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5 Simple Teacher Moves With Big-Time Payoffs (Opinion)

This post wraps up a seven-part series on small moves teachers can make that can lead to outsized impacts on student achievement.

Encourage Student Responses

Lindsay Kemeny is an elementary school teacher, speaker, and co-host of the Literacy Talks podcast with a passion for literacy and applying research to practice. She is the author of the Scholastic Professional title 7 Mighty Moves: Research-Backed, Classroom-Tested Strategies to Ensure K-to-3 Reading Success:

A simple move we can make in our classrooms that has a powerful impact on student learning is to increase the opportunities for students to respond. Research shows that increasing the opportunities to respond improves academic outcomes, as well as reduces disruptive behavior (MacSuga-Gage & Simonsen, 2015; Van Camp et al., 2020). Additionally, there is no prep required for this simple move. Sounds like a win-win to me! Education consultant Anita Archer advises that we can have students respond by saying, writing, or doing. Keeping that in mind, you can try these easy ways to increase student responses in your classroom:

Choral Responses: When the answer to your question is short and simple, invite all students to respond rather than calling on just one student. Here’s an example:

Teacher: Yesterday, we learned two letters that, together, spell the sound /k/. What two letters?

Students: c-k

Teacher: That’s right. Will we see -ck at the beginning of the word or end of a word?

Students: End of the word

Teacher: Yes, -ck will come at the end of a word. Will the -ck come after a short vowel or long vowel?

Students: Short vowel

Teacher: Right again. Listen to these two words and tell me which word would use a -ck at the end: snake, snack.

Students: Snack

Partner Responses: When the answer to your question is longer and more complex, invite students to discuss the answer in partners. This works best when you assign students either Partner 1 or Partner 2. Then you can provide precise directions such as:

Teacher: Ones, tell your partner the meaning of the word scattered. Twos, use the word scattered in a sentence.

Written Responses: Using individual dry-erase boards provides a way for all students to respond in a low-stakes way, but paper can be used as well. Responses can range from very simple (dictation words and sentences in a phonics lesson) to more complex (list some ways animals protect themselves from predators).

Reading Responses: In round-robin reading, each student gets a very limited amount of oral-reading practice (maybe 1 or 2 minutes). Not only is this practice an ineffective use of time, but it is stressful and embarrassing for many students who aren’t confident in their reading skills. Instead, consider choral reading where the entire class reads aloud together. Or pair up students in intentional partnerships and have them read aloud together. You might have students switch off paragraphs or pages.

Another option is to have them read for a set number of minutes. Partner 1 reads aloud for four minutes while their partner follows along; then Partner 2 reads aloud for four minutes while their partner follows along. Another option is an activity that Archer & Hughes (2011) share called Me, We Reading. When it is Partner 1’s turn to read, they may choose “me” where they read their page aloud independently or they may choose “we” where they have their partner read the page aloud with them.

Increasing the opportunities for students to respond is a high-impact, low-prep way to boost the learning of your students. This simple move can really pack a punch! As you plan your next lesson, consider the many ways you can implement this in your classroom.

References

‘Wait Time’

Shelby Strong is the elementary and secondary math consultant for the Center for Mathematics Achievement at Lesley University. During her time as a secondary math teacher, she served as a Louisiana teacher leader and helped develop supplemental curriculum supports for her district and the state, including the Accelerate Math resources:

“Wait time” is not a new idea. A quick Google Scholar search for “wait time in the classroom” produces nearly 1.5 million results. In 1972, Mary Budd Rowe concluded that increasing wait time from the average of 1 second to 3-5 seconds had a noticeable positive impact on learning. In 1985, Stahl constructed the concept of “think time,” defined as a distinct period of uninterrupted silence by the teacher and all students so that they both can complete appropriate information-processing tasks, feelings, oral responses, and actions. It has been well established for decades that wait time is an important tool to enhance student learning.

Wait time is exactly what the name suggests—time to wait. Stahl (1985) defines eight categories of periods of silence according to when they occur or how they function. Let’s look at three of them in closer detail: post-teacher question wait time, post-student’s response wait time, and within-student’s response pause time. When we think of wait time, post-teacher question wait time is usually what comes to mind. Typically, teachers pause for an average of 0.7-1.4 seconds after speaking before continuing to speak or expecting a response (Rowe, 1972). By increasing this time, students are given an opportunity to consider what has been said and begin constructing a response. This particular flavor of wait time is important, but it is not the only one.

Post-student response wait time is identical to post-teacher question wait time, but the waiting occurs after a student has spoken. Within-student’s response pause time occurs when a student has started an answer and pauses. They have more to say but need additional time to figure out how to finish their thought. It is tempting to fill in the blank in order to help the student along, but this act of talking over their thinking can signal that we do not trust them to form a conclusion or “get to the point” on their own.

Why then is something as simple as waiting so challenging to implement? It is widely acknowledged that there are never enough hours in the day, especially when it comes to teaching. There is always more content to cover, more skills to hone, and more being piled onto teachers’ plates. It is tempting, then, to call on the first hand raised in order to keep things moving in the allotted 45 minutes. It can also feel awkward to sit in silence, wondering if any students will offer a response and fighting the urge to rephrase your question or start dropping hints for students. However, when we do not offer wait time to our students, we compromise equity of voice by only making space for students who have something to share immediately.

