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It is OK if They Stare at You: Creating Comfort with Silence in the Classroom


30% of a Given Class of Students is “Silent”

Imagine the alienation those 30%  of students in a given classroom must be feeling. One third of a class! Imagine too, the effect that has on your classroom instruction: you are missing out on those chances to get feedback, measure comprehension and make adjustments.

[Women in a classroom.], Digital ID 1536556, New York Public LibraryWait Time

I was in a meeting recently in which the long, thoughtful silences reminded me of the “Wait Time” I used when I taught 6th grade Social Studies.

The earliest studies of Wait Time posited two definitions: Wait Time I was defined as “the duration of the pause after a teacher utterance”; and Wait Time II was defined “as the duration of the pause after a student utterance.” Years later, a new definition was proposed: “the period of silence that precedes teacher talk.”

Classroom-based research indicates that an increase in Wait Time to even just 3 to 5 seconds (from the standard of 1 to 1.5) has the following benefits, all of which I experienced in my classroom.
An increase in Wait Time led to:

• increase in the length of responses
• increase in student-posed questions
• increase in unsolicited student responses
• increase in student-student interaction
• decrease in teacher-posed questions

Really, I never knew it was a method until I took a “Strategic Teaching” class in graduate school, yet I had been using it unknowingly for years. First I noticed just an awkward silence that happens in a classroom when a teacher asks a question and gets no response. Over time, though, the silence became less awkward and more generative and I began to do it purposefully.

Wait Time Can Develop or Be Implemented

A specific, intentional emphasis on Wait Time actually emerged organically in my classroom. My Special Education co-teacher and I were trying to devise ways to increase the participation of our Special Education students. Our teaching techniques were informal and heavily focused on discussion, and we found the same students always getting the floor. We were tired of the competitive nature among our students in answering our questions, and we were tired of not meeting the needs of all the students. We wanted balanced class participation.

If, as it often did, discussion counted as the informal assessment at the end of the period, we were assessing at most half the class with that technique. The others left the room without us having a sense of what they knew and understood, or what they had not grasped.  And we had no idea what those others, those “silent” students, were thinking or feeling while their classmates participated. From both a pedagogical and affective standpoint, we needed a change.

What Happens With Wait Time

Once I began to use Wait Time consciously, I noticed the benefits in stages. First I noticed that my Special Education students raised their hands more. In discussing this with my co-teacher, we surmised that Wait Time meant they had more time to think and process. Before this, we had worked out “codes” with these students. I would stand next to a particular student if I thought she could and should answer one of the next couple of questions. I would develop them with her in mind. But I didn’t have to do that anymore. I didn’t have to set students up for success because the pattern of question asking and answering changed so dramatically.

Once we implemented Wait Time, those students who filled in the silence were the students who needed that time to think, to process, to plan an answer, to make sure the faster talker, the more vocal student, was not going to go first.  The temptation was to call on the students who had their hands up first, but I would just take my time. Let those talkative students, who research says often participate for recognition, and not necessarily scholarly participation, wait on occasion.  Once we gave them the opportunity, the most silent voices filled in with their valuable thoughts and answers. Finally, the floor was theirs.

I also noticed that my students who never interrupted or talked over their peers—largely for cultural reasons— were suddenly participating more. That Wait Time allowed them to scope out the situation and feel comfortable making their contribution. They were less afraid of speaking out of turn, of cutting someone off, or showing disrespect.

When the conversation was slower-paced, my questions could probe deeper into the topic, which would prompt more insightful and inferential thinking, which in turn caused more thoughtful and planned answers.

I noticed that I played less and less of a role in the discussion. I generated less of the questions, I dominated less. I prompted less. Students directed their comments and questions to one another. I think on some special occasions I could have left the room and the conversation would have kept on going without me, which both demonstrates and promotes true learning.

Educators, do you have any experiences with Wait Time? Non-Educators, has the concept of Wait Time been present in your life in any way?

The following books from the NYPL Collections are excellent resources for more about Wait Time and other issues surrounding classroom discussion and student responsiveness.


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Wait Time

Ms. Robin, I read your blog and found it fascinating. I can't wait to try it with students. How do you think it would work with adult learners? Do you have any suggestions? Thanks! Miriam R.

Wait Time

Miriam, I'm so glad you think this strategy will work for your students. Let me know how it goes! In terms of adult learners, I think you have to be even more transparent and explicity since their habits are already formed. As a graduate student, many times the students would say something, anything, to fill in the silences. I think if the instructor tells them that silence is okay, that it means thinking is going on, then students might be more comfortable. I also think that those comments made to "stop" the silence can be really strong ones. If not, if they come across as gap-fillers you might try having students write answers or follow up questions to whatever the last comment was. I did this with students as well. You might also suggest that if people don't have comments to make, they may have questions to ask. Good luck! Janna

Pause before hitting send

What a fantastic observation/suggestion/technique, Janna! Such a simple way to improve participation and understanding without complicated and expensive professional development materials. I've posted a link to the blog on the Beacon staff portal, and I hope teachers will begin employing "Wait Time." How did you implement Wait Time consciously? Did you discuss and practice the pause with students? Did you train students to pause? Have the more vocal students write their thoughts first? "Wait Time" reminds me of a great mantra suggested to me many times: "Stopping for a moment and being silent can bring the steadiness you need for any task." Thanks for sharing your expertise. Write more!

