Engaging Reticent Contributors in Whole-Class Discussions

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By the time young scholars have reached the intermediate grades, they have been acclimatized to traditional teacher methods of soliciting responses to lesson questions. Early on, they come to understand that when their teacher asks “Who can tell us . . .,” the same confident few will establish eye contact and dart their hands high in hopes of being selected. Many reticent contributors have also figured out that if they simply wait long enough once the “Who knows . . .” question is posed, the teacher will ultimately answer it, permit a spontaneous “blurtathon,” or enlist a solitary reliable volunteer.

When the teacher routinely caters to the “professional participants”—the cadre of students who reliably stay on task, entertain questions, and volunteer—the class discussion becomes far less than representative or engaging. While extroverted, spontaneous processors may command the floor with an immediate response, their hastily crafted contributions often warrant further introspection and quality control. Those who work more slowly and deliberately have their thought processes routinely short-circuited. If class discussions are dominated by a coalition of blurters and instantaneous hand-raisers, more analytical and reserved students in need of additional processing time never get a fighting chance of entering the instructional conversation.

English learners are similarly apt to remain on the conversational sidelines in a passive spectator role when teachers give free rein to a small cadre of confident and talkative classmates. Struggling to interpret discussion prompts in a second language, English learners are greatly disadvantaged by interrupted think time and overwhelmed by a seemingly chaotic volley of comments from their more verbally confident peers. 

Teachers at every grade level and in every subject area would be well served to take inventory on the questions they habitually pose to enlist student participation. The list below includes perennial favorites in elementary and secondary classrooms alike that fail to engage an enthusiastic and wide range of contributions.

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Questions to Avoid: Open-Ended, Unaccountable Requests for Contributions
  • Does anyone want to share?
  • Who else has an idea?
  • What are your thoughts?
  • Who’d like to report out?
  • Anyone else?
  • Who can help us out?

These perhaps earnest, yet unaccountable, requests for participation typically limit the discussion limelight to students with spontaneous processing skills and extroverted risk takers—those who can readily digest the prompt, contemplate a mature response, and signal their willingness to contribute via eye contact, hand raising, or unbridled blurting. In mixed-ability classrooms, many students require more “incubation time” after a question is posed. Having 10 silent seconds, uninterrupted by additional teacher queries or classmates’ banter, enables introverted or reserved learners to analyze the task demands, collect their thoughts, and mentally compose a response.

Every educator has a few default questions he or she resorts to as a means of eliciting more responses to a discussion prompt or prompting immediate recall of a previously taught lesson item. Review your question patterns in lesson footage or enlist a trusted colleague to observe your teaching and take inventory. When you catch yourself falling back on a linguistic bad habit such as “Who can remind us . . .,” stop and navigate the lesson reflection in a more democratic and accountable direction: “Better yet, I’d like each of you to take a moment to recall/consider . . .”

If a discrete piece of information, whether a definition of a critical term or an initial step in a problem-solving process, is important enough for every student to recall or consider, then the question shouldn’t merely be tossed to the classroom stratosphere. Instead, prompt every student to take a moment to silently contemplate your question. After 5–10 seconds, cue lesson partners to quickly compare notes and indicate nonverbally if they are confident about their understanding (e.g., “Pens up if you are certain you remember a precise, academic synonym for the everyday adjective enough”). Call on a confident respondent and encourage classmates to indicate nonverbally if they had a comparable response (e.g., “Pens up if like [Name] and [Name], you recalled the academic synonyms adequate and sufficient for the everyday adjective enough”).

Educators striving to engender dynamic and inclusive class discussions must have a reliable set of age-appropriate techniques for eliciting responses. If the primary goals of whole-class discussions are deepening understanding and engaging diverse scholars, then we shouldn’t cater to “professional participants” or limit our methods of eliciting responses to a predictable strategy array.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Watch Dr. Kate Kinsella’s webinar to rethink and retool your pedagogy to enlist a dynamic and democratic array of responses.


Kate Kinsella, EdD, provides consultancy to state departments of education throughout the U.S., school districts, and publishers on evidence-based instructional principles and practices to accelerate academic English acquisition for K–12 language minority youths. Her numerous publications and instructional programs focus on career and college readiness for academic English learners, with an emphasis on academic interaction, high-utility vocabulary development, informational text reading, and scholarly writing across subject areas.

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