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Classroom Management, Equity Resources, Teaching Tips & Tricks   |   Sep 11, 2014

8 ways teachers can talk less and get kids talking more

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

8 ways teachers can talk less and get kids talking more

By Angela Watson

If you do fewer teacher-directed activities, that means the kids will naturally do more talking, doesn’t it?  Not necessarily.

I have often found myself talking almost constantly during group work and student-directed projects because I’m trying to push kids’ thinking, provide feedback, and help them stay on task.

Even when the learning has been turned over to the students, it’s still tempting to spend too much time giving directions, repeating important information, and telling students how they did instead of asking them to reflect on their work. Here are 8 ways teachers can talk less and get students talking more:

1. Don’t steal the struggle.

It can be uncomfortable to watch kids struggle to figure out an answer, but they need time and silence to work through it. Resist the urge to talk students through every step of a problem and instead just observe. Similarly, learn to love think time. I often worry about keeping the momentum of a lesson going, and it’s uncomfortable for me to allow several moments of silent “wait time”or “think time” before calling on students. However, I try to push against the feeling that I will lose students’ attention because I know providing wait time can actually increase the length and quality of their responses. Letting kids think instead of rushing in to narrate or question builds anticipation around what’s going to be said next and increases participation as more kids are prepared to move into the conversation.

2. Move from the front of the classroom.

It’s easy to get in an instructional rut when you stand at the same place near the board all day long. Try occasionally sitting on the side of the classroom or in an absent student’s desk and say, “I need someone to go up and demonstrate ___ for us.” Because students are used to the person at the board facilitating the lesson, they are likely to talk for much longer than if you stay at the front and they’re in their seats answering you. You can even remain sitting among the class once the student is done demonstrating and ask follow up questions from other students instead of commenting on the students’ demo yourself (“What do all think? Is that an effective method–how do you know? Does anyone use a different strategy?”)

3. Teach students signals for your often-repeated phrases and for transitions.

Cut down on conversations about bathroom/water/pencil sharpening/etc by teaching kids to use sign language to request permission: use sign language to indicate your answer back: yes, no, or wait. I also like to teach kids sign language for please, thank you, and you’re welcome so that I can reinforce their good choices and acknowledge kids without constantly talking. Use music, a chime, or other auditory signal to indicate when it’s time to start an activity, pause, and clean up. The idea here is to give kids a break from hearing your voice: they are far more likely to tune in to a unique sound than to a 20 word direction.

4. Use non-verbal reinforcement for behavior whenever possible.

A lot of the talking most of us do throughout the day is related to student behavior, and most of the time, we’re wasting our breath. Resist the urge to lecture students every time someone forgets their materials, interrupts your lesson, or makes an inappropriate noise. It’s far more effective (not to mention easier and less disruptive) to give students “the teacher look” and keep the lesson moving. If you need to have a conversation about the behavior with a student or issue a consequence, try to wait for a break in your instruction rather than stop the whole class from learning while you discipline one kid.

5. Turn your statements into questions and prompts.

Instead of saying to a group, “Nice work over here, I like the strategy you used for ___”, ask the kids to reflect on their own work: “Tell me how your group has chosen to solve ___.” Instead of telling a child, “Take a look at #3, that answer is incorrect” say, “Would you tell me how you got the answer for #3?” Not only will these questions get kids talking instead of you, kids will also have the chance to reflect on and articulate their learning.

6. Instead of asking, “Does that make sense?” say, “Can you put that in your own words?”

If you’ve ever asked kids “Are you getting this?”, you’ve probably noticed you rarely get an insightful response. So, you either move on without kids understanding or you repeat something you’ve already said. Try inviting kids to put what you’ve explained into their own words, either repeating it back to you (if you were helping the child in a one-on-one conversation) or by turning and talking to a partner/doing a quick think/pair/share.

7. Stop repeating yourself.

It’s tempting to say important points and instructions a couple of different ways to make sure every child understands, but that strategy can backfire when it’s overused. Kids learn that it’s okay to tune you out because you’ll repeat everything you say. Instead, experiment with different strategies for getting kids to follow directions the first time you give them and use call-and-response routines to get kids’ attention right away.

