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November 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 3

All the Time They Need

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Adyana is a 9-year-old English language learner with long, wavy, dark-brown hair, impeccably pulled back into a ponytail, and she's sitting on the floor of her 3rd grade classroom with her classmates. About 20 teachers observe. Everyone is waiting for her to speak. She stares straight into the floor. I've been reading aloud Charlotte Zolotow's A Father Like That (HarperCollins, 2007), and Adyana has just shared a superficial retelling of the story: "That kid is telling about not having a dad."
I've asked her to share more thinking. She looks startled, as though she'd assumed that I'd listen to her contribution and then move on to the other students who are eager to share. Isn't that the way it's supposed to work? The teacher asks a question, the student shares a response, and then the teacher moves on to someone else. This has taken her by surprise.
Meanwhile, I'm waiting, along with the 20 other teachers, many of whom must think me cruel to let Adyana just sit there in silence. I'm longing to jump in. I want to say, "Adyana, were you thinking that the boy in the book is imagining what his father would be like? Do you think that's why Zolotow titled her book A Father Like That?" I want to tell Adyana that if she has another idea, she should raise her hand and I'll come right back to her. I want to move on to another student.
I stop myself and continue to let Adyana think. I whisper to the other children, telling them that it's great that Adyana takes her time to think—that I wish more kids did that. She hears me, of course. I decide that a little paraphrasing might help.
I say, "Adyana, you've just retold us that the little boy is explaining to his mom about not having a dad. We've talked about inferences—what you know in your mind or your heart or what you believe that relates to the book, but that isn't said in the book. Now I'm wondering if you have any additional thoughts or maybe an inference." I lower my voice and repeat our description of inferences: "Something you know in your mind (I point to my head); feel in your heart (I point to my heart); or believe (I clench my fist to show the belief that something is right or wrong)." She watches me steadily and then returns her gaze to the floor—and it stays there for a long time.
I can feel the teachers' eyes on both of us; I can hear a murmur circulate among them. The other children squirm and try to get my attention. But I force myself to wait. Adyana looks at me, her beautiful brown eyes begging to be bailed out. I smile at her. Uncomfortable doesn't begin to describe what I'm feeling.
Then something happens that I've learned to expect in these situations—if I can wait long enough. The other children take a breath, settle into waiting, and the tension eases. They appear to be thinking over the question themselves. Something almost imperceptible washes over the observers and, thankfully, over me. The silence becomes comforting, not awkward.
Finally, Adyana lifts her gaze, and I notice a flash of a smile. She says, "I just figured out an inference. It's the kind in your head." Referring to the boy's description of what his father would be like if he had one, she says, "No dad could be that good. I mean the way he's thinking up his dad isn't really real. He's just wishing in his heart for a dad who would do everything he wants, like let him go to bed late. He doesn't know, because he's never had one, that a real dad wouldn't be like that all the time. I mean, he would have to be strict sometimes. But it's sad that he doesn't know what a dad would be like."
Her voice trails off, and I want to throw my arms around her because the long wait in silence has been rewarded with a great insight about the book. I can feel the teachers' relief; I can hear their reactions: "Whoa, she really did have more to say!" "Whew, that silence was getting really uncomfortable!"
The other kids' hands go up. The tension has eased. But there's more—I'm sure of it. I say as gently as I can, "What else, Adyana?"

