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Four Key Strategies that Get Kids to Talk

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Contrary to what movies and television depict, a quiet classroom is not one that most teachers find desirable. When students sit silently without talking or making contributions, their engagement is understandably called into question. In the wake of pandemic recovery, teachers are reporting a frustrating decrease in student discourse and involvement. What can we do to help validate students and send the clear message that their thoughts are welcome, right or wrong? The four strategies below are key to producing a classroom that shares responsibility for involvement equitably between teachers and students. 

Strategy #1: Learning Partners

When kids sit in seats all day, they get sluggish and have a harder time actively engaging. To increase physical and mental interest, create pairings known as “learning partners” to help students share ideas. In this strategy, students are given a sheet of paper with class-specific content. A geometry class, for example, might have different shapes represented on the page, whereas an elementary art class might have various colors (both identified by label and the correct pigment) on the paper. Under each item is a blank for a partner’s name. Students walk around, find a partner for each item on their page, and write it down. 

As an illustration of this process, let’s consider the shapes example. Two kids named Jalen and Kate decide to put one another’s names down under the triangle. In the future, when it’s time to discuss a concept, their teacher can say, “Find your triangle partner,” and all students will know exactly who to talk to. Once partners have spoken, the teacher can engage each student in more meaningful conversation about class content, and everyone will have a potential contribution to make. One practical caveat to consider: it’s important for the teacher to collect learning partner pages after each use, or they tend to get lost in lockers or backpacks. 

Strategy #2: Low-Risk Questioning

Students often feel apprehensive about asking questions because they think that if they ask the wrong thing, people will think they’re not smart. However, making class a welcome space for inquiry is essential to learning more about how kids think and what they know. Teaching students how to ask questions is a natural part of learning, and we can model the process by keeping our own queries open-ended. Rather than offer the usual “Any questions?” prompting (which typically yields scant to zero replies), teachers should explicitly teach the characteristics of higher-order questions that go beyond “yes” or “no” responses. Furthermore, we can provide opportunities for students to ask questions in multiple modalities, both verbally and in writing, at the close of each day’s learning. That way, being inquisitive becomes a desired process that helps the teacher uncover confusion and course correct as needed. Most of all, students will be more prone to participating when they have a fuller understanding of what is happening.

Strategy #3: Discourse Moves

While students may be able to have unstructured conversations about class content, they often need a little help. Otherwise, certain students will dominate conversations while others remain quiet. To ensure that more voices are heard, teachers can try a multitude of strategies, from providing discourse frames with assigned speaking roles to designing rules around who speaks and when. For example, a talking piece that students must hold in order to speak is a common strategy for creating more equity around voice, and anyone who has already held the item (a ball, a stuffed animal, or whatever the teacher chooses to use) can be asked to refrain from saying more until all students have provided thoughts. It also helps to make class conversation a low-risk process. That means rather than asking students about less familiar content, provide a topic that everyone can contribute to with their prior knowledge. That way, kids are far more likely to talk in that moment, and to say more in the future when topics aren’t quite as accessible.

Strategy #4: Warm Calling

Cold calling on students can make them feel trapped, as though each moment in class is a potential “gotcha.” When kids are apprehensive, they cannot embrace learning for its own sake. To shift the mindset around student participation, employing a variety of warm calling strategies is far more likely to be encouraging to the point that students feel safe sharing their thoughts. One necessary aspect of warm calling is to always pre-alert students about the fact that in a few minutes, we will be asking them to share. Then, during the time they are given to think or process, we can give them options to either formulate their ideas independently or with peers. In addition, using an equitable calling strategy so that different students speak each time is a huge part of making sure that more students in the room are given a chance to talk. Regardless of who speaks, the final step of warm calling is to validate any response we hear, whether it is what the teacher was looking for or not. All answers students share reveal learning, especially if they are mistakes that others in the room likely share as well.

Getting students to talk more about what they’re learning is no easy task, but making gradual gains in language production is an attainable goal. Working through the four language domains of reading, writing, speaking and listening will give kids multiple ways to make contributions to class in ways that are lower risk and that build trust over time. That way, the frustration of trying to draw out a class full of silent learners will ease as students become more accustomed to having their ideas welcomed in safe spaces. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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