8. Notice moments when you summarize/review for students and instead get their input.

If you hear yourself saying once again, remember, as I said, as always, so to sum this up, or don’t forget, that probably means you’re about to drive home an important point for the second or third (or tenth) time. Practice making those moments a chance for kids to share: What’s the rule about this? Who can sum this section up for us? Who remembers the way to determine ___? Some teachers even turn these moments into interactive activities, where the whole class does a hand motion, body movement, sound, or chant to indicate that they’re summarizing an idea or reviewing directions before getting started.

Active learning strategies are a powerful way to get kids talking about their learning. Click the image to learn more.

Active learning strategies are a powerful way to get kids talking about their learning. Click the image to learn more.

Do you have any advice for a new teacher on making the shift from teacher talk to student talk? Please share your ideas (or struggles!) in the comments.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. I teach developmental reading and writing at the community college level. I found these strategies to be extremely helpful and informative. In every class, I strive to elicit “student talk,” which isn’t always easy. Thank you again.

      1. I really enjoyed learning new ways to keep students engaged. My favorite was…..DON’T steal the struggle.

    1. Not all students are the same…………… as a special needs trained teacher, it is not good to 100% a room of people. Please get used to using ALL strategies and give yourself time to work quietly with those who need extra support …. best of all strat is KNOW your STUDENTS well :0)

  2. All great tips. Wish I had this my first few years!

    I would also add that getting students to talk more is the result of a mentality. Design lessons that are focused on student activity and discovery. Take yourself out of info-delivery mode and put kids into info-acquisition. Their conversation will drive everything else!

    1. I’ve always been told that using student-centered instruction grabs and holds attention, but I have no idea how to do that. I’m a first year teacher in an unaccredited school, so I need all the help I can get. Can you give some pointers on getting slow and unmotivated learners into the info-acquisition position?

  3. Great post! Thank you. Love #1 “Don’t steal the struggle,” and #6 “Ask ‘Can you put that in your own words?'” Great ideas for reflective learning.
    I am an English Department Head, and teach English, grades 9-12. At the end of your post, you asked for some advice to add. Here’s my two cents:
    I think the classroom set up is key: avoid rows and use groups of desks. For whole class discussions, dedicate some of the early days in the term, to model new behaviours for discussions–“what it looks like to have a whole class discussion.” Encourage students to look at one another and around the room. Practice what it looks like to actively listen to other students. Practice this as a class. Too often students look only to the teacher for the approving nod, right after they’ve contributed. Teachers, themselves, can practice resisting too much “evaluative nodding” or repeating of student answers. Remind students to speak loudly enough for everyone to hear, so that you, the teacher, aren’t repeating student responses. If a student speaks softly, ask him/her to repeat; don’t repeat the point for him/her. Otherwise, you’re sending a message that information shared by a student isn’t valuable until you’ve repeated it.

    1. Anne, thanks for taking the time to share so much helpful information. I especially like your point about “evaluative nodding” and repeating kids’ answers–these behaviors can train kids to look to us for approval instead of empowering them to take charge of the discussion themselves.

      1. When a student’s response is clear & accurate, yes I think we can forgo the “evaluative nodding” and repetition/rephrasing/clarification, however, students often have difficulty expressing themselves in a way that makes sense to others. In those cases, I believe it is critical for the teacher to let the student talk out their idea and then clarify & rephrase. As an ESL teacher, I often see my ELLs (& other native English speakers!) completely baffled by a peer’s explanation until a teacher steps in to rephrase what the peer was saying. You could try to have a peer explain what the first speaker was trying to say first, but sometimes it IS our job as teachers to step in when other students are not being able to access the meaning of the student’s speech.

    2. I love this point about not repeating what a student says. I tell my students that we all can have a voice in the discussion. We wait for the two students that I have that have speech problems to complete their thoughts. If they need what they said to be repeated, I do ask their permission to repeat it for them when it is necessary. I sit in the student’s desk area when we are discussing things and tell them that I want to learn something from them today. They are first graders learning to tools to carry on a big discussion. They love it. At the end of the day we take a few minutes to go over what we have learned in our day.

  4. You’re forgetting one each starting teacher makes: saying what you will do. “I will write this on the blackboard right here…”, “Let me start my presentation”, “I will walk around and hand out your work sheet”. Just do whatever you want to do, the students will notice 😉

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