8 ways teachers can talk less and get kids talking more

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.

the person doing the talking is the person doing the learning

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.

Teacher's Box of Tricks

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.

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 60 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Blaise B September 12, 2014 at 5:27 pm

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.

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2 Angela Watson September 13, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Thank you for commenting, Blaise. I’m glad this was helpful!

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3 Jean June 8, 2015 at 12:51 am

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)

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4 Jake September 13, 2014 at 7:28 am

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!

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5 Angela Watson September 13, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Absolutely, Jake! I love the way you phrased that.

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6 Cheri February 14, 2015 at 8:22 pm

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?

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7 Anne Ratchford September 13, 2014 at 12:43 pm

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.

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8 Angela Watson September 13, 2014 at 5:13 pm

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.

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9 Lisa G November 19, 2015 at 12:32 pm

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.

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10 Bram Faems September 13, 2014 at 1:49 pm

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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11 Angela Watson September 13, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Terrific point–a lot of our needless talking is narrating what we’re about to do. So glad you brought that up.

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12 claire Cartwright September 13, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Great article. I swear by ch 4 of shirley Clarke’s active learning through Formative Assessment. No more hands up, learning or talk partners and paddle pop sticks

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13 Robie September 14, 2014 at 9:30 am

Angela, great article. Than you. http://goo.gl/ymNw9r is also about less teacher talk. It links to this doc ( http://goo.gl/JEvn5J) that is editable. Looking for 45 ways to engage the learner who is coming to your class with their own device. “Engage them or they will engage themselves”

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14 Angela Watson October 3, 2014 at 12:58 am

Love that quote! Yes!

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15 30 yr educator September 14, 2014 at 1:19 pm

If you haven’t been through Kagan Cooperative Learning training recently, I highly recommend it. It gives you the management tools and structures for doing exactly this, while also building positive social skills and climate.

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16 Glenda Dunson September 15, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Thank you, Angela. As always, you are spot-on! The days that I spend talking too much wear me out. Most days, I try to zip it, so the kids can work. This was a refreshing reminder for the beginning of the year.

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17 Angela Watson October 3, 2014 at 12:40 am

I appreciate that so much, Glenda, and the time you take to leave such kind comments.

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18 David September 16, 2014 at 12:36 am

Look at New Management by Rick Morris for #3. Great hand signals.

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19 David September 16, 2014 at 12:36 am

Oh, and they are free online.

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20 Ann September 16, 2014 at 4:54 pm

Can a teacher or TA tell me: when I go to my assigned Kindergarten class to help the teacher (1 hour) I know my job (few things she’d like me too do upon arrival) BUT~ while I’m there, is it alright to address a student lying around in floor & not sitting cross cross applesauce (gentle voice~ sit sup) or mind my own business? I very much love my time there & want to help her not overstep or hinder… Any suggestions?? & there’s 5 non English speaking kids~ 2 come to me often for help while she’s teaching…. How can I or should I approach this very nice teacher about her expectations of me???
( I am not a TA! I’m just a mom to 5 kids (youngest is a spectrum kid) special Ed volunteer at religion & a lunch aide to at K class & a also a special needs 1:1 kid) like this article, let’s me read why the teacher does certain things the way she does!!!
One more?~ if a child is not behaving & it’s a continuing cycle, does a teacher really want to know??

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21 Emily September 20, 2014 at 4:25 pm

I would ask the teacher! I taught kindergarten for 2 years, and my favorite classroom volunteers and aides were the ones that jumped right in and helped. Especially in classrooms with large class sizes, a teacher doesn’t want to be constantly correcting behavior. You shouldn’t be giving out consequences, but redirecting behavior (Bobby, I think Mrs. F wants you to come to the carpet!) or giving reminders (remember, on the carpet we sit criss-cross apple sauce!) and modeling go a LONG way!

