Many Kids Don’t Like To Talk in Class. Here Are New Ways To Engage Them.

Bring students in from the sidelines to participate fully in group discussion.

Illustrations by Doloves/Getty Images

In a fifth grade math classroom in Southern California, students were talking in groups about a math problem and working through it collaboratively. The teacher, Ms. Rey, encouraged students to speak to one another to discuss a range of strategies and methods to solve a problem. The classroom was abuzz with conversation as students moved around to chat with others. In the midst of the buzz, a visiting researcher pointed out that in one group, a girl had spoken 101 times, while a boy next to her talked only once.

The researcher, Rachel Lambert, a professor of math education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studies how discussion participation may be foundational to learning, particularly for multilingual learners or students with disabilities, a category that included the boy, Oscar. (In Lambert’s research, which will be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, all participants used pseudonyms.) Oscar had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and was identified as nonverbal autistic.

Rey was eager to fix the disparity. “Participation was really inequitable, especially for students with IEPs,” Lambert says.

Lambert has focused her work in math education on improving experiences for students on the margins—particularly those with disabilities—by focusing on equitable talking time. “We have lots of evidence that the more you participate, the better you do, particularly in math,” she says. Critically, students’ participation often depends on choices and interventions made by a teacher. With the right tools, educators can encourage participation and foster individual learning and stronger group dynamics.

In classrooms, labs, and libraries where student discussion is encouraged, many may be talking—but not all may be participating. Students speak less for a multitude of reasons. They may be shy, introverted, or struggling to master a new language, for instance.

Tracey Wong’s project, in which students
created Braille books, generated high interest and enthusiastic conversation.
Photo courtesy of Tracey Wong/Yonkers Public Schools

All of those who are silent in a discussion-based classroom lose valuable opportunities to grow—and the class misses out on their insights. A range of strategies can be used to include students in the conversation, from highlighting the contributions and competence of quieter students to using technology to enable participation. Since librarians often see the same class only once a week, they need to quickly and efficiently triage negative student interactions that may have developed since the last meeting with ready procedures to help quiet students speak up.

A stimulating subject often spurs high-quality conversation. For Tracey Wong, a school library media specialist for Yonkers (NY) Public Schools, that means starting with an irresistible project. Students in Wong’s elementary school classes created Braille versions of classic children’s titles, which Wong then brought to a school for blind students in the Bronx. Wong taught her students Braille and told one class about the concepts others had come up with. Students eagerly shared ideas they’d seen around the school and thoughts on supplies to use.

There was high buy-in from the students, Wong says. They were excited that the project, “Build a Better Book,” had a positive, real-world impact. It provided “a chance for children [who] normally don’t lead to begin to lead,” she says.


Techniques for complexity

Despite the allure of a given topic, quiet students or learners new to English or to a subject often still stick to the sidelines in group conversations. Stanford University emerita professor of education Rachel Lotan noticed this when she was a middle and high school teacher of English in Israel, where students came to the class with widely varying English skills.

Lotan’s challenge to get all students talking led her to research status inequities in student conversation. Working with Elizabeth Cohen, a professor of education and sociology at Stanford University who died in 2005, Lotan developed Complex Instruction (CI), techniques to help teachers address these differences.

Teachers who successfully use these techniques achieve a main goal in diverse classrooms: strong achievement among all groups. “As kids who were previously low-achieving interacted more and did better, previously high-achieving students didn’t lose a thing: Everyone gained. The gap narrowed,” Lotan says. “That’s the crux: How do you create the conditions for equal status interactions in the classroom?”

To that end, CI techniques include assigning groups tasks or problems that are accessible to all students (a “low floor”) but are conceptually challenging (“high ceiling”) and rely on multiple skills to be completed; giving students specific roles in the group, such as facilitator or materials gatherer; and assigning competence—or acknowledging and validating aloud by repeating and sharing with the group—when a quieter student tries out a strategy or opinion.

“No one has all of these abilities, but everyone will be good at one or more,” is a CI refrain. “You have to make the environment such that the interaction is equitable. The [group] roles are but a means to an end. And the curriculum needs to contain richer, multidimensional problems,” Lotan says. Wong’s “Build a Better Book” project is all of those things.

