Wait! Don’t Tell Me!

When you ask your students a question, do they have enough time to respond? Studies suggest that many teachers do not allow enough time for students to go through the cognitive process of forming a correct response to questions. Let’s assume that you are an educator who asks higher level questions. How long did you take to create the questions and ensure the questions were assessing higher-order thinking skills? The process of developing the question takes time and answering a thought-provoking question also takes time.

Think Time

According to one of the most prolific researchers on the subject, Stahl (1994), the student needs enough time to:

  • process the question
    • the student evaluates the vocabulary and wording
    • the student decodes verbal and nonverbal cues from the teacher
  • form the correct response
    • the student has to reflect upon prior experience and knowledge
    • the student evaluates how the question relates to the context

The cognitive process is quite busy! Good job in exercising your students’ brains! Now, you just have to let them ponder over the question by remaining silent for at least five seconds.


When teachers give their students time to answer, researchers have seen the following benefits:

  • an increase in the amount of correct answers
  • an increase in the length of responses
  • an increase in responses from students at lower-levels
  • more interaction between students
  • a decrease in no answers and “I don’t know” responses
  • an increase in standardized test scores

English Language Learners (ELLs) especially benefit from this wait-time. ELLs often need more time to process the language than what most teachers give them. Many teachers think that the ELL does not understand the question. However, the student may just be translating the question or determining the correct wording for forming the question. In the mainstream classroom, the ELL may feel apprehensive of making mistakes in front of their peers. Please note, though, that there is a silent period transition for ELLs who first come to the country or have no English language experience.

Enjoy this short video which demonstrates the technique and benefits in action!

Your boot camp challenge for this week:

Wait at least five to seven seconds after asking your children/students a question before you respond! Record your experience in your blog or in a journal.

Do you have a strategy that works for you in educating English Language Learners in the classroom?  Please, contact me to have that strategy featured on the next What Works Wednesday blog!


Shelly Terrell

Shelly Sanchez Terrell (@ShellTerrell) is an award winning digital innovator, an international speaker/consultant, and the author of Hacking Digital Learning with EdTech Missions, The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers, and Learning to Go. She has trained teachers and taught English language learners in over 20 countries as an invited guest expert by organizations, like the US Embassy, UNESCO Bangkok, Cultura Inglesa of Brazil, the British Council in Tel Aviv, IATEFL Slovenia, HUPE Croatia, ISTEK Turkey, and Venezuela TESOL. She has been recognized by several organizations and publications as a leader in the movement of teacher driven professional development as the founder and organizer of various online conferences, Twitter chats, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Two of the projects she co-organized were shortlisted for ELTons, #ELTChat and the Virtual Round Table Language and Technology online conference. She was named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women, awarded a Bammy Award as a founder of #Edchat, and named as one of the 10 Most Influential People in EdTech by Tech & Learning. Her greatest joy is being the mother of baby Savannah and Rosco the pug. Shelly has an Honors BA in English with a Minor in Communication and a specialization in Electronic Media from UTSA, a Masters in Curriculum Instruction ESL from the University of Phoenix, and a CELTA from CELT Athens. She regularly shares her tips for effective technology integration via Twitter (@ShellTerrell), Facebook.com/ShellyTerrell, and on her blog, TeacherRebootCamp.com, which has won several awards and recognitions as one of the top ESL, Edtech and Elearning blogs. Find over 400 of her slide presentations at https://www.slideshare.net/ShellTerrell/presentations


  1. I really enjoyed reading this posting. I think a lot of teachers are afraid of silence in the classroom and that’s why they are reluctant to give learners enough time to answer. Teachers (including me) also worry that one student will always shout out the answers before others have had time to think. But usually if learners are told that you don’t want them to answer yet they will wait.

    Also I think we should give them more time to prepare for fluency activities. We sometimes expect learners to be able to talk about a subject straight away. But in my experience if you allow them a few minutes to prepare what they want to say (with the opportunity to ask you for language they don’t know) you get much richer conversations in terms of content and language.

    • Johanna,

      I think you bring up a good point about directing students on how to use wait-time. It is important to let them know how this strategy works so they can use the strategy in other classes as well.

      I also agree with your advice on allowing students more time with fluency activities.

  2. Great post! I filmed myself teaching today, during an oral language lesson, to see if I allow enough wait time. A great new book written by a cool kiwi educator is Expanding Oral Language in the classroom, By Jannie van Hees. Her first chapter talks about her observations of teachers where wait time is often forgotten. I am gathering up some courage to analyse the video … eek!

    • marama28,

      Videotaping is a great idea for self reflection and evaluation! I will have to try this soon! I will admit I was guilty of not allowing enough wait-time when I first started teaching. I thought the students did not understand till I realized I should be giving them more credit and time to create the response. Lesson learned! Perhaps, you will post a blog about your experience evaluating yourself through videotaping? I’d like to read it!

  3. Great reminder about wait time! I tend to be a little “agressive” in questioning, and sometimes I actually count off 5 fingers behind my back to remind myself to wait…also, did you know that there is a comedy newsquiz podcast named “Wait, wait..don’t tell me!”? Maybe that will be the new theme of my class this year 🙂

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