Time to Think

Before we go on, I want you, reader, to say something smart. Right now. Come on. Share a deep insight or a subtle point. Quick. No? "OK (with obvious disappointment), I'll come back to you. Anybody else?"
The fact is, if we want students to think at high levels, we're going to have to give them time. And we're going to have to get comfortable with silence.
Wait time was a popular topic of conversation when I was a prospective teacher. Rowe (1969) reported that when teachers ask a student a question, we typically wait less than one second for a response. In addition, when a student pauses, we often pose another question in less than one second. One second!
Most researchers in this area have studied the effect of increasing pause intervals to 3–5 seconds. In a review of the research, Tobin (1987) concluded that "wait time is an important instructional variable when higher cognitive level learning is the objective" (p. 87). Research has shown that boosting wait time (even by as little as 3–5 seconds) increases the likelihood that more students will join in the discussion (Rowe, 1986; Tobin, 1987).
In a surprising finding, Gambrell (1983), in her study of 3rd grade reading comprehension classes, reported that teachers permit even less time for students to consider questions that require higher-cognitive-level thinking. Gambrell concluded that asking "inferential questions may be an ineffective reading comprehension strategy unless students are given adequate 'think time' to reflect, process, and interrelate necessary information prior to responding to teacher-posed questions" (p. 77).
Most teachers know that longer wait times often lead to more insightful responses, but our learned discomfort with silence usually forces us to ask another question—and another and another. We can't help ourselves. I'm guilty of this, and I've observed many teachers who jump into the conversation too quickly. I wince, watching the student who would have spoken if given adequate time.
We've all been on the receiving end of this. Think about how you felt as a student, when the teacher gave up, when he or she concluded that you weren't going to say something smart in the allotted time.
I'd like to propose a new definition for wait time: Wait time is a pause in which students are given all the time they need to formulate a response. The silence becomes an opportunity for everyone to consider the book or the concept. The classroom still values intellectual urgency, but the students (and their teacher!) don't feel like hamsters on an endless wheel of quick, superficial responses.

Not Done Yet

"What else, Adyana?" I'm determined to give her all the time she needs. I know that the other students want to share their thoughts, but they've learned not to raise their hands. They're learning to trust that, when they're given enough time, their thinking will provide more insight for others, too.
The teachers aren't so easy. The last thing they wanted to hear was, "What else, Adyana?" The poor kid has suffered enough, hasn't she? But I don't view it as suffering at all. To me, the urgency of rushing—to the next activity, to the next class, to finish the unit on time—is the real suffering.
Adyana finally unlocks her visual fix on the floor and looks at another student. "Stefan, remember when you said that the boy's mother was hardly in this book at all?" Stefan nods.
Adyana continues, "I know she's not in many of the pictures, but I was just thinking about her. She looks kind of sad here." She points to the page where the boy describes what his life would be like if he had a father. "I just keep thinking about her. The boy keeps talking about how great it would be to have a dad, but he has a mom. I think it hurts her to hear about all this stuff about the dad when she's probably trying to play with him."
Adyana pauses again. This time there's no discomfort in the room. "Lots of moms don't have dads for their kids, and so …." Students lean toward Adyana, suddenly realizing what she's inferring. I want to pop in. I want to say it for her: "Families look different, parents aren't perfect, everyone is trying to do their best!"
I bite my tongue. Adyana hasn't finished yet. She flips to the last page where the illustrator has shown the small boy skipping down the street, his shadow huge on a nearby wall. Adyana holds the book up and says, "It's like this. The … (she traces the shadow, and I provide the word) shadow is so big, like a dad, and it's everything [the boy] is going to do better when he's a dad. It's like him grown up and happy."
We've come a long way from, "That kid is telling about not having a dad," to explaining how the shadow on the final page symbolizes what the boy will become as a father. I say it's worth the wait. Adyana's observation sends the conversation flying off in every direction; other students build off her ideas, and she beams while listening to the discussion she's sparked. She now knows she's capable of deep insights—and that she can do it again.