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22 BH January 29, 2015 at 8:17 am

Dear Ann,
Trust me, the teacher probably already knows if a child is laying around or not behaving but as a teacher I’d really appreciate a parent like you. Some kinder kids may be struggling from lack of sleep (let them take a catnap). Others may be acting out for various reasons (once I had a second grader tell me her feet were too hot–she took her shoes off at her desk). The best technique which has worked for me in the kindergarten room is what I call “bait and switch.” Make the activity SO MUCH FUN that they edge closer and closer. Ask them a question they are not expecting and then invite them into your activity. (Or have them get a drink of water and come back–they might need the movement.)
Some students are not ready for what we are trying teach in kindergarten. More and more, kindergarten is looking like first grade these days and the creativity/socialization factors are shrinking. We as parents, educators, and observers in the room need to speak our concerns.
Having said all of that, ALWAYS step in if someone’s safety is at risk or call it immediately to the teacher’s attention.
I hope you continue to volunteer and are enjoying your kindergarten experience this year!

Thanks for a great article, Ms. Watson!

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23 Anna December 9, 2014 at 9:30 pm

This is a wonderful article! I am currently a substitute teacher, and cover roughly 2nd-12th grades. I love how these tips are so transferable to the different grade levels! I definitely need to work on talking less, and listening more! I am making my job harder than it needs to be some days, and I feel that a lot of it is attributed to the fact that I talk so much! Thank you again!

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24 Angela Watson December 19, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Great point about making our jobs harder than they have to be. The kids should be doing just as much talking (and work) as we are, if not more!

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25 Ptiscilla December 31, 2014 at 10:12 pm

This is great information! I especially like moving from a familiar place to an open student desk so the class doesn’t get so use to you standing in the front of the class. I’m definitely going to try this and see what happens. I, too, tend to talk too much when I’m teaching and I struggle with the “wait” time but I am resolved to doing this because they have to figure out how to solve a problem in order to understand it.

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26 Anay January 9, 2015 at 3:56 pm

I find I get more student talk when I simply ask for and answers followed by a swift why. Student always begin discussions over the why rather than the answer because why gets to the process not the product!

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27 Angie January 13, 2015 at 1:31 pm

Thank you, Angela! I plan to teach my students sign language right away for questions regarding their physical needs. Those questions often cause my class to lose momentum in our rich discussions. I’ve also found that providing an agenda for the day eliminates the never-ending questions like, “Will we get to_____ today?” and “What are we going to do after this?” I notice that my reading group (2nd Grade Advanced Group) needs the agenda more than my homeroom.

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28 Mr. D January 17, 2015 at 10:00 am

Thanks, this is a very nice article and I will try to work with all the recommendations. Unfortunately, in my school there is very little help from the above captains and students have many issues that are going from late arrivals for first period to fix and accommodate attendance records allowing kids to be in school at the second period. Then comes the problem for poor hall transit control from period to period and hall walkers who are bothering by the door constantly and even cutting classes. Students are not suspended and instead are allow to stay in the cafeteria. Teachers in this place are responsible to contact (using our cell phones) struggling behavior students and cutters otherwise we are held accountable. Our school is more into data records than allowing teachers to work with students in the classroom where the majority of the students are level 1 in ELA and Math. Our school leaders and the CFN are empowering to teach every subject with writing concentration so the Bulletin Boards look very informative. Students struggle with the administration ideas to use rigorous work and different work without even consider the intellectual ability of the student. Testing and testing for data records and curriculum completion enforcement produces confusion in the students and in fact more behavior problems. Students in my schools come from lunch hyper and they obey the rule of no bathroom policy after lunch or last period. The use of sign language is a great tool but it is not enough for a place where teachers are accused formally of corporate punishment if we do not allow students to go to the bathroom with the excuse that supervisor are claiming that the child had a emergency. Our school is well known for social events and clubs to motivate learning, unluckily these events are happening outside the classroom and our reputation in the media is more noticeable than a flash event including cheating influence during the state test, students fights in a neighborhood store, students beatings in the detention center, and more. Consequences for behavior problems students over there is something that our wonderful leaders avoid to keep school records and reputation clean then teachers are left alone to manage more behavior issues in the class where some students are trow in the classroom at the expectancy that the educators manage the problem keeping records which are more time consuming and less practical. Most parents help very little and there is no support from administration to teachers who have to take the abuse from students otherwise there are repercussions to the staff.

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29 Patrick January 18, 2015 at 5:28 am

Thanks for these great tips Angela!

