideas.
- Call on a student from each group (good idea to call on the quiet student in the group if they need more speaking time)
There are a few benefits to this:
- There’s time to think. If a student is quiet because they aren’t quick on their feet, this overcomes that problem.
- There’s confidence. If a group agrees on an answer, that student has their groupmates’ support and are therefore more sure of the answer.
- There’s control. It’s not a free-for-all, so quiet students won’t get drowned out.
Blogging and forums
The previous two tips were to get quiet students speaking a bit more in class. But often the best way for them to share themselves is through writing.
This is a common way to do class “discussions” for online courses. People can act very differently online and in person. The student that says nothing during class might write up a storm on your class’s forum.
There’s a few ways to set this up.
If your school has a LMS (learning management system) already, it should be easy to set up a forum for the students. If you don’t have a LMS, you can set one up on Moodle.
If you want your students to set up blogs, a very easy way to get them started is with WordPress. Even if you’re tech-phobic, setting up a WordPress blog is easy. I got my class set up in under half an hour. Get your students to follow each others’ blogs so that they can read and comment on what other people have written.
Of course, you can always create a class Facebook page too.
When students are writing, they’re not competing with anyone else for “the floor.” No one can talk over them or beat them to the punch to answer a question. They can go back and fix a mistake if they make one.
And the benefit of all of these online platforms is that there is still interaction. It’s not just a student turning in a paper. It’s students sharing ideas with each other.
Building Confidence in Public Speaking
Here are the thoughts that would run through a student’s mind if you told her, unprompted, to “go up to the front of the class and tell us about the Declaration of Independence”
I’m not ready!
Is there anything on my face?
Do I know the answer? I don’t think I do!
What if I can’t put a sentence together?!
I haven’t done this before.
Everyone is going to laugh at me.
I’M NOT READY!
It’s possible that the student will just refuse, but even if they come do come up and stumble through a presentation about the Declaration of Independence, it won’t be any good (sorry for the repeated topic. It was just the Fourth of July after all).
Even if they know a lot about the subject, this situation is a nightmare for quiet students because:
- They don’t have a plan
- They’re not used to doing this
Teachers can limit both of these with some preparation beforehand.
Most teachers who teach presentations give their students an outline to fill out beforehand. This outline can be simple or more complicated, and you might allow students to use it during their presentation or you might not. The point is that their presentation is planned beforehand. As a teacher, make sure you check their outlines at least briefly to make sure everyone is on the right track. You don’t want a quiet student to get up to the front and start giving a presentation that is unintentionally way off track. The reactions of the audience would be soul-destroying.
Once students have the content of their presentation prepared, they should practice. And if you have the class time, you should let them practice in class. Don’t just say “OK, go home and practice!” because it’s not the same. Even if that quiet student does practice at home, it will likely be alone, without an audience, which is completely different from the real thing.
I usually have students practice presentations twice in class before giving their final presentation.
The first time is with a partner. I usually let my students pick. This lets the quieter students find someone who s/he is familiar and comfortable with. As other pairs are practicing, they create a gentle buzz of voices; there’s not a completely silent room that the student has to speak to.
The second time they practice, it’s with a small group. For this practice round, I have the listening group members check certain things, for example body language, content, and length. Once the speaker is done giving their presentations, the listeners give constructive and positive feedback. For nervous students, this is a great transition to the whole class.
After these two practice rounds, the quieter students should have built up at least a little bit more confidence and gotten comfortable with the content of their presentation since they will have practiced it at least twice. Not many quiet students want to speak in front of the class, but this is a good way to alleviate that stress.
Understand the Environment(s)
You might have quiet students, or you might just have students who are being quiet. The previous strategies above are for the former. In this section I’m talking about the latter.
Here are just a few reasons why quiet and not-so-quiet students alike will remain silent in your class:
- The topic you’re teaching is boring.
- The teacher corrects them as soon as they open their mouth.
- They hate this subject.
- They don’t want to get made fun of by their friends.
- They didn’t get much sleep last night.
- They’re thinking about problems at home.
There’s just a few off the top of my head. Let me know in the comments if you have any other ideas.
How do you address these?
Get to know your students better.
Ask a class “Is this topic boring?”.
Ask a student if everything is alright, or if they need help with anything. They probably won’t tell you, but try anyway. Ask other teachers to see if they know anything about that student.
If a student hates your subject, they’ll probably make that known in some way. See if you can change their mind. Make your lessons interesting to them. Try to engage them in some way.
Make your lessons fun. Your student might not be talking because there’s nothing to say.
Being Quiet is Fine…
…but all students should have the opportunity to express themselves.
Don’t let your class be dominated by the voices of the loudest and the fastest (although those voices are important too). It takes some work as a teacher to create an environment that allows all voices to be heard, but it’s well worth it.
Thanks for reading.