Thursday, May 10, 2018

Wait Time for ELLs: Practical Strategies to Increase Wait Time in Your Classroom

As teachers, I think one of the hardest things for us to do is slow down and wait. Providing adequate wait time for students- especially ELLs- requires conscious effort. We have so much to get through in so little time that the temptation is to keep the pace moving quickly.

Often times when observing teachers, I notice that they will ask a question and then call on the first child to raise his or her hand. If that child doesn't have an answer, they'll quickly move on to the next child with their hand up. This is a mistake!

As teachers, it can be hard to provide adequate wait time, because we wrongly feel that if the child "gets it" they'll be able to answer quickly. This isn't the case. Like good coffee needs time to percolate, our students also need time to “percolate” the information they take in. They need extra time to internalize information, process questions, and formulate responses.

Unfortunately, research tells us that even the best teachers often fail to provide enough wait time for students- the average in most studies is 1 second (Stahl, 1994). Wait time is important for all students- the average student will be able to formulate a response in about 10 seconds. Wait time is particularly important for our English learners, who not only have to internalize what they’ve learned, they often have to process and produce new language to show their understanding as well- these students will need closer to 20-30 seconds, depending on their English proficiency level.

When students have enough wait time, they are able to answer questions with more confidence, which in turn increases their motivation to learn more and answer more! So, how can we ensure that we're providing enough wait time? Here are a few strategies to try.

1. Wait Time is Egg-cellent
Go to the dollar store closest to you and grab a cheap egg timer. When you ask a question, set the egg timer to at least 20 seconds (30 or 45 is better for lower proficiency ELLs). Tell students to think quietly without raising their hands for the time you set. When the timer goes off, if they feel they know the answer, they can raise their hands.
Image result for egg timer
2. Give Me a Hand
Another simple (and free!) way to ensure wait time is to hold up 5 fingers and slooooowly count down. This gives you and students a visual indicator of think time, and can help keep you from rushing forward too quickly. Use 10 fingers with lower proficiency students. 
Related image

3. Get  Back to Me
I love the way that the teacher in this video from The Teaching Channel, upon realizing that the child isn't ready to answer, gives him more time and then does circle back around to allow him to answer. You can tell the additional wait time really gave the student time to process a response. Even better, you can tell this is a habit for this teacher- the student himself says "you should get back to me".

4. Sit With It
I often had students who would pop up a hand before I even finished asking a question, regardless of whether they had an answer prepared or not. With younger students, one way I successfully increased wait time was to have students sit on their hands when I asked a question. After about 20 seconds, I would say, "If you think you have an answer, please raise your hand". Then I would wait a few more seconds, if necessary, until most students had their hands raised.

Research also shows that increasing the amount of time between the student's answer and your response has a better effect because it allows the student to process longer give a more complex response, if they have anything to add to their initial response. The teacher can then ask additional questions, or even better, invite additional student response by saying something like "Hmm...let's think about that answer."

I hope these practical strategies will help you improve wait times in your classroom.

Stahl, R J 1994, ‘Using “Think-Time” and “Wait-Time” Skillfully in the Classroom. ERIC Digest.’ Viewed on 15 April 2015,

TeacherVision 2015, Your Secret Weapon: Wait Time, Teaching Methods and Strategies, TeacherVision, viewed on 15 April 2015,

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