Encouraging Class Participation
Dr. Ken Shore's Classroom Problem Solver
Class participation also is a valuable learning tool for teachers. Through students' questions, you learn what they don't understand, and can adjust your instruction accordingly.
Just as speaking in front of a group doesn't come easily to many adults, however, speaking up in class is a struggle for many students. That struggle might manifest itself in the classroom in a variety of ways -- not volunteering to answer questions, not asking for help, not speaking up in small-group activities, even not talking in class at all.
As a teacher, you will have greater success spurring a student to speak up if you can figure out why he is reluctant to participate. Whatever the reason for his reticence, your role is not to force him to speak; doing so will more likely make him clam up than open up. Your role is to provide a supportive, encouraging climate that helps him feel more comfortable, more confident, and less fearful of speaking up.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Create a climate in which students are encouraged to ask questions. Make it clear to students that you want them to ask questions. Point out that their questions help you by indicating where you might not have been clear. Emphasize that there is no such thing as a dumb question, and make sure to not allow students to ridicule a classmate's questions.
Take the student's questions and comments seriously. The student's reluctance to ask a question or volunteer an answer might be due to a lack of confidence. Help him gain the courage to participate by showing respect for his contributions and giving thoughtful answers to his questions. Listen attentively while he is talking; do not interrupt him. Try to find something positive to say about his comments, such as "That's an interesting point. I never thought about it that way" or "That's a really creative idea."
Orchestrate his speaking experiences to ensure success. Consider the following strategies:
Ask questions you are confident he can answer.
Let him know before class that you will be calling on him for a specific question so he can prepare an answer. If you arrange to call on him, do it early to lessen anxiety.
When he does respond, reinforce his comments with positive statements and an encouraging smile.
If you ask a question and he blanks out or says nothing, restate the question (perhaps in a yes or no format), or lead him toward the right answer by providing a clue. Or you might let him off the hook by giving the answer, while saying something like "That was a tough one," and then moving on.
Be patient when waiting for a response. The student might need more time than normal to organize his ideas and formulate a response. As a result, he might be slow about answering a question. If so, give him extra time by waiting for an answer a little longer than you usually do. If other students are clamoring to answer, ask for their patience as well.
Monitor class participation. Monitoring will help you determine who is and who is not participating, and learn whether a particular student is improving. A simple way to keep track of student participation is to keep a seating chart on your desk and place check marks next to the names of those students who do contribute.
Provide opportunities for the student to practice his communication skills by taking the time to talk with him privately. The idea is to help the student feel more comfortable talking with one person so, in time, he will feel more confident speaking up in front of a group. Find a few minutes every so often to talk with him about his favorite activities and interests. Or speak with him when he is doing an art project or a writing assignment. Ask questions, so he can explain what he is doing, but be sure the questions are non-threatening.
Give the student responsibilities that require communication. You might have to nudge the student to assume those responsibilities, but don't hesitate to push a little if you are confident he can do them successfully. For example, you might encourage him to be a class messenger, a teacher assistant, a peer tutor, or the leader of a small group working on a topic he is familiar with. Make sure to praise his performance even if he struggles with the task.
Observe the student for evidence of a speech or language problem. A student might be reluctant to speak up in class because he has a speech defect or difficulty putting his thoughts into words. Articulation problems usually are readily evident to teachers; however, difficulties in language usage can be more difficult to identify. If your observations suggest a communication problem, bring that to the attention of your school's speech-language specialist, who might want to do an evaluation.
Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.