Having shy or quiet students in class is one of the most common problems that teachers have to deal with. There are learners that are hesitant to answer or engage in discussion in every class, making it essential for teachers to know how to engage these students, 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 let me share 10 tips on how to deal with shy or quiet students.
The Nobody-is-Shy rule
In my very first class with new students I always set a few rules: Respect everyone in the class, one person speaks at a time, and nobody is allowed to be shy in my class.
In order 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 my 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 to speak, then they have no choice but to take on that identity, at least when they are in class. This encourages them to suspend that inner dialogue of being shy, and take on a more confident version of themselves. If a student complains of being shy, I remind him or her of the rule: “Sorry, in my class, no one may be shy.”
This keeps them accountable for their responses and it cultivates a confident mindset. So, remind just timid learners that you expect them to speak.
Create a safe, comfortable classroom environment
Everyone should have a voice in class. As the teacher, you should continuously question your students to check on their understanding. These questions let them know that they have to pay attention because they will be asked to speak during class.
The only wrong answer is no answer. Assure students that there are no wrong answers. No one will make fun of them, and you will help or encourage them with appropriate feedback. Correct answers for accuracy, and compliment them for fluency.
When a student struggles to answer a question, I will start the sentence or give some hints or vocabulary to help and praise their effort afterward. In this way, students are assured that they will be assisted if they struggle and that it’s not about being perfect, but about perseverance and participation.
When a student doesn’t answer or is too slow to respond, I make a note of it and continue. If it happens again, I’ll speak to the entire class about the importance of participation. Students don’t like to be preached at like that.
Remind them of the speaking rule and that they have to speak in order 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 of encouraging your students to speak in class. If possible, make participation part of their grades and let them know it counts. That might backfire with stubborn students saying they don’t care about grades, so always rather push internal motivation by making the class fun, employing constructive classroom management. Making speaking a positive and fun experience is much better than threats or the promise of grades.
Engage early and often with CCQs
You need to train the students to expect questions and be prepared to answer.
So often a teacher would lecture a class for 30 minutes and then suddenly ask the students if they have a question, or expect them 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 first. Instead of lecturing for extended periods of time, rather check the understanding of learners by asking questions throughout the lesson. These are also known as Content Checking Questions.
It should become a given that every student will be asked a couple of questions during a lesson. Make a point of it to ask every student in the class a question or two. They should expect to be questioned and be ready to answer.
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 the lesson, your learners 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 the class to be disruptive and overly noisy. Students should talk, 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 supposed 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 the 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 complete the lesson, only realize at the end that a slow student or two didn’t understand.
Baby steps can lead shy students to open up and become more confident in class as the semester progresses.
Before going through questions or doing a class discussion, let students first read it with a partner. In that way, they will feel prepared to take part. You can also forewarn them about the questions that you will ask, and that everyone will get called on to answer. Helping students formulate their responses in advance alleviates the anxiety of being called upon unexpectedly. Another method is to write the lesson objectives on the board beforehand. 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 said previously – you cannot expect the students to be talking machines if the only machine talking is you!
So, instead of telling them about things, get them to open up. Ask them about their opinions and get them 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 such students a confidence boost and reduce their fear of sharing opinions.
But remember, 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 material 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.
Let them share positive ideas or memories that they are excited to talk about. Keep it simple. Focus on things they can understand.
Use realia – like Show-and-Tell. Having a physical object as the center of attention takes the pressure off of the learner and places it on the object, allowing the students to share information about it.
I also like to ask my students to share photos from their daily lives. Since my students all have phones, they like sharing photos of their weekend, a place they went to, or something they ate. Put them in small groups, let them talk about it, and encourage every other member to ask a relevant question.
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 slower learners enough time to formulate their answers before they respond. Especially with Second Language Learners, the teacher should give them at least 10 seconds to reply.
I help shy students by starting the answer for them just to get the ball rolling, or I give them some vocabulary or hints to what the answer might be. Students feel safe because they know I will: A) give them enough time to respond, and 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 also help students understand it better and enable them to 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 the students for speaking. Let them write 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 to retain ideas better. When teaching prepositions for example, why not have a pink bunny as an 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 and it 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 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?”
It’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, using rock-scissors-paper, with the loser having to answer the question. Or whoever’s birthday is next has to answer. Students can’t get upset when fate decides who answers next.
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 (register class), 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 tough job for teachers. So I hope some of these ideas can help you engage your learners, improve their speaking and take part in your classes.