How would you like it if your students:
– Gave longer answers?
– Answered more often?
– Gave more confident answers?
– Weren’t afraid to challenge or add to other students’ answers? – Were willing to discuss and offer alternative answers?
For all these benefits, why not try new and improved ‘Wait Time’TM?
Actually, I doubt any teacher would need a heavy sales technique to be persuaded to ‘buy’ this idea. These are the benefits which Rowe (1974) found to increasing the amount of time teachers wait after asking the class a question. Typically, she found, teachers wait no more than 1.5 seconds after asking a question before they jump in and rephrase it, or even answer it themselves. By waiting at least 3 seconds, she concluded, all the above benefits ensued.
Her research wasn’t in a language classroom, but Nunan (1991) came to similar conclusions, as did Scott Thornbury in 1996.
Of course, the questions asked need to be those which warrant giving the extra time to think. In other words, more open and higher level questions, rather than very closed or display questions. This is important, because when teachers lengthened wait time when asking lower level questions (Riley 1986), student achievement and motivation actually went down. No doubt they just thought the teacher was half asleep!
But, there is also evidence (Swift & Gooding, 1983; Tobin 1986) that when teachers started consciously giving more wait time, their own skills improved. They tend to ask fewer questions, but make them higher quality- asking for more thought and higher level thinking skills.
As well as wait time after asking a question, there have also been found to be benefits in pausing briefly after a student offers an answer. This gives them time to add any further thoughts, or even for another student to add something or contradict.
And why stop there? As Stahl (1990) points out, there are plenty of other moment in the classroom when silence can be golden. He refers to ‘think time’ rather than ‘wait time’, as he feels this better describes the purpose of such times (for both teacher and students) Stahl lists eight categories of periods of silence:
1 Post teacher question wait time (this is discussed above)
2 Within students’ response pause time (not jumping in when a student hesitates- and/or not allowing other students to do so)
3 Post students’ response wait time (allowing a few seconds when a student has finished giving an answer will enable them to add something if they want to, and allow other students the chance to consider what has been said and respond to it.)
4 and 5 Student and teacher pause time (that there should generally be a culture where it is acceptable to stop for a moment and consider what you are going to say)
6 Within teacher presentation pause time (That while a teacher is presenting some information, they stop for a short time, just to let the information sink in and give time for students to absorb it).
7 Student task completion wait time (This seems obvious, but I have a tendency to ask students to work in pairs almost automatically. Here the suggestion is to set a specific amount of time for students to work in silence, individually)
8 Impact pause time (Using a short pause to grab attention; making students wait in anticipation for the next piece of information)
Of course, especially at first, it can feel really uncomfortable to leave any silence in the classroom. In my experience, however, it is worth a bit of initial discomfort to experiment with this idea.
Alternatively (or additionally), rather than simply waiting, you could of course, give students something concrete to do with the wait time:
• Try getting students to write down an answer first. If it’s a closed question, they could write the answer on a miniwhiteboard (or piece of paper) and hold it up when they time has finished. You could then nominate a learner to explain the reasons for their answer.
• Let the students discuss the answer in pairs before nominating a student (or pair) to give their answer to the class.
• Before carrying out a feedback slot on, say, a reading comprehension task, allocate different questions to different students and ask them to spend a little time thinking about why they chose the answer that they did, so that they are ready to explain their reasoning to the class.
At different times in my teaching life, I have been recorded teaching. While it has never failed to be a gruesome experience watching (or even listening to) myself, it has to be said that there is no better way of really examining what is actually happening in your classroom. Why not try it, and see what kind of wait time you are giving and the impact of it when you do give more?
Nunan, D (1991) Language Teaching Methodology. Prentice Hall
Rowe, M.B. (1974). Wait-time and rewards as instructional variables, their influence on language, logic and fate control: Parts I and II. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 11, 81-84 and 291-308.
Stahl, R. J. (1994). Using ‘Think-time’ and ‘Wait-time’ Skilfully in the Classroom. ERIC Abstracts, report number EDO-SO-94-3
Swift, J. N., & Gooding, C. T. (1983). Interaction of wait time feedback and questioning
instruction on middle school science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching,
Thornbury, S (1996) Teachers research teacher talk. ELT J, 50 (4): 279-289.
Tobin, K. (1987) The Role of Wait Time in Higher Cognitive Level Learning. Review of Educational Research, 57 (1), 69-95.