I actively practise #2. Whenever possible I will sit in free seats around the room, often for an entire period and speak to those students around me, whilst addressing the entire class if needed. I teach years 7-11 so I am not with the same class all day and I feel that doing this helps build a solid rapport with the students. Thanks again!

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30 BH January 29, 2015 at 8:26 am

Great suggestions and loved reading them. Bookmarked!

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31 Patti N. February 4, 2015 at 3:43 pm

Any ideas for high school students (specifically for math)?

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32 bee February 9, 2015 at 12:53 pm

I just found a really great idea on pinterest that would work well with math, too. You pose the answer on the board and the students write the question. (Works really well for 2nd graders as we work on questions/statements.) I’ve used it just for fun and for literature characters but was thinking about using it for math, too. You might put ANSWER: 5 = x
at the top of the board and give everyone a post it note or two to respond in the drawn box underneath
QUESTION:
They might have responses like What is 2x=10? or more complicated word problems (also a struggle in second grade) and I love the humorous responses “How many problems did it take for me to understand last night’s homeworkk assignment?” I read them aloud periodically throughout our class time and the children love them. I believe this would transfer to high school because I did it with a veterans’ writing group I work with on the weekends and they enjoyed it, too.
I find it really gives me insight into how deeply the students are thinking, too. Good luck and let me know if you try it! BH

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33 Angela Watson February 13, 2015 at 4:51 pm

Love this!

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34 Ellen March 26, 2015 at 10:06 am

This would also be a great free-writing (journal) prompt! Answer: XXXX (fill in any abstract or concrete noun), set a timer, and have students write during the entire time without worrying about correct mechanics. Their creative insights will astound you!

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35 bee March 26, 2015 at 11:27 am

Ellen, love the ‘piggy-backing!’ This activity is very sweet in second grade because we’re working on statements and questions. I also use it for “summary style” questions for book titles after we read a great book.

Now that it’s close to the end of the year, I’ve started putting everyone’s name up. They LOVE making it all about them and the questions are so sweet!
“Who really adores hamsters???” “Who reads every chance she gets?” Who’s the best big brother EVER?” “Who’s really NICE!”

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36 Allyssa February 12, 2015 at 5:31 pm

Very helpful! As a student teacher, I am trying my best not to give my students all the answers. It’s a tough transition from college back to high school!

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37 Rosita March 5, 2015 at 3:40 pm

Thank you Angela, our profession is very difficult, thanks God we love the profession and the kids, so any help is greatly appreciated. Keep going , never quit.

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38 Laurie March 9, 2015 at 7:19 pm

I went to a training this summer that actually focused LOTS on doing this!! It was so helpful! One key thing they said was to just give specific guidelines for what you want the students to be talking about. While they’re talking, you walk around and actively listen. Then go write a few things you heard them sharing on the board so they KNOW you were listening for ideas. This encourages the students to stay on topic each time because they want their idea shared!

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39 Fayyaz Malik March 27, 2015 at 4:01 am

Dear Ms. Watson,

It’s a great article with great class management tips. I need to ask for your permission to post your ideas on my facebook page, TESOL Efl, if it’s OK for you.

Thanks a million for sharing your practical ideas.

Fayyaz

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40 Angela Watson March 30, 2015 at 9:37 am

Absolutely!

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41 Sonya April 3, 2015 at 7:19 pm

Excellent list! I remember the first time I taught my kids a bathroom signal (sign language “B”), it saved so much instruction time. I would simply nod, shake my head, or hold up one finger (in a minute) and then keep moving on whatever discussion we were having.
One of my favorite ways to talk less, is to have the students discuss with each other any time I ask a question. It could be a simple recall question or a deeper question, they love to see if they are thinking the same things as their classmates and it gives everyone a chance to weigh in, even if I don’t hear every single answer.

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42 Angela Watson April 18, 2015 at 12:22 pm

Great point, Sonya! I think we have to move away from the mentality that we need to monitor every single student response. Having kids turn and share is really valuable for them. I usually just go stand by a particular students I want to hear from and listen in.

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43 Angel July 20, 2015 at 8:07 pm

I often find that not all students use the think and wait time to develop answers. Instead they are content with not knowing the answer and will just stare at me when I try to get them to answer. How do you deal with this problem?

