In Teacher PD

Getting your students talking in the classroom – at least about their learning – is not always an easy thing to accomplish. Yet, having kids verbalise what they’re thinking about is critically important, not just to have them share their ideas but also to have them become consciously aware of their own ideas and learning processes.

The following 10 handy tips will assist you to turn ‘teacher-talk’ time – during which students are either passive ‘sponges’ or simply tuning out altogether – into productive student talk, encouraging your class to engage more actively in their learning.

1. Allow (expect) students to talk.

2. Everyone listens: all the students, all the teachers. Follow active listening principles.

3. The most important teacher word: “Why”. (followed by “How” and “Tell me”.)

4. The most important student word: “because”.

5. Do not accept one word answers from students.

6. Allow wait time.

7. Move away from where you usually stand/focus the class:

– Away from the traditional front of the room;

– Among the students.

8. Don’t tell…Ask. Or even better: Don’t tell, let the students ask.

9. Get students to talk among themselves before they talk to you.

10. Use a timer. Stop talking after 5 minutes, then 3 minutes…


Read on for some further thoughts about these hints, as well as some links to more information:


1. Allow (expect) students to talk.

Talking is our natural way of learning. We learn to talk before we learn to write or draw. Oral history was passed down long before paper was invented.  It is natural to want to talk, to share ideas and discoveries.

As part of their social journey kids need to learn when talking is right and wrong and how to share their talking time – not how not to dominate

Kids are told often in the classroom not to talk, for various reasons.  Teachers need to set the protocols for talk in the classroom, so that talk is a learning tool.  This is also so that students become accustomed to talking and sharing their ideas in the classroom.  It needs to be the accepted, and acceptable, thing that we share our ideas.

Teaching Your Students Conversation

2. Everyone listens – all the students, all the teachers! Follow active listening principles.

Along with talking must come listening.  Students must be able to listen to each other and teachers must learn to listen to students.  Model good listening skills – looking at the speaker, asking clarifying questions and paraphrasing your students back. Enter into a dialogue, showing you value what the other person is saying.

Seven Ways to Improve Students’ Listening Skills

Students become poor listeners when they know they don’t have to listen.

A Simple Way to Improve Listening

3. The most important teacher word is “Why” (followed by “How” and “Tell Me”).

The questions we ask need to be questions that promote thinking, not questions that require one word answers. Open ended questions often start with “why” or “how”.  My favourites are “tell me…” and “prove it”. For example:

“Why do you think that?”

“How do you know you have an answer?”

“Tell me why you did that.”

Engaging Students Through Effective Questions

And for the student who says “am I right?”, answer: “How do you know you are right?”

The most important student word is “because”.

because  (conjunction)  for the reason that; since.  “We did it because we felt it our duty.”

Synonyms:  since, as for the reason that, in view of the fact that, owing to the fact that, seeing that/as.  “His classmates liked him because he was very friendly.”

You can’t use “because” without taking it further.  If we want students to enter into dialogue about their Maths thinking and understanding, reasoning and justification, we need “because”:

“I know the answer is 5 because…”

“I think that it is a square because…”

Why We Ask Students To Explain Their Thinking

5. Do not accept one word answers from students.

One word may be an answer, but it does not encourage conversation.  If you are getting one word answers, rethink your questions!

Using Questioning to Stimulate Mathematical Thinking

6. Allow wait time.

It’s hard to stop and wait…                                                       However, it leads to better answers!

We need to allow all students time to think, not just the quick ones.  Students who have time to think before speaking are more likely to volunteer an answer, and have a better chance of giving an appropriate answer. Wait time expects all students to think and respond, rather than getting drowned out by the fastest response. So:

– Don’t take the first answer/hand up. Students start to expect those who always put their hand up to be the ones to answer, so they rest and don’t bother.

– Use a different signal rather than hands up (eg. thumbs up, finger on nose), to signal someone has an answer. Choose something that is less obtrusive than hands waving in the air and also is not as tiring for the students; and

– Don’t allow hands up until you ask for responses.

Wait time after a student has answered a question is also valuable.  It encourages students to elaborate on their answer, or for other students to join in the conversation.

Using “Think-Time” and “Wait-Time” Skillfully in the Classroom

7. Move away from where you usually stand/focus the class

– Move away from the traditional front of the room; and,

– Move among the students.

Often the traditional focus of the room is the teacher at the front, which gives an immediate impression of an authority figure.  In our student talking classroom we want the students to be equal in authority – or at least in participating in the conversation, so be among them.  It’s refreshing what a change of viewpoint can do for your own teaching style, too!

Ways Teachers Can Talk Less To Get Kids Talking

8. Don’t tell. Ask. Or even better, don’t tell, let the students ask.

We learn by asking questions, and discovering answers, not by being told.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn:”  Benjamin Franklin.

Help Students Become Better Questioners

9. Get students to talk among themselves before they talk to you.

Before offering an answer to the class, ask the student to discuss the answer with someone near them. Give the students the opportunity to learn from each other before/as well as learning from you. 

10 Benefits to Getting Students to Participate in Classroom Discussions

10. Use a timer. Stop talking after 5 mins, 3 mins…

If you find it really difficult to stop talking, use a timer:

– Ask a student to time you every time you are talking to the class. See how much time is really spent with you talking and the students listening (or not).

– Use the timer so that you talk for only 5 minutes, or 3 minutes… After that, it’s the students’ turn!

Learn to keep your instructions and explanations brief and to the point.  Only say it once – so they have to listen.


Site acknowledgements (in order):

1. Mendler, A. (2013), ‘Teaching Your Students to Have a Conversation’ (Edutopia)

2. Artze-Vega, I. (2012), ‘Active Listening: Seven Ways to Help Students Listen, Not Just Hear’ (Faculty Focus)

3. Linsin, M. (2012), ‘A Simple Way to Improve Classroom Listening’ (Smart Classroom Management)

4. Neal, M (2015), ‘Engaging Students Through Effective Questions’ (Education Canada, Vol. 55, Issue 2) 

5. MacPherson, J. (2013),  ‘Why We Ask Students To Explain Their Thinking’ (Wellesley Public Schools)

6. Way, J. (2001), ‘Using Questioning to Stimulate Mathematical Thinking’ (NRich Mathematics)

7. Stahl, R.J. (1994), ‘Using ‘Think Time’ and ‘Wait Time’ Skilfully in the Classroom’ (Eric Digest)

8. Watson, A. (2014), ‘8 Ways Teachers Can Talk Less and Get Kids Talking More’ (The Cornerstone)

9. Berger, W. (2014), ‘5 Ways To Help Your Students Become Better Questioners’ (Edutopia)

10. Weimer, M. (2011), ’10 Benefits of Getting Students to Participate in Classroom Discussions’ (Faculty Focus)

11. Albanese, H. (2011), ‘ Teachers Talk Too Much!’ (AlbaPages)




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