Abby, thanks so much for your

Abby, thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. I began the new strategy as I began most-- with explicit, transparent instruction. I told the students what I was observing-- that certain students were filling in silences just to fill them in, or that certain students work better when they have more time to process, or that certain questions or responses simply require more thought than others. It's interesting that you bring up the aspect of writing. If no one was saying anything, or if they were speaking to hear themselves, I often had students write comments OR questions. I could use these at the end of the period as informal assessment.

My school district in Long

My school district in Long Island utilizes the Socratic method with students k-12 and wait time is a huge part of the method. It is immensely satisfying to see kids think before answering and respectfully debate among each other. I have been blown away by some of the conclusions and noticings they make when they are given the time to answer thoughtfully. It is clearly a very successful technique, I use it in Art. Great blog! Keep up the good work!

Hi Sue, I'm glad you've

Hi Sue, I'm glad you've "tested the system' and can back it up. I am so impressed that your district has committed to using the Socratic method-- and from what it seems like given that you use it in art-- across the entire curriculum. Student generated questions, which also reveal their thinking and understanding-- are really wonderful. I'm very curious how the Socratic Method works in Art. Can you fill us in?

Inviting more student voices

Generating more student-student discussion is one of my goals for my classroom. I see how wait time would facilitate this interaction between students as they realize that answers will not be coming from the usual sources (either the teacher or the participants who raise their hands first). I imagine, too, that as the voices in the classroom become more diverse, students who do not typically speak will become more comfortable contributing. What a great way to make class time more productive for every student! Thank you for your strategy.

Dear J. I'm really gratified

Dear J. I'm really gratified you think this strategy could help in your classroom. There are some other "parts" to it (some that I've mentioned in other replies) that you may want to use, especially as students are getting used to this new pace of conversation. You may want students-- if there is a long pause-- to respond with questions. You may choose to have students write responses or questions that you can then collect for assessment purposes. The more students can both ask and answer their questions-- and using the text is often a good way to do this-- the better. Thanks for writing, Janna

Wow, this was really

Wow, this was really fascinating and thought-provoking -- a good model for the classroom and in life. It seems so obvious when I read it but it's not something I ever consciously thought about. It's one thing for me to implement, but now I'm wondering if my children's teachers are applying this strategy -- if they're not they should be. I forwarded this link to my son's kindergarten teacher.

wait time

i especially like the role of the teacher becoming less dominant as the kids pick up the discussion and run with it on their own. Very interesting article!

Thanks Wendy, It's often hard

Thanks Wendy, It's often hard to "wean" the students off of the habit of teacher supplying both questions and answers. They have often grown dependent on either that autority, or on that message that they can be more passive. It never hurts to turn the question around-- "I don't know-- what do you think?" "Is there anything in the text that answers that question?" "Is there anything in the text you are curious about?" "Does anyone have a response to what_________ just said?" Do what feels right for you and your students and I think you'll find they adapt quickly and gratefully. Janna

Hello Ms. Robin, Can you

Hello Ms. Robin, Can you suggest other effective classroom strategies such as how to better involve students in both small and large-group instruction? I can't seem to get off of the track of having all students doing the same thing so I feel in control. Thank you. SS

Hi Miriam, that's a really

Hi Miriam, that's a really big question, and actually my next blog post, which will be on Literature Cirlces may supply some suggestions. One of the strategies that worked best for my students, myself, and my co-teacher is one that takes a while to get the students to master, but when they do, it's really popular. I called it Reciprocal Reading, which I know has a lot of meanings. Here, roughly, is what it looked like. 1. One student previews the text out loud. 2. Students ask that previewer questions. 3. One student reads the text selection out loud. 4. Students ask the reader any questions they have about the text. No one else is allowed to talk until the reader has the chance to answer 5. The reader is allowed to use the text to answer the question. 6. If the reader doesn't know, or can't find, the answer, another student can volunteer his or her answer. 7. This then moves into a classroom discussion. At the beginning, it is best if the teacher models these roles and demonstrates that it is okay if she doesn't know the answer. That, in fact, that's totally okay. In my classroom, kids were clamoring to be the one who got to ffield the questions. And it wasn't just the more vocal students, either. It was all of them! I hope that strategy proves helpful. Oh-- one last thing- if students are in small groups, you should start with given topics, texts, and questions. Don't expect them to have the conversational skills all at once. Lead them! Janna

Miriam, I'm so sorry. I just

Miriam, I'm so sorry. I just reread your post and found I didn't address it at ALL. Here are some thoughts on differentiating classroom work. One go-to is stations. They're pretty self-explanatory, and a great way to get students moving, using different parts of their brain, and interacting with others. Another strategy I found succuessful was CHOICE. I knew the content I wanted the students to learn, or demonstrate, but often gave them a choice of how to do that. Whether it was drawing, paragraph-writing, or working in small groups to answer question prompts from me, students were all happy and active. One thing I would never want to imply is that there was never any direct instruction in my class. I think that is simply impossible. I tried to have mini lessons, just as Reading and Writing classes employ. After the mini lesson, students could practice whatever they felt they needed to. Or if they were all working on the same thing, I took the opportunity to try and conference with them. One thing that also worked was the "I feel good about this and the "I have some questions about this" pairing. Students could self-identify and you could pair them up to work with one another. Surprisingly, this was not always the dominant student and the weak student. If you pose the topics carefully, you can play to multiple strengths. And if you have an assessment at the end that requires both of their input, you're safe-guarding against dominance. I'll keep thinking, but try those for now! Janna

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