Wait time: a reflection on an “innovation”?

Now there’s a pompous title to get the world going, no? Look, I can hear you all cry, he’s going to do a snidey “this is all great, but…” thing, like he usually does. Sorry to disappoint. I’m going to try to be fairly straight on this one, no curve balls, no “howevers”.

Anyhow, there’s this thing called wait time. This is an idea that isn’t terribly new – it’s been knocking around in the literature for years, and I’ve been aware of it for ages. However, it’s only really in the last couple of years that I’ve started to make use of it, and only in the last six months I’ve really put it into place properly.

The theory behind it, in essence, is as follows. In most cases, the teacher asks a group of learners a question, then either jumps on the first hand that shoots up, the first voice that shouts out, or, if they are trying to be a bit more sophisticated, nominating some unfortunate soul who was hoping like hell the teacher wouldn’t ask them, because they don’t know the answer or don’t want to stick out like a swotty show off, or, maybe, are just a bit shy. This nomination could be randomised: break out the lolly sticks or swirling PowerPoint name selector. But either way, someone gets put on the spot, with the teacher expecting an answer. You see it in ESOL classes on a bigger scale: the teacher asks the whole class a question like “what are some words for fruit and vegetables?” You get three or four students supplying predictable answers, and then the teacher tediously writes up a bunch of vocab that the class already know, before realising that it all needs to be rubbed off for the next part of the lesson, rendering the entire activity largely wasted.

Bleurgh. Boooooooring. Even if you jazz it up with an interactive whiteboard it’s still boooooooring, (although interactive whiteboards are pretty dull objects at the best of times).

The point, anyway, is this. In your class you dispense with the lollipops and the random name generator. You stop those coasting learners leaving the hard work to the big mouths (that was my education all the way through: I was Captain Coaster in pretty much every subject.) and you shut up those same big mouths who dominate every single lesson. You do this by building in “wait time”. Wait time is, as the name suggests, a section of time between asking a question and getting an answer where learners either individually or collaboratively think of an answer to the question, before feeding it back to the rest of the group.

This is how it could work. On an individual level, wait time at its most simple, you refuse to accept answers and tell the whole class to think of an answer in the space of time given. Personally I wouldn’t want this to be much more than ten seconds, but that’s very much me disliking extensive periods of silence, not to mention the distinct risk of everyone drifting off into their own private worlds. Then you either nominate a learner, or use some sort of technological interface to find out what everyone thinks: Socrative or PollEverywhere would be useful, or you could be wild and crazy and get everyone to write it down on a mini whiteboard, which they can then hold up. If you like a nice classroom gimmick, you could use coloured cards like green/red for yes/no or true/false questions (and perhaps also an “amber” card for not sure).

Like I said, however, I’m fond of a little noise in my classrooms. I get all itchy and restless if students are just sitting and working quietly. So I have been making this collaborative rather than individual. It’s worked well in grammar lessons, where learners have been exposed to examples of the language in a reading or listening task, and then I want to ask concept questions to get them to think about what the meaning and form of the grammar. Rather than verbally ask the question, I have been putting them on a PowerPoint slide and then asking learners to work in small groups to discuss what they think is the answer. I’ve been varying the time, depending on the complexity and challenge of the question asked, and while learners have been discussing their answers I’ve been walking round and listening and talking to the students. At the end I’ve had the groups write their ideas on mini whiteboards or sharing back to me at the front, depending on how much extra explanation and whole class discussion I think has been necessary.

And I like it. Lots. In my classes, this has meant that my explanations have been minimal, but personalised where I have had to explain in detail. You also feel more confident that everyone is engaging with the language, participating in the discussion, and it’s much less difficult for shy or reluctant contributors because they are only talking to two or three other students. The instructions are quite easy, and on one occasion I didn’t even need to tell the class what to do after the second one: they just had the question on the board and started discussing. Students have been working it all out for themselves, sharing ideas and, crucially in an ESOL class, interacting in English, developing their general speaking skills on the side.

Like I said, at the beginning, this isn’t a new idea. I’m not being an amazing innovator here. But it’s sort of new to me, and I like it. It’s also a fairly unusual experience writing a non-snarky blog post, and I’ve quite enjoyed that too.

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