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Get Shy Students Talking During a Seminar


Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to present this advice from Terry Roberts and Laura Billings, authors of Teaching Critical Thinking: Using Seminars for 21st Century Literacy.

The authors show how a seminar approach can lead students deeper into a text and improve their speaking, listening, and writing skills, as recommended by the Common Core State Standards. In order for students to develop these skills, teachers must be able to reach all students during a seminar or class discussion. How can teachers encourage their shy students to participate?

The single most common question asked by facilitators who are learning to lead seminars is how to get the dominant to talk less and the reticent to talk more. In some ways, this is the quintessential problem—both because it is so common and also because it serves to introduce the pre- and postseminar process sessions where good facilitators do most of their coaching.

If a given student is naturally a confident speaker and willingly takes the lead in seminar discussion, the goal is not merely to get that student to be quiet; rather, the goal is to help her or him learn to invite others in and to listen with equal intensity. If another student is naturally more withdrawn and tends not to speak out even when interested in the discussion, then the goal is to help that student gain the confidence to voice her or his thoughts openly. In each case, it is about learning new skills to complement existing ones.

We have learned over the years that the best way to do this is to help participants become aware of both their strengths and weaknesses in thoughtful dialogue. We also give them clear strategies for practicing particular skills. Just as beginning readers learn new reading strategies, beginning seminar participants learn new speaking and listening strategies. As a result, we have added pre- and post-seminar process steps to each seminar plan that we develop. During these steps, students assign themselves specific process speaking and listening goals (before the seminar) and then assess their own progress (afterward). Here are four goals that students can set for themselves:

  • Speak at least three times.
  • Agree or disagree with someone else in detail.
  • Ask a question.
  • Keep an open mind.

The first two options are designed to help less talkative participants speak out and with purpose. The third and fourth are designed to help participants focus on listening with purpose. Our response, therefore, to a teacher who was concerned that her seminars thus far were dominated by the same few participants was to show her how to create both group and personal process goals that speak directly to this dynamic. Having students set personal process goals ahead of time will encourage shy students to speak up during a seminar or class discussion.


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