TEQ #7: Some Students Want to Talk, But Don’t! – Sandi Novak

What can I do to ensure all students contribute to the conversation when students work in small groups?

Some students want to talk but don’t. Why? There are at least three reasons why some students don’t contribute during small group discussions. 1) One or two students in a group of 4-6 members suck up all the speaking time and don’t leave any time for others to contribute; 2) some students haven’t had much experience communicating in groups of their peers about content; and 3) some don’t come prepared by having read the assignment. We can address all three of these challenges by employing some strategies described below.

Provide Interesting Topics and Some Choice

Students will read and engage in discussion if they have some choice in what they read. Teachers who have mastered the task of having their students come prepared to a discussion offer their students some choice in the reading material. For example, when fifth grade students were studying the Westward Expansion, one reading option was to read about the role women played during this time period. Another option was to find out what tools and resources were available. A third reading option was to study and share the route, terrain, and length of time it took for the journey. After students read and had information about a topic of interest, they talked in like groups first before they moved to groups that studied other themes. Students will read and contribute more if they have some choice in their reading material.

Share Group Membership Expectations

Many students do not come to school with communication skills like paraphrasing, inviting others to contribute when they haven’t spoken, or extending the conversation by asking good questions. These skills need to be explicitly taught and monitored through observation and providing effective feedback. Once students see examples of the use of these effective communication skills, the teacher should observe them as they work together in groups with the expectation that they will apply one communication or group membership skill during a conversation. Video examples like the ones that supplement my book, Student-Led Discussions (ASCD, 2016) or Deep Discourse (Solution Tree, 2017) can provide the guidance some students need as they practice these new skills with their peers.

Practice Improves Performance

Just providing time for students to talk will not improve their skills. Students need explicit instruction, time to practice, and specific feedback to enhance their performance. Think of it like coaching baseball; a batter will continue to miss the ball if she isn’t instructed on the correct methods to hit it. She may be holding the bat incorrectly, swinging too late or too soon, or standing incorrectly. Each of these procedures require some guidance from an effective coach, time to practice the swing, and some feedback after each pitch. With the proper instruction, practice, and feedback, the batter’s swing improves.

Some students want to talk during small group discussions, but don’t. We can increase our students’ participation by providing explicit instruction about specific use of communication skills, offering time to practice in pairs and small groups, and supplying specific feedback to groups and individuals.


Sandi Novak, an education consultant and author, has served as an assistant superintendent, director of professional development and student programs, principal, and teacher. With more than 35 years of experience in schools, Sandi provides professional development on several topics and initiatives, such as working with principals and teacher leaders in developing strong literacy instruction, using data to monitor professional learning implementation, and developing school improvement focused on maximizing achievement for all students in literacy. She has authored three books: Literacy Unleashed (ASCD, 2016), Student-Led Discussions (ASCD, 2014), and Deep Discourse (Solution Tree, 2016). She also authored the On-line ASCD PD Course, Building a Schoolwide Independent Reading Culture. Visit Sandi’s website, join her professional LinkedIn community, or send her a tweet @snovak91335.

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