George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Encouraging Shy Students to Speak Up in Class

Advice for creating a supportive environment where shy students feel comfortable participating—from a teacher who was one of those students.

March 25, 2022
skynesher / iStock

Some students thrive on the opportunity to share their voices. They embrace the thrill of standing before their peers and reading, debating, or demonstrating. Some students, however, do not.

As a teacher, you have likely had both of these kinds of students in your class before, and it can be difficult to figure out the best way to engage your shy students in classroom discussions and activities.

When I was in middle and high school, I not only was terrified of being called on in class but found myself incredibly uncomfortable in classrooms that required active, out-loud participation. While it’s important for teachers to help students like my former self grow their capacity to communicate and take academic risks, we are also responsible for helping create supportive environments that make our students feel safe.

Classroom Culture

The first thing to consider when increasing students’ willingness and ability to participate is the classroom culture around mistakes. Many students are afraid to speak up because they are afraid of what others might think or say about them.

To promote a culture of academic risk-takers, shout out students who are trying their best, even if they aren’t 100 percent perfect. When a student does make a mistake, explain how important it is that the class got to hear the mistake and learn from it, rather than just telling the student they were wrong.

If you hear students saying negative things about someone in the class because of an answer they gave or the way they read something aloud, don’t let it go unaddressed. Ensure that all students recognize the classroom as a space for them to take chances and be supported as they work toward mastering all of their academic goals.

Alternative Means of Participation

Next, you want to plan for how you are going to ask students to participate and ensure that there are options for all students. The idea of popcorn reading or just speaking into the space was incredibly scary for me as a shy student. Being cold-called was another anxiety-inducing experience. In my own classroom, I now offer many different ways for students to participate: silent raised hands, nonverbal responses to questions, and sharing with a partner instead of the whole group.

Another strategy I use is the warm call. While I’m circulating during independent practice, I will tell a student in advance that I am going to call on them to answer a question. The student will usually ask me if they have the correct answer before they share aloud, which gives them the confidence to participate.

I also do this with written work by starring answers on student papers that I want them to read aloud. Again, students already know that they have an answer that exceeds expectations and are therefore more eager to speak up.

To further encourage student participation, create systems that ensure that every voice is heard during class. This can look like a participation tracker on which students earn a check each time they participate, whether by speaking up or actively engaging with silent signals.

While some students may need time to feel comfortable taking academic risks, these same students may be willing to participate by reading aloud, asking their own questions, or making connections to their previous learning and real-world experiences.

To celebrate student participation, take time to shout out the top three most active participants or award an MVP for that class period. You can even tie participation to a positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) system or your own classroom reward system.

Confidence Through Collaboration

Finally, create ways for students to help one another build their confidence. When I ask students to come to the board to demonstrate something or give a presentation, they often ask if they can do it with a partner. As often as possible, I allow them to do the presentation or demonstration together.

Some students just need to know that they aren’t alone and won’t be the absolute center of attention to feel OK getting up in front of the class. When students are allowed to work together, they can help each other grow more confident in the space.

Another way I foster students supporting one another is through small group work. I will assign each student a role in the group, and one will be the presenter. The students work collaboratively to put their presentation together, which helps students feel more confident sharing out, knowing that their group members supported them in coming up with things to say.

There will always be some students who love to speak up and some who find it extremely scary. By creating classroom cultures that support academic risk, providing a variety of opportunities for students to engage, and fostering collaboration in the classroom, teachers can help all students feel safe and, ideally, more capable of participating.

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