Six Simple Ways to Get Your Students Talking

Students discuss CommonLit lesson around table.

In this post, history teacher Lucas Richardson shares strategies to increase student talk time.

Does anyone remember Ben Stein’s part as the boring economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Anyone? Anyone? If you have no idea what I’m talking about — or even if you do remember but you want a quick laugh — watch this short clip. If you’re like me, you can (painfully) recall moments from your own classes when, perhaps, you felt like Mr. Stein, asking low-level questions in one breath and answering them in the next, boring the the entire class.

As a history teacher, I worked hard to engage my students and bring them into the conversation. But inevitably, my own voice would rise to fill the space in the discussion — I wanted to make sure the right information was out there.

But research shows that the more the students speak in the class, the more they learn. This finding has been demonstrated over and over again by education researchers over the last few decades (Lotan, 2012; Holthuis, 2012; Michaels, 2008; Bianchini, 1997; Cohen, 1997; Leechor, 1989; Vygotsky, 1978). It’s clear that, in every study, the more students talk and work together, the more they learn.

And yet, in today’s classrooms, teachers talk, on average, around 75% of class time (Hattie, 2012). We are still a long way away from the student-centered classrooms we know are best for learning.

Student talk matters, and we all know that one of the best ways to increase student talk is to decrease teacher talk. Reducing the amount of time we spend talking takes careful thought and planning, and requires that we structure lessons and units to include opportunities for student speech.

Below you’ll find six simple strategies that are guaranteed to get your students talking:

1. Ask Authentic Questions

Maren Aukerman, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, tells us that the language we choose to use shows students how much we value their thinking. Are we asking questions that simply “test” whether our students can produce an answer we already have in mind? Or are we asking questions meant to gain access to our students’ thinking or perspective? Ask your students “authentic” questions — that is, questions where you as the teacher are truly curious how the student will respond.

So how do you know questions are “authentic”? Authentic questions are typically open-ended, and empower students to join their classmates in a line of inquiry in which the answer is not already known or owned by the teacher. Of course, what matters here is a student’s perception of what’s going on in the classroom. Do students see the teacher as keeper of knowledge, as someone to please with answers? Or are students encouraged by the teacher’s questions to take risks and build knowledge? Anyone?

2. Play Volleyball, Not Ping-Pong

Are you responding to every student comment (ping-pong), or are students responding to and interacting with their peers’ contributions to the conversation (volleyball)?

One of the greatest challenges teachers face when facilitating classroom dialogue is the urge to stay in control of the discussion, or to evaluate student responses in real time. Students are accustomed to seeing their teachers as the experts in the room, and are in the habit of trying to guess what the teacher wants in a response. Such a routine can stifle thought and limit engagement, as students’ brains will shut down once their classmate has been called on.

Volleyball floats up against a blue sky with clouds.

To play volleyball, you’ll need to kick this habit. One way is to encourage, or even require, students to evaluate, respond to, and extend their classmates’ contributions. Offering a range of sentence starters (“I heard my classmate say…”, “I agree because…”) on a poster or cheat-sheet can help students build this habit.

3. Use — And Trust — Wait Time

Mary Budd Rowe, a science teacher and educational researcher, spent over a decade (no kidding!) studying the effect of “wait time,” the time spent silent after a teacher poses a question. Her research, conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, is fascinating. Here, I’ll highlight two of her greatest hits.

First, Rowe and her team were able to identify 2.7 seconds as the duration needed for wait time to be effective. In her research in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms across subjects, 2.7 seconds of wait time contributed to over ten distinct benefits for students and teachers alike, including increased length of student responses, an increase in the use of evidence and logical argumentation by students, and even improved achievement on written work.

Second, Rowe made the important distinction between Wait Time 1 (after a teacher’s question) and Wait Time 2 (after a student’s response). It turns out that Wait Time 2 is the more important of the two, and also the more challenging one to manage given our desire to keep the conversation moving. When you roll out discussion norms for students, tell them to wait a moment after their classmate finishes speaking before jumping into the discussion. This will help everyone listen to the discussion, and it will ensure that the speaker feels respected and heard. Have one or two students model this type of active listening for the class.

4. The Good Ol’ Socratic Seminar

The best teachers live forever. Almost 2,500 years ago, Socrates figured out that bringing students into the conversation was far more effective than the best lecture. Today, this is known as the Socratic Method.

Socrates as the teacher claimed to “know nothing,” and engaged in dialogues where he forced his students into the role of a teacher. In a discussion with Socrates, students did the intellectual heavy-lifting, reasoning their way to satisfying conclusions.

The Socratic Circle is a popular discussion method that asks students to step up and lead the discussion.

In a Socratic Circle, the class is split into two groups, and form two “fish bowl” circles in the classroom. One group conducts a student-led discussion, typically around a specific text and/or authentic question, while the other group watches the discussion and keeps track of the direction of the conversation. After a certain amount of time, the groups switch roles. The outside group must remain silent, but can refer to statements made by the other group. The teacher’s role is passive, and steps into the conversation only to help it move in whatever direction it’s already going.

For more tips on leading an effective Socratic discussion using CommonLit texts, check out this blog post.

5. Micro-Debates As Class Starters

With the school year approaching, I was looking for ways to hear from my students every day, so I decided to introduce “micro-debates” as a routine to start class a couple times each week. I would write a controversial statement on the board which typically related somehow to the objective for class that day (“The Puritans were champions of religious freedom” or “Abraham Lincoln is deserving of the title ‘The Great Emancipator’”) and ask two students to take the pro and two other students to take the con.

Some days, I would use a current event as a hook, an event which only tangentially related to the class objective but that I knew would spark engagement (“Colin Kaepernick should be benched for kneeling during the National Anthem” for teaching about the 1st Amendment, or “All school restrooms should be gender neutral” as a way to introduce the 14th Amendment).

As the year went on, students begged for more of these debates, and I found that starting with student voices rather than my own ensured I had more kids engaged for the entire class.

6. Measure It!

There’s an old saying: “What gets measured, gets done.” With that in mind, I started using an app last year that automatically tracks the ratio of teacher talk to student talk. Having that data on a daily basis was a revelation — it forced me to be more reflective on my teaching, and to be more proactive about getting student voices at the center of my classroom.

The app uses a machine learning algorithm to distinguish your voice from your students. It’s called TeachFX, and it was created by a former teacher. It’s super easy to use, basically like an alarm clock that you set for the classes you want to analyze. I’ve gotten in the habit of checking my talk percentages every day.

As teachers, we operate on a lot of assumptions. “Oh, that class went well,” I might think as I walk back to my desk. Measuring your actual student and teacher talk keeps you honest. Maybe I thought a class went well because I made a lot of brilliant points, but the students weren’t really that engaged.

Using the app also pushed me to look for new strategies to get students engaged. And, maybe most importantly, it lets me see how well I’m implementing new teaching methods. For example, I could see that when I was more conscientious about wait time, my student talk went way up. Mary Budd Rowe would be proud.

Finally, CommonLit has many more resources on class discussion. For starters, check out this short video, which has even more strategies for how to lead an effective classroom discussion with CommonLit.