Consider Question Quality

Let's be clear, however. It takes a great question to provoke an insightful response. "Do you think the boy was sad not to have a father?" isn't going to cut it. Not even, "What did the boy imagine about his father?" Questions that invite convergent responses, assume one correct answer, or lead to one particular interpretation will be met with convergent, recall-based responses—hardly a definition of critical thinking.
First, let's acknowledge the sinkholes we often fall into, the questions that lead to dead-end responses. For example, "Does anyone remember what we talked about yesterday?" Most students aren't going to acknowledge the question because they think they'll get it wrong. The few who do will take 15 minutes to respond, while everyone else settles into a nice nap with their eyes open.
Another trap: "How many of you enjoyed/liked/understood/A Father Like That yesterday?" When we ask those kinds of questions, we're going to get one-word, uninspired, recall types of responses. When you find yourself asking, "Who remembers … ?" or "How many of you liked … ?" make yourself stop!
When working with students, I don't ask most of the questions. My formula is simple. While reading aloud or discussing a concept, I think aloud, share inferences and questions, and reflect on an image or ideas I believe to be most significant in the text. I watch the students carefully to see, usually through their nonverbal messages, when my think-aloud has sparked something in them. I listen as a student shares his or her thoughts. Finally, I probe for deeper insight. I say, "What else?" "What did you think after that?" or "Help me understand what made you think that." When they say they don't know or just don't answer, I come back with, "I know you don't know, but if you did know, what would you say?"
It shouldn't be just the teacher asking the questions, however. Students need to learn how to spark questions in peers, and that requires modeling from you. Their questions can come from a range of settings: turn-and-talk pairs, book clubs, and other group-learning configurations. Here are some suggestions (Keene, 2012):
  • Make sure your think-alouds are a stretch for students' thinking. Resist the urge to start with lower-level thoughts about the book. Start high, and they'll go higher!
  • Ask questions or make comments that provide students with a jumping-off point without leading them. "What are you thinking now that you know the boy doesn't know his father?" or "I'm not sure what to think here. I'm going back to reread."
  • Ask students to think about what might have come before or after the time described in the text, or ask them to talk to one another about the roles that less significant characters play.
  • Ask "What else?" following a student's statement. Believe me, there's always more to say.
  • Paraphrase a student's response without changing the content. This gives students time to rethink and build their response into a more insightful one.
  • When paraphrasing a response, use more complex syntax and more sophisticated vocabulary without changing the original idea. This gives students a chance to hear their own ideas in more developed language.
  • Pull out of the conversation as quickly as you can, even when you find it exciting to participate. Student-led discussions make ideas memorable for them. Step back in only to raise the bar on the discussion or to correct misconceptions.
  • Because the best questions often come from peers, teach students to respectfully follow up when a peer speaks. Help them learn to ask the speaker to clarify what he or she means. Point out when a student's thought is sparked by another student's comments. That's how conversations grow legs!
  • Ask questions in which students can surprise you with their responses. If you know the answer to a question, don't ask it.

Reflections on the Long Quiet

Adyana's 3rd grade class gathered at the end of their independent reading time to reflect on the day. Many students mentioned that they weren't used to taking a long time to think, but that it made them think more. I knew the observing teachers would have plenty of things to ask the students, so I opened up the floor to their questions.
One teacher began: "Adyana, I teach 5th grade here, and I've never seen a student take so long to think. Was that hard for you?" I cringed because the teacher was leading her to say that it was, in fact, hard. I could imagine Adyana thinking that the teacher meant she shouldn't take so much time to think—just when she had decided it was a good idea!
I shouldn't have worried. Adyana responded with confidence and agency: "No, it wasn't that hard. I just had to wait until my brain decided what I wanted to say."
Another teacher worried about the other kids "cooling their heels" while Adyana took her time to think. One boy said, in the spirit of complete honesty, "I didn't think about the book the whole time, but I did think about what Adyana said, and it gave me new stuff to say."
A third teacher directed her question to those who didn't have a chance to speak: "Weren't you frustrated you didn't get to share?" "No," replied one of the students. "Not everyone gets to share every day, but everyone will get to share a lot!"
The students never disappoint. They trust that smart things will pop into their minds. And smart things always do—if we give them time to think.

Gambrell, L. B. (1983). The occurrence of think-time during reading comprehension instruction. Journal of Educational Research, 77(2), 77–80.

Keene, E. O. (2012). Talk about understanding: Rethinking classroom talk to enhance understanding. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rowe, M. B. (1969). Science, soul and sanctions. Science and Children, 6(6), 11–13.

Rowe, M. B. (1986, January). Wait time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up. Journal of Teacher Education, 37, 43–50.

Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57(1).

Ellin Oliver Keene has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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