For librarians, facilitating complex problem-solving through great conversations is “an amazing opportunity, because you have so many resources to pose an intriguing question that emphasizes everyone’s contribution,” adds Lotan.

The CI website includes examples from math, such as a “tug-of-war” between a party of four and a party of five that results in a tie. Unlike standard word problems that students race through alone, students need to work together to model possibilities and design a scenario so one team wins.

Technology can demonstrate a student’s thinking to others in novel ways. Some educators use online discussion options so that students can share their ideas while others are talking and then reflect later on the project and group processes.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as having all the groups pause and reflect on how the process is going: ‘Everyone, let’s stop and share what is working. What seems to be a problem for your group?’ ” says Todd Burleson, resource center director at the Skokie School in Winnetka, IL, and SLJ 2016 School Librarian of the Year. “Other times, I build in reflection questions using a tool like Seesaw or Flipgrid. Elementary students typically prefer to reflect on questions via video. Capitalizing on this with these tools lets me hear from students efficiently.”

Nevertheless, some students still struggle, especially younger kids who might bring the accumulated conflicts and problems of the week into the library. Burleson recalls a student who just didn’t want to work with a group on a project. “So he created opening credits for our stop-motion film festival,” Burleson says. “The student accomplished the ‘goals’ of the project, but it gave him a chance to stretch his skills and contribute to the overall experience.” Sometimes Burleson will simply have a group restate what they are working on and the challenges they’re facing. He asks how they think they should proceed, and the students get unstuck.


The right amount of nice

One task of being the adult in the room is helping students to “not be too nice,” says Maura Madigan, librarian at North Springfield Elementary in Fairfax County, VA. Early on in a student project, “I tell them that they have a limited amount of time, and they really can’t waste time working on an idea they don’t think will work. I model how to nicely disagree, and redirect their partner.” Madigan will also use sentence stems (e.g., “I think ____ because ____”) to spur conversation, along with visual cue cards that show aspects of collaboration.

Madigan structures groups to let strong personalities bounce off one another or be spread out to optimize student talk. “Sometimes I put two really strong personalities together or all quiet students together. Then you see who steps up,” she says. “I reiterate that there is no leader; they are all equals.”

Dana Heimlich, a former high school language teacher who is now the director of teaching and learning commons at Berkeley College in New Jersey, challenged her high school students and current adult students to come up with strategies to counter the domineering oversharer or the talkative group member who might not, in the end, do any work.

The style of any one group member, she tells them, may resemble that of a future boss or coworker, so it’s to their advantage to figure out how to work with everyone now. One technique: Heimlich videotapes students in discussion (with permission) and shows them the recordings, which prompts epiphanies—frequently that they are being too deferential or domineering. She also lets them reflect in writing and grade themselves and one another. “For anxious kids, being allowed to write things down, and have time, can help,” she says. It also provides flexibility in grading students who don’t always verbalize their thoughts in the moment.

For reticent students who want time to think on their own, after-the-conversation reflections can be powerful. Monica Edinger, a children’s author and fourth grade teacher at the Dalton School in New York City, writes about including introverts in discussions on her blog, “educating alice.” Emphasizing the contributions of quieter students means working with the extroverts to tone it down, Edinger maintains. “I’m tough with those kids who love to speak without having something to say. I feel we so overvalue this sort of aimless talk,” she writes. Edinger offers opportunities for students to communicate with her in writing, sending them school-based emails to which they can reply, and offering Post-it notes to record thoughts.

In her Southern California classroom, Rey came up with strategies to help Oscar participate more. She and the class discussed the importance of talking through a math problem and generated sentence stems for what math talk “sounds like.” She called on Oscar to share in small-group discussions first, and he did. When he spoke too softly for a girl to hear, she asked the girl to help solve the problem. The girl asked Oscar to repeat what he had said and bent next to him to hear better. The teacher encouraged other students to share Oscar’s thoughts from the small-group discussion with the class and to take turns sharing with Oscar.

“Participation could be the most effective lever to increasing achievement, particularly for students with disabilities,” says Lambert. By the middle of the year in Rey’s classroom, Oscar was participating more. And the other students were listening.

Carly Berwick writes about education and has contributed to, Edutopia, Next City, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She teaches high school English and lives in Jersey City, NJ, with her family.

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