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  • Writer's pictureKristin Phillips

Engaging students through talk–theirs not yours

When students have to articulate their thinking in their own words, they tend to learn more.  You may have experienced this yourself.  You can listen to a talk about a topic or read about the topic but when you are asked to explain it to someone you find that you aren’t quite sure how to start.  I find this when I try to explain the political situation in the Middle East.  Although I have listened to lots of news, and read the articles, I don’t really think I have a good handle on the issues.

The question for us as teachers then is how to get ALL of our students articulating their thinking during our lessons.  Often the teacher talks and then asks questions of the students.  Sometimes we do this to ensure the students were listening.  Sometimes we do this to check for understanding.  Sometimes we do this to create a class discussion.  But, do you ever find that the same students are answering the questions and that some students never answer?  Even if you call on students with their hand down, some never answer and have figured out that eventually you will move on.  Certainly there are some students who are quiet in nature and are truly engaged but not answering.  However, there are many others who are just not engaged in the conversation.  Here are some ideas for getting greater participation of students during whole class lessons:

  1. Keep it short.  The longer you talk, the less engaged your students will be.  Try to keep your “talking” lessons to 7 minutes.  If this is really difficult for you, set your phone to timer.

  2. Use Turn and Talk. Instead of asking a question to the class, have students turn and talk about the question to a partner or table group.  This should be short.  You do not need to then ask one student for the answer; it depends on what the question was.  If the question was a prediction of what is going to happen next, the simple fact that all kids have articulated a prediction is enough.  You don’t necessarily need to have a whole class discussion.  You can have pairs meet and share quickly with other pairs.  Move on.  Keep the pace of the class moving.

  3. Use little white boards. Ask all students to write an answer on a little whiteboard and hold it up.  Not only are all your students participating, but you can quickly see who gets it and who doesn’t.

  4. Everyone raises a hand. Ask the question and then ask students to raise their hand when they think they have an answer.  Wait for everyone (or almost) to raise their hand.  When you collect answers, make no judgement about right or wrong but simply record them on the board.  Ask students to then discuss the possible answers.  Or, ask students who gave the answer to defend their answer.

  5. Choose an answer. If you want students to discuss a controversial issue or one that may have many points of view ask them to choose an opinion and then go to a certain place in the room.  They then talk to the people around them about the issue.

  6. Opinion Lines.  When a question has a range of possible answers (e.g. Junk food should be highly taxed to prevent obesity) have students form a line from strongly yes to strongly no.  Have them talk briefly about their opinion with the people close to them.  Ask a few students along the line to give their reasoning.  Ask students if they want to change their spot on the line.

  7. Tea Party. Ask the question and then have students stand up and discuss their answer with someone else.  Have a signal (music, clap, flickering lights) and have students change partners.  Students will have multiple times to give their opinion and hear other opinions.  A variation is to have students state the opinion of the last person they spoke to.

  8. Quick writes. Ask the question and then have everyone write down their answer very quickly.  At this point you could ask for individual answers or for students to share in groups.

  9. Ask the group. Instead of calling on individual students who don’t have an answer, call on a table group – someone from table six please answer.

  10. Group consensus. Ask the group and have one member of the group stand when the group has an answer.

  11. Thumbs up/down/in the middle. Ask students to agree, disagree or state their uncertainty to a question.

  12. Listen for…if you do present a lecture, show a video clip or read aloud a text, tell students ahead of time what to listen for (e.g. Listen for how the main character escapes…Listen for 3 reasons the war was lost…Listen for the names of 3 Impressionist techniques). Students can jot their answers on  stickies as they hear them.  This works particularly well for ESL and some special education students who tend to get lost in a sea of information.

Which technique you use will depend on the amount of time you want to spend on the question.  You will want to use a variety of techniques.  Your students will soon learn that passive listening is not an option.  Your students will be engaged in the material as they grapple with the concepts and have opportunities to articulate their thinking and hear the thinking of their peers.  Some of these techniques will take more time than the simple teacher- led discussion.  However, perhaps one deep critical question is better than lots of smaller questions.  Be  planned and purposeful about the questions you ask and your students will surprise you with their level of thinking and engagement.

PS….Resist the teacher urge to paraphrase all student answers after they give them.  Why should your students listen to each other if they know that you are going to give the “right” answer in the end.

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