A chatty class can be a big problem as we all know, but so is one where you can’t get students to engage. In fact, based on my style of teaching, the latter is my least favorite issue to manage in my classroom. However, I have learned some strategies over the years that can jumpstart even the most apathetic group of teens. So, let me give you some strategies you can use when students won’t talk.
But first, we need to look at the reasons for their lack of engagement.
❶ Students aren’t comfortable with each other
Ok, we all know that the social aspect of school can trump all other things and teens will chat instead of work, or skip homework to hang with friends. But it can also interfere with class discussions, even doing a turn-and-talk with a partner.
You would think that a chance to talk in class would be a teenager’s dream, but not knowing the people they are in class with can be a huge barrier. There are those extroverts, comfortable in their own skin, who will talk to anyone. But they are not the norm.
So how do you help teens break down those walls and speak to someone they don’t know (or care to know)?
This is where that advice you’ve head time and again comes in: relationship building is a key for classroom climate – and the comfort level of your students. It may seem so simple and obvious that you roll your eyes when you hear it repeated. But it’s the bedrock, the foundation for everything that will happen in your classroom.
Early in the semester, I start with lots of community building activities, ones where students need to work together and get to know each other. While the first days of class include “getting-to-know-you” exercises I also use collaborative activities throughout the semester that are focused on the skills I want students to learn, ones that are low-risk, competitive and fun. Whenever you introduce an element of competition, students tend to get more engaged. This provides a double-whammy as students start to feel more comfortable with each other, and they are learning the skills they need to be successful in the course.
While these are activities and skills I usually front-load early in the term, they can be used at any time during the school year:
But classroom climate is not all about the way students relate to each other. In fact, the climate starts with students feeling they can trust you and enjoy being in your class. Simply taking a few minutes every day to show an interest in them as people, not as students, can make a huge difference in creating an atmosphere where students engage – because they want to please you.
Tips for doing this:
✅ Stand outside your door as students come in and greet them by name. Have a quick chat with one or two who may be struggling in your class – not about school, about their lives and interests.
❷ Students don’t talk because they are afraid of looking “stupid”
Fear of failure is a huge driving force for teens. And it’s not just in test situations where this fear rears its head. Many students will say “I don’t know” or not speak at all because they worry about how their answer or thoughts will be perceived.
So when you ask them to do a turn-and-talk and students don’t “talk” it could be for this reason.
I almost always precede a turn-and-talk with a chance for individual students to reflect or brainstorm. This gives them a chance to collect their thoughts before they have to share them. Another strategy for this is the Write-Around. It takes more time, but it’s an excellent way to get students engaged in a topic when they may be reluctant to share.
Also, if you want to build the habit of students sharing during a pair or group discussion, don’t start with the hard stuff, like asking them to do literary analysis. Instead, begin with low risk questions and activities where they will feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts (Check out my free Ideal School Project for one that’s always a hit).
Scaffolding the skills students need to feel comfortable speaking in groups is also important. What we think is obvious may not be to them, so I spend a lot of time modelling expectations and building their speaking confidence. You can read more about those strategies here.
❸ Students don’t talk because they are afraid someone in the class
This one is harder to deal with because you may not even know it’s happening, as was the case for me one time.
I had a class that was super hard to get to talk, especially during full class discussions – and I was finding it very frustrating. Then, one day near the end of the semester, we joined another class to listen to a guest speaker. It was Friday afternoon, and several boys in the class skipped.
There were a group of girls who attended who were very engaged with the speaker, answering all of his questions. Surprised, I asked one of them afterward what was up – why did they get into the discussion today but never in my class? She said, ‘It’s because Tommy wasn’t here.” (name changed…) She filled me in on the fact that this young man, who was always very charming to me in class, was a known bully, and no one wanted to say a word in front of him. I was flabbergasted.
There were only a few days left in class, so there wasn’t much I could do to correct the situation, but more recently I was able to recognize a similar one. While the student in question was always well-behaved in class, I knew because of his presence (and reputation), it would hard to get full class participation.
So I just switched gears and did a lot of small group work. We even did speeches and seminars in small groups. I would take the students to the library, where we have seminar rooms, and give the class something to work on while students presented to me and their group.
I missed having full class discussions, but the ones that my students had in small groups were a good alternative.
Sometimes, no matter what you try, you will just have students who won’t talk. You can try all of these strategies and still you’ll get crickets. If that is the case, all you can do is try your best to get them to engage with each other.
Let me know if you have questions. And if it’s a noisy class that you are dealing with, read my strategies for dealing with a chatty class here. I also have a digital course for learning to manage and engage your classes. Find out more about that here. Finally, check out this post for more on getting all students to engage.