Help Reluctant Students Speak Up

A caring teacher helping her reluctant student speak up during group discussion

Try these seven tips to make your classroom more inclusive.

Every teacher has experienced it: during discussion, some students hang back and avoid speaking. It’s clear that increasing participation helps everyone learn more, but how can that be achieved without making quieter students feel uncomfortable? The Great Books Foundation has over 75 years of experience with helping students share ideas and learn from each other, and our professional development consultants have found the following tips to be the most effective.

1. Build a Safe Environment

When students see that thinking aloud is welcome, they are more likely to share their ideas without fear of being belittled or treated as “wrong.” When you ask a genuinely open-ended question, as in Shared Inquiry™ discussion, emphasize that there are many reasonable answers and that you are not looking for a specific response. Be sure that students know the guidelines for discussion, including that they should respond to others civilly.

2. Have Students Write Before Sharing

Asking students to jot down their initial thoughts gives all students time to think before sharing their answers and prevents more talkative students from immediately dominating the discussion. Students having answers in writing also enables you to invite quieter students to share what they wrote, which is often more comfortable for them than speaking impromptu.

3. Ask for Agreement and Disagreement

Responding to another student’s idea may be easier for a reluctant student than offering their own answer. A student’s body language (nodding or shaking their head) or facial expression can alert you that the student has an opinion about another’s idea. Once the student agrees or disagrees, follow up by asking them why.

4. Create a Participation Plan

For some reluctant students, it’s stressful not to know when they will be asked to contribute an idea. Consider talking to such a student privately before discussion and agreeing to a plan. Perhaps you can call on the student third or have the student use a discreet hand movement to signal their readiness to speak.

5. Use Turn-and-Talk

At the beginning of discussion or when you feel you need to balance participation, have students turn and talk to a partner about the question under consideration. Then have students share what they said while they were paired.

6. Try “Listening” Questions

For quieter students who are good listeners, being asked questions like, “Have you heard an answer you agree with?” or, “What are you thinking about this part of the story?” allow them to verbalize what they have been processing. Tone is important; such questions should be asked invitingly, and students should know that it is all right to pass if they aren’t ready to talk.

7. Recognize Progress

After discussion, let reluctant students know privately and individually that you appreciate their participation. You can also speak to the whole class after discussion and reinforce how helpful it is for everyone to hear many different ideas. Be careful to avoid praising or commenting on answers during discussion, as this may create the impression that you are searching for a “right” answer.

Make Your Classroom More Inclusive and Engaging

If you’re looking to increase the inquiry focus of your classroom, Great Books Foundation materials and professional development can help you create a customized plan that supports your learning goals. Junior Great Books® programs include outstanding fiction and nonfiction selections that inspire students to join in collaborative discussions, read for deeper comprehension, think critically about what they read, and incorporate writing throughout each unit. Select your state or location below to start a conversation with your Great Books educational consultant. We look forward to hearing from you!

Director of Digital Media, Senior Trainer, and President of International Training/China Michael Elsey has over 30 years of experience as both a professional development coach and media creator. He has conducted numerous workshops on the Shared Inquiry method with a wide range of teacher and student populations throughout the country and abroad. Michael holds an MFA in film from Columbia College Chicago and an MA in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. In his precious spare time, he is working on his second novel.