Don’t Fear the Wait Time

By: Maria Kenngott

We live in an age that fears silence. We text, we tap, we watch Netflix; anything but endure a moment’s quiet reflection. But in teaching, as in life, sometimes we need to step back and let the silence speak.

            “What’s you’re favourite colour?”

You wait half a beat, trained by nature to expect a native response time. The student hesitates, so you continue.

            “What colour do you like? What is your…FAVOURITE…COLOUR?”

Again, a half moment’s pause. You continue.

“I like red and blue and purple. What colour do you like? Do you like red? I like red.”

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. We ask a question, and the student still hasn’t responded a full three hours later. Or at least it feels like three hours. In reality, studies show that teachers typically wait less than a second for their students to respond before jumping back into the ring.

I get it. I’ve done it. I still do it. We get nervous. We don’t want things to drag. And hey, let’s face it, we’re teachers. We like to talk. But sometimes we need to step back and wait.

The amount of time you wait between asking a question and receiving (or not receiving) the answer is known as wait time. When dealing with native speakers, a more complex question generally means a longer wait time. However, when you teach English as a Second Language, this just isn’t always the case. One student might take a full two seconds to answer “What color do you like” while another might take less than one to begin explaining how robots will eventually destroy the world.

I’ve seen studies suggesting three seconds as the optimal amount of wait time for a student to respond, but let’s be real. No one is going to ask a question, then think “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.” The key, I think, is to simply be aware. Consider the student’s level, consider their confidence, and don’t fear the wait time.

Another common mistake related to wait time is immediately restating the question. Anyone who’s ever learned and used a second language knows the frustration of asking someone to repeat what they said and getting a completely different sentence the second time around.

An Example           

Imagine you’re sitting in a Parisian cafe. You studied French for four years in High School but you’re a bit rusty. A handsome man sits down across from you. You begin to chat.

“Que pense tu du cafe parisenne?” he asks after a few minutes.

You understood the “pense tu” that much was easy, and you’re pretty sure you heard something about Paris in there, but the rest simply melted into a big French blob. You ask him to repeat.

            “Aime-tu le cafe? Tu n’avais pas touche ton cafe donc je pensais…”

Wait, wait, wait, what? What happened to the “pense tu?” to the “Paris?” You were almost there, almost arrived at comprehension and he threw goodness knows what into the mix!

In a wave of despair you vow never to speak French again.

While most interactions on IQBar are not that dramatic, we still need to remember the lesson of the cafe. If a student does not immediately understand, changing the structure of the question or statement will usually do more harm than good.

In fact, a student’s reluctance to speak is often caused by confusion over a single word rather than the question itself. Don’t underestimate how little it can take for a student to lose complete confidence in their answer.

Let me give an example from my own life and experiences as a language learner. Once upon a time, I was a young, innocent student of French. I had just moved to Paris and was eager to show off my meager language skills. One evening I met a young man and we started to chat. Sound familiar? A little ways into the conversation he asked me, in French, what I thought of my auberge. Now, certain among you might be familiar with that term, but I was not. Well, I said quite confidently, I had actually ordered courgette, not auberge, but I’m sure it will be quite good. He laughed at my mistake, rolled his eyes, and switched to English for the rest of the evening. After that experience, it took me months to regain my confidence, silly though that may seem. If I wasn’t one hundred percent sure of every word that was spoken, I would refuse to answer and ask for clarification, even though I usually didn’t really need it.

Now let’s look a little more closely at where exactly a question can go wrong, using three different and outrageous examples:

Issues with Sentence Structure:

  1. Is it, in fact, that you do, truly, like that thing known as the color heretofore and thenceforth and, honestly, always known as red?
  2. I know I told you not to restate the question. But we’re human and sometimes we get tongue tied. If this is the case, slow down. Take a breath. And repeat (once).
  3. Do you like red?
  4. Wait. And wait.
  5. If they still haven’t answered then perhaps the problem lies elsewhere.

Issues with a Single Word.

  1. Do you like platypi?
  2. “Do you like” is a fairly basic structure, so we can usually assume that isn’t the issue. So perhaps the problem lies within a single word, in this case, platypi. Ask the student if they understand platypi. If they don’t, clarify. Pretty simple, right? Not always.
  3. Imagine you’ve spent the last seven minutes talking about platypi. The student has been nodding, smiling, and after you finally finish talking you ask, “So what do you think about platypi?” And you’re greeted with that all too familiar, deer in the headlights blank stare. We’ve just spent five minutes talking about platypi, you think, surely that can’t be the problem. “Platypi,” you repeat, thinking the problem must be in the sentence structure, “Do you like them? What do you…what do you think about them? Are they mammals? Do you know what a mammal is?” Now you’ve introduced a whole new can of worms.
  4. So what do we do? ESL teaching 101. Don’t talk too much. We are here to facilitate learning, not to lecture. Always test for comprehension. If you’re doing platypi today, make sure the first thing you do is ascertain their familiarity with the animal/word in question. Then sit back and let them talk.

Issues with The Question.

  1. What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?
  2. Sometimes, a student genuinely doesn’t know the answer. While most of us native speakers know to ask the specific type of swallow in question, African or European, your Chinese speaking student may not.
  3. So what do we do? First, try to ease an answer out of them by dancing around the question with other questions. What is a swallow? Are they big or small? What is the wing span of a typical swallow? Try to lead them to an answer or opinion.
  4. But then again…some questions are better in the bin.

So what do we do when a student seems reluctant to answer?

  1. Wait. For three seconds if numbers appeal to you. Otherwise, intuit it. But WAIT.
  2. Repeat the question. Wait.
  3. Figure out where the problem is and adjust accordingly. Wait.

This may all seem obvious, but these are some of the most basic ways in which a teacher can lose control of a teachable moment. So slow down, sip your coffee, and embrace the silence.