How to deal with Shy or Quiet Students

Having shy or quiet students in class is one of the most common problems that teachers have to deal with. In every class there are learners that are hesitant to answer or engage in discussion, which makes it difficult because they have to practice their speaking and share their understanding of the material. Explaining themselves and taking part in class discussions is important for students, so in today’s video I will share 10 tips to deal with Quiet students.

Nobody is shy rule

In my very first class I have a few rules, respect everyone in class, one person speaks at a time and nobody is allowed to be shy in my class.

In order to for them to share their thoughts and communicate, learners have to speak. They can’t improve and I can’t help them improve if they don’t.

So, I tell students that they are not allowed to be shy in class. When I call on them, they will answer. When they are in group discussions, they will participate. I do not care if they make mistakes, but when they enter my class, they are talking machines.

If you make it a rule, they have no choice but to take on that identity, at least when they are in class. They are able to suspend that inner dialogue that they are shy, and take on a more confident version of themselves. If a student complains that they are shy, I remind them of the rule: sorry, in my class, no one is supposed to be shy. It keeps them accountable for their actions, cultivates a confident mindset, and reminds them of your expectations for their participation.

Create a safe, comfortable classroom environment

Everyone should have a voice in class. You as the teacher should continuously question them to check their understanding. These questions let them know that they have to pay attention and will be asked to speak during class. There are no wrong answers, no one will make fun of them, and you will help or encourage them with appropriate feedback. Correct their answers for accuracy, compliment for fluency.

The only wrong answer is no answer.

If a student struggles to answer a question, I start the sentence for them or give them some hints or vocabulary to help. I praise their effort after to make sure they know that students that participate are assisted if they struggle, and praised when they persevere.

If a student doesn’t answer or is too slow to answer., I make a note of it and continue. If it happens again I speak to the whole class on the importance of participation. – Students don’t like to be mom-ed.

Remind them of the speaking rule and that they have to speak to improve. I do not mind if they make mistakes, nobody will laugh at them and I will assist them when needed.

Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective means for encouraging your students to speak in class. If possible, make participation part of their grades and let them know that it counts. That might backfire with stubborn students saying they don’t care about grades, so always rather push internal motivation by making class fun and constructive classroom management. Making speaking a positive and fun experience will make class much better than threats or the promise of grades.

Engage early and often

You need to train the students to expect questions, and be prepared to answer.

So many times I’ve seen a teacher lecture a class for 30 minutes (blah blah blah) then all of a sudden, ask the students if they have a question, to take part in a discussion or dialogue.

Human beings just don’t work that way. You cannot expect a runner to sprint without warming up. Instead of lecturing for extended periods of time, rather check in throughout the class by questioning your students throughout. It should become a given that every student will be asked a couple of questions during lessons. These are also known as Content Checking Questions. So make a point of it to continually ask every student a question on two. They should know that and be ready.

You may want to start by asking simple questions first, to build up their confidence. You can also let students read examples from the book, do practice dialogues with you or share information from their own lives. By being vocal throughout class, they will find it easier to participate in other speaking activities.

Just be warned, this means that the talking should be focused on the activities. You don’t want class to be disruptive and overly. Students should be talking, but it should be on task.

Set them up for success

Expecting all students to be ready for class with pre-existing knowledge and skills is not something we should automatically assume. I often hear teachers say, students are suppose to know this, it’s so simple, I shouldn’t have to do everything for them.

No, always consider the lowest ability student. How can you prepare everyone in class for success?

 To do that, you need to simplify and give them the tools necessary to achieve the desired outcome.

How do you do that?

Pre-Teach vocabulary – Give the sample phrases they can fall back on. Do many examples in class.

Before group or pair activities, practice with some students for everyone to see what is expected.

Think. Pair. Share.

Start with basics or break activities into smaller chunks. So instead of doing 5 questions. Do the first 2, take feedback then progress to the next 3. That way you can see how much they understand so no one falls behind. You don’t want to teach the whole lesson, and only realize at the end that a slow student didn’t understand.

Baby steps can lead shy students to open up and become more confident in class as you progress.

Before going through questions or doing a class discussion, let students read it with a partner.

That way they feel prepared to take participate. You can also warn them about what questions you will be asking during class and that everyone will get called on to answer. Helping students formulate their responses in advance alleviates the anxiety of being called upon unexpectedly.

At the start of class you can write the lesson objectives on the board. That way they know exactly where they are headed and what is expected of them.

“At the end of today’s class you will know about…”

“You will be able to talk about…”

Having visible goals will clarify what is expected of your learners.

Reduce Teacher Talking Time

As I said previously – You cannot expect the students to be talking machines if the only machine talking, is you. Instead of telling them about things, get them to open up. Ask them about their opinions and to share their experiences.

