Picture the scene: you ask a question to the class, only to be greeted by a sea of blank faces. You wait. The silence becomes palpable. You begin to feel awkward. Eventually, your most confident student puts up their hand and you take their response, relieved that you can now move on.
Yet you’re frustrated that students you know are perfectly capable and have ideas worth hearing refuse to engage.
What can you do to help these quieter students to not only contribute in lessons, but enjoy doing so? Here are some tips on how to promote interaction and engagement with your questioning in class:
How to get quiet students talking in lessons
1. Where do you stand?
A good place to start is to offer students a controversial statement on the topic that you are teaching, where their viewpoint may range anywhere from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree". For example, if teaching Of Mice and Men, you might use, “If you work hard enough, anyone can achieve the American Dream.”
Label one side of the classroom "strongly agree" and the other side "strongly disagree", and ask students to get out of their seats and stand at the point on the continuum that reflects their opinion.
This will allow students the time to process their thoughts on the statement in order to determine where to stand, thus allowing them to consider their verbal contribution in advance.
Once students are in place, ask students to explain their choice of why they have stood where they are. Hopefully, this approach can help to trigger a class debate – especially if there are disagreements!
Alternatively, if this is not possible due to Covid restrictions, it might be more appropriate to display an image of a double-ended arrow on the board with the labels on each end. Students can then write out their response on a sticky note with their name on and place it on the board at the appropriate point on the continuum – one at a time to maintain social distancing.
2. Make a game out of it
When introducing a new topic, or new key words that students need to understand, it can be useful to give students the answers in advance.
For example, if you give students a flashcard with the definition of one key term, they can then be asked to go around the classroom and ask other students their question.
Once both students in the pair have asked their question and received an answer, they swap cards and move on to another student.
This allows for a lively question-and-answer session and, once the class is brought back together for questioning, your quieter students should already know the answers that are expected and feel more confident to contribute.
However, if this isn’t possible due to Covid restrictions, a similar task can be created on the Quizlet website. Once you have made your flashcards, students can test each other on their devices from a safe distance before partaking in whole-class questioning and discussion.
3. Remove the fear of failure
Some students can be wary of giving an answer for fear it may be wrong – which is where the use of whole-class checks allows students to consider their answer individually before being called on in front of the class.
This might be done in the form of hinge questions, in which they are given a multiple-choice question and they simply write down the correct response on their own mini-whiteboard.
Students with the correct answer can be called upon to explain why they chose that response – an approach that minimises the fear of contributing as they can be reassured in advance that they have the right answer.
Alternatively, if students have their own device, Spiral.ac allows students to post their responses on the board.
This offers your quieter students much needed thinking time and, when all the responses are received, you can press the "random" button to display one student’s answer on the board at a time.
This is similar to cold calling in class but without any implication that you are the one picking on the student to respond – the website chose them, not you! Spiral also offers a range of fun alternatives to simply writing a response, including creating a drawing, making a presentation or annotating on an image.
4. Overcoming ‘I don’t know’ responses
We are all aware of choosing students at random as an option to encourage responses from our quieter students, but what can we do if a student refuses to engage and simply responds with, “I don’t know,” and a shrug of the shoulders?
Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby offer a few suggestions in their book, Making Every Lesson Count. One option is to respond with the answer and then ask students to explain why that is the correct answer.
By removing the pressure of thinking of the answer, the fear of getting the answer wrong in front of the whole class is reduced, encouraging students to speak up.
Alternatively, you might give them two options for what the answer is and ask the student to choose and explain their choice. Once the options have been narrowed down, your quieter student may be more confident contributing their response.
Finally, in response to “I don’t know”, it might be appropriate to remind the students of the facts they need in order to come up with the answer.
For example, if posing a question about a character in a book, it might be worth reminding them of the events leading up to the point you are asking about. This offers a quick refresher so that students can gather their thoughts before contributing.
Emma Sanderson is a secondary English teacher at Hartland International School in Dubai and has taught internationally for 6 years. She tweets @emmanaomi