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44 Laureline August 9, 2015 at 7:20 am

Bonjour Angela

I’m also a teacher and I read your article with great interest. First I have to appologize because my english writting is awfully bad as I haven’t been practicing english for a long long time now… So I hope you’ll understand my message!!!
I’m a talk-too-much woman in every day life I must say, so this question of giving the talk to the pupils is a great thinking to me for a couple of year now. What I do in my class for 3 years now (and it works very well) is to “pass the talk”, that means that I ask a question, a child answers and then, if other pupils pull their hands up, that’s the child who has just finished talking who shows who will speak next. I just do regulation but I’m not deciding all the time who can talk or not.

As well, I do the same as Sonya I think. When we are working on a complicated toppic, I ask a question or explain the work and then I let my pupils talk together about the toppic during few minutes before we all talk about it together.

I’m afraid my explanation in english are not very well written but I hope you’ll understand a bit of what I mean and maybe this could help…

Anyway, keep on you’re work and thinking because that’s very insteresting.

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45 Angela Watson August 19, 2015 at 12:08 pm

Thanks for taking the time to comment and share what you do in your classroom!

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46 Charlene Parker August 10, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Wow–this is a hard one for me and I do need to chill out and let the students have time to think instead of rushing them into an answer or giving them the answer to save time so I can move on to the next concept or objective.

I guess it is true–“silence is golden!”

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47 chitra September 14, 2015 at 10:30 am

Thank you for reinforcing these golden rules. I was fortunate to learn them (particularly Number – 1,2, 4 and 7)from two of my colleagues who had mentored me as well!

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48 Karen September 15, 2015 at 10:45 pm

Angela, I just loved your article. This has been part of my Professional Improvement Plan for many years now. I feel very strongly that it is so important for classrooms to be more student-driven in order for them to be more engaged learners as well as apply what they are learning to their everyday lives.

On another note, this will be my 23rd year of teaching, and although I continue to enjoy it, I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to become an Educational Consultant as yourself? I currently possess a supervisor/administrative degree as well as my elementary teaching certificate in NJ. Would you be able to guide me in the right direction because I’m looking at possibly doing that after my 25 years of teaching since I don’t have the age yet to retire from our state but I will have the years.
Thank you,
Karen

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49 Leah October 25, 2015 at 9:31 am

Excellent ideas! Thank you of sharing them.

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50 sheeraz October 25, 2015 at 10:08 pm

Wonderful article .Very practical and believe you me it works. I have been teaching approximately 35 years and have been using the 8 mentioned above and they do work.Peer teaching is another one that works fine with me.

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51 kelsey December 3, 2015 at 12:52 pm

This is such a great article! I especially loved #7 and #1. Thank you for sharing these best practices.

One friendly note: There is a typo in the second paragraph— it says “can talk less and getting students talking more.” Instead it should say, “get students talking more.”

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52 Angela Watson December 4, 2015 at 11:03 am

Thank you so much!

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53 Jamisah Ali January 22, 2016 at 6:57 pm

Thank you for teaching us how to be a good teacher and a we always know learning never stop.

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54 Jackie February 1, 2016 at 8:05 pm

That is so true. It is important for not only students to understand that learning is a lifetime process, but for us as teachers to be reminded is it as well. It is so easy for people to get caught up in routines and lose sight of why they do that they do or why they do it in that way. Nice reminder. Thank you.

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55 anita January 22, 2016 at 11:58 pm

Thanks for the great tips…

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56 Jackie February 1, 2016 at 8:02 pm

Angela,
This is a great article. I like the emaphsis on giving our voices a break. I tell my students all the time that if I am sick of hearing my own voice I know that they have to be. I love to listen to students work as a team to solve problems or help each other understand content. This is one of the most enjoyable times in teaching.

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57 Dan Fouts March 8, 2016 at 7:49 pm

When student says “I don’t know”, respond by asking “what would you say if you did know?”

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58 Kimberlee Hoyle March 10, 2016 at 2:17 pm

For students who are not comfortable sharing – let the students know, in advance, who in the team will be sharing so he or she can be prepared and confident.

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59 rachel April 18, 2016 at 5:30 pm

very needed and interesting info!

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60 Amber Godby May 16, 2016 at 1:15 pm

New Stuff please and thank you

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