Recognizing and giving praise to shy students when they speak up in class shows that you have noticed their effort. This can give students a confidence boost and reduce their fear of sharing opinions.

But, you are still their primary source of knowledge, so it is important for them to learn from you. Just make sure that you center your lectures around the curriculum and avoid polarizing political topics.

Include their passions

Connect the learning to their lives and interests. That way they will enjoy class more, feel validated when they share and create more connections by talking about their passions out loud.

Thet them share positive ideas or memories they get excited to talk about. Keep it simple. Focus on things they can understand.

Use realia – Like show and tell. Having a physical object there takes the pressure off of them and places it on the item, allowing them to excitedly share information about it.

I also like to ask my students to prepare photos from their lives – Since my students have phones, they share a photo of their weekend, a place they went to, something they ate. Put them in small groups, let them talk about it and encourage every other member to ask a relevant question.

I like to remind them of the 5W’s before practicing follow-up questions.

Give students enough time to respond

Often teachers are too impatient and don’t give a learner enough time to formulate the answer in their head. Especially with Second Language Learners, you should give them at least 10 seconds to reply.

How I help shy students is by starting the answer for them to get the ball rolling, or give them vocabulary or hints to what the answer might be. Students feel safe because they know that I will a) give them enough time to respond b) guide them to the correct answer if they do get stuck.

It’s a bit different with online classes. When I teach online, I ask my students to TURN OFF their cameras. Therefore, when I ask them a question, I don’t know if they can hear me or not, so they have to answer quicker than if they are in class.

Also, when dealing with quiet students, *shy* away from open-ended questions. At least at first.

Simple and specific questions are easier to answer and they can concentrate on forming a correct sentence.

For example, instead of asking: “What did you think of the story?” ask “Who are the characters in the story?”, or “Was the narrator’s mother mean or kind to him?”. When there are exact, concrete answers, they don’t have to overthink how to phrase their answer.

Listing the questions in a written format as you ask them, can help many students understand it better and thereby give more confident answers. If you have the questions on the board, students can listen, read and then give a more thoughtful answer.

Use multiple skills in every lesson

Activate different skills to prepare them for speaking. Let them write down their answers first. Do a drawing. Listen to examples. Think, pair, share. 

Make it fun.

Always encourage your students to write down their ideas if they struggle. That will give them something to fall back on if they do get stuck, like a safety net. Tell them not to read it out loud, because that is reading, not speaking. (Of course, unless they are super stuck). Notes are there for support, not to be the complete answer.

I would like to make a mention of anchor devices. Physical or verbal anchors can help students retain ideas better. When teaching prepositions for example, why not have a pink bunny as example. The bunny is on the desk, the bunny is behind the pencil. When students have to recollect a word or phrase, they can use the anchor of the bunny to help.

Don’t pick stronger students first

Many teachers suggest that you start off by asking more confident or stronger students first, before moving on to shy learners…. This is wrong.

Kids are smart, if you only pick strong students first, they will notice. That will damage the confidence of weaker or shy learners because they will consider themselves not good enough.

Instead mix it up and ask them questions at the start too, you may want to simplify initial questions for students to get into the flow, but be fair about challenging every student. Whether they answer correctly or not, they will respect you more for giving them the opportunity.

Besides – How will anyone ever improve if we don’t challenge them occasionally. Don’t get me wrong, set them up for success, but every now and again I surprise them with a sterner test, or something out of bounds. Like I might just ask a random student, the translation of a word or a question unrelated to the topic, but personal to them.

“By the way, last week we talked about food, what did you have for dinner last night?”

That’s up to you – but give equal opportunity to all your learners, regardless of ability.

You can pick them randomly – Sometimes I like them to have fun when picking, rock-scissors-paper, loser answers the question. Or whoever’s birthday is next has to answer. Students can’t get upset when fate decides who answers next.

Build report

Have private, one-on-one conversations with your learners.

As a teacher, you wear many hats. At night you’re designing your lessons for next week…or (let’s be honest) just staying a day ahead. In the morning before school, you’re on patrol. During homeroom, you’re hanging out with your students. When class starts, you’re a professor. And between classes or after school, you are a therapist.

We owe it to all students to check in with them regularly, but it’s especially important to check in with your quieter, more introverted students—those who might be more reluctant to bring their challenges or struggles to you. If a student seems stressed, disengaged, or distant, don’t wait for the situation to magically improve. Be proactive and privately get them to open up to you and share what’s going on in their life.

By building relationships with your students, they will feel more open to talk and participate in class.

Getting shy or quiet students to speak in class can be a difficult job for teachers. So I hope some of these ideas can help you engage your leaerners, improve their speaking and participate in your classes.

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