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How to... help your shy class to find their voice

Sometimes there is nothing worse than a silent class. Here, one English teacher shares her top tips to get even the shyest students to speak up and take part

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Sometimes there is nothing worse than a silent class. Here, one English teacher shares her top tips to get even the shyest students to speak up and take part

We spend a lot of time as teachers coming up with strategies to keep our pupils silently engaged with work. But the truth is that sometimes there is nothing worse than a compliant, quiet class. 

A really good way to assess pupils’ knowledge is for them to have a discussion about it ─ after all, it’s impossible to talk about what you do not know.  

Pushing your pupils to be more vocal not only assists them in recalling information logically, but can also become a simple assessment for learning approach.

Here are five quick and easy strategies to encourage your shy class to find their voice:

  1. Choose an open starter

    Start your lesson with a broad question on the theme of the lesson or a philosophical question that may relate to a text or topic you are studying. For example: Are people either good or bad? How does someone become evil? Has science gone too far? 

    A question like this should make your lesson feel instantly accessible. If you combine this with a tactic for calling on pupils at random, such as drawing names out of a hat, you should be able to get conversation going from the beginning.
  2. Change the question

    If you want pupils to have a definite, asserted response, allow them the chance to say "I think" first. Change your questions from starting with "what is" or "what does" to starting with "what could" or "what do you think". This indicates that rather than seeking a "correct" answer, you are interested in pupils sharing their ideas and opinions.
  3. Establish written dialogue

    Establish written dialogue with pupils so that they feel confident about asserting ideas. When a pupil is working silently, write a note in their book to compliment an idea they have written. This will encourage them to vocalise the idea later. You could also try writing down a question. After the pupil answers this question on paper, you could open it up to a class discussion ─ and the pupil should feel more able to contribute.
  4. Intentionally mislead them

    Tell the class something totally wrong in the hopes that they will challenge you. This works particularly well for a clever, quiet class who will not allow a mistake to slip by. Read them a quote written by an "expert" that could be wrong. Show them a "good" essay that isn’t very strong and let them vocalise their issues with it. Encourage debate and argument.
  5. Force them to fight

    Give each student an opinion that they must argue the case for, scattering various opinions across the class. Once each student has a position to argue, you can step back and let chaos ensue.

Sarah Donarski is a teacher of English at Wellington College in Berkshire. She tweets from @s_donarski and blogs at perspedtED.

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