In our fast-paced world, taking time to think and listen is often undervalued. Yet the rewards of wait time outweigh the barriers to implementation. I have found several strategies helpful to ensure I actively use wait time that you may try immediately:

  • Count to five in your head before calling on someone to respond and again after they have finished speaking.
  • Offer students an opportunity to think independently first, then turn and talk to a neighbor to figure out what they want to say before sharing with the entire class.
  • Ask students to raise a silent thumb against their chest when they have an idea they are ready to share, so that students who need more time are not discouraged.

A coach that I recently worked with put it beautifully: “What are we signaling to students when we ask them to pause and consider what we’ve said before answering, but we don’t offer that same consideration time after a student has spoken?” By including post-student’s response wait time and within-student’s response pause time in our teacher tool kits, we encourage students to listen carefully not just to us but to one another. We communicate that we value student thinking by offering space for it to actually take place.

Citations

Reflection

A full-time classroom teacher for 15 years, Jeff Wilhelm is currently Distinguished Professor of English Education at Boise State, the director of the Boise State Writing Project, and a teacher of middle or high schoolers each spring. He has authored 42 books about teaching and learning:

The most essential and neglected “small teaching move” is that of structuring reflection into our teaching and learning episodes. When I set out to review the major research findings about what is most essential to engaging and transformational teaching, these findings were distilled into the acronym of EMPOWER, which serves as a mental map for planning and operationalizing effective teaching of any kind in any situation.

Of these essential moves, all supported by research over many years and across the learning sciences, priming (activating learner background and interest), orienting (setting the short- and long-term purposes and payoffs for the learning) and reflection (naming what has been learned, how it was learned, how the learning can be justified and applied) can all be “small” moves with “HUGE” effects that make all the difference in whether students actually learn and then transform how they engage, know, think, and apply their learning.

Research into classroom practice demonstrates that reflection is the move that is most neglected among these three. Taking just 1-2 minutes can make a “power move” of reflection when we simply ask learners: “What is your major takeaway from today’s learning? How will you use what you have learned later on today and in our final projects for this unit?” Likewise, we can use simple formative assessments like Marvy/Muddy, asking students to record what really struck them as useful about a learning episode and to consider how it might be used, then to name what they still don’t fully understand and what they might do to develop more understanding. Other ideas include “changes in understanding charts” with prompts like: Earlier I thought . . . but now I think . . . because . . . Reflection prompts, quick peer interviews, exit tickets are all examples of quick-hit reflections.

There are certainly hundreds of these techniques, and we need to use them because reflecting is like clicking save. If we don’t do it, students lose their work and evolving understandings – and lose the chance to extend and apply them! These kinds of reflections are formative assessments that make visible what students understand and don’t understand yet in ways that inform our next teaching moves. They also constitute what Lorna Earle calls “assessment for and as learning vs. of learning,” i.e., reflection that supports and abets learning versus merely evaluating it.

Haskell’s reviews of research on “transfer of learning” show that when we don’t take those 1-2 minutes to support student reflection, then transfer of learning is not achieved. If I spend the time to teach my students anything at all, from decoding multisyllabic words to identifying the cues that something is a key detail to creating a mental model for evaluating evidence, I want them to use what they have learned the next time they read or compose a similar kind of text (near-road transfer) or even a completely new task that uses the same kinds of knowledge (far-road transfer). If they don’t achieve any kind of transfer, then I’d have a hard time making the case that I taught them anything at all.

The most powerful reflection techniques I know are procedural feedback and procedural feed forward, when students are asked to name what another student or they themselves have done, the meaning and effect achieved, and the causal nature of this process. Using procedural feedback requires students to develop a map of why and how things work and to justify their knowledge. It also promotes an agentive growth mindset: that with effort practicing useful strategies, they can and will become more competent and even expert.

Since reflection is essential to all teaching and learning, let’s resolve to do it! Otherwise, our learners will not become independent in extending their learning in ways that fully actualize their potential and move them into a transformed future.

Here are free teaching resources on using REFLECTION strategies and EMPOWER for planning lessons and units that include all the must-make moves of effective teaching.

Thanks to Lindsay, Shelby, and Jeffrey for contributing their thoughts.

The question of the week is:

What is a “small teaching move” that you think is not as common as it should be? A “small teaching move” in this context is an action that would require very little prep, can easily be made into a routine or habit, and is likely to result in increased student engagement and learning.

In Part One, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Jessica Fernandez, Alejandra Carmona-Guzmán, and Daman Harris shared their suggestions.

In Part Two, Sydney Chaffee, Wendi Pillars, Cacee Weaver, and Cheryl Abla contributed their responses.

In Part Three, Diana Laufenberg, Valentina Gonzalez, Matt Renwick, and Cindy Garcia answered the question.

In Part Four, Kwame Sarfo-Mensah, Lauren Nifong, Rebecca Alber, and Jenn Guerrero offered their ideas.

In Part Five, Renee Jones, Todd Stanley, Kelly Owens, Kit Golan wrote about their experiences.

In Part Six, Amber Chandler, Sandy Mendoza, Dale Ripley, and Jonelle St. Aubyn answered the question.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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