In Praise of the Pregnant Pause

I sat before my AP Literature class and asked a question about the poem we had just read. It wasn’t a tough question: “What is the first thing you notice?”  I want students to react to a poem as an opening move. I don’t want to get weighed down in devices or the “deeper meaning” before we simply discuss what we notice first. I want them to consider their initial reactions before we dig deeper.

“What is the first thing you notice?” I asked, again.

My thirty students responded with collective silence. Some kids looked at me, some looked at their shoes, and some pretended to search for meaning on the ceiling.  

Silence.

I let several seconds pass.  Silence.  But, the silence had changed. The silence grew in intensity. The mood of the room grew heavy. Students fidgeted in their seats. A few scratched their heads. Most were now looking down to avoid eye contact. What seemed like hours, was actually less than 90 seconds.

The first student spoke after a grueling two minutes. Two minutes of silence with a question hanging over the classroom is hard to take.  I sat there and endured the uncomfortable silence, because I knew my kids had something to say. I also knew that they would have preferred to sit there and listen to me talk about my initial thoughts about the poem.  My job is to help them think about the literature we read. My job is not to share what I think only, but to help them learn to think critically for themselves.

Once the first student shared her ideas, the dam broke. Ideas were shared and new ideas were generated through the ensuing discussion. After that first uncomfortable silence, my students understood that going forward I was going to wait for them to think and respond. I was not going to bail them out.  I need students to embrace their thoughts and share those thoughts with others.  

Questioning is crucial in the ELA classroom. Effective questions allow students to think and extend their ideas.  Successful teachers ask effective follow-up questions as well. We must ask and ask until our students understand the task at hand.  We must encourage students to ask us high-level questions back. But without the “pause,” the process is truncated. Student thinking is short-circuited.   Students need think time and we must honor think time. When the teacher is the only one thinking, students are reduced to passive listeners.

My wait time plan of attack includes the following:

  1. Plan big questions (at least two) that will generate class conversation about the work under consideration. Make your question general so students can add their unique ideas. Write your questions down, but ask them without reading them.
  2. Once the question is in the air, wait for a student to respond. Be tough.  Don’t crack. You may need to remind them that you will wait until a student responds. If you answer your own question, students will know they can out wait you.
  3. After a student responds, encourage other students to share their ideas.  Ask follow-up questions to keep the discussion going.  Always give students time to think and respond.
  4. Once the initial question has been thoroughly vetted, move on to the next phase of your lesson.
  5. Remember that wait time applies when asking questions to the whole class, small groups or individuals. Students need to understand that their teachers are there to extend their knowledge and critical thinking skills. 
  6. Have fun with your questioning. The wait time you grant your students will pay dividends as they come to appreciate the power of their own thinking.

The pregnant pause is aptly named because we teachers want the questions we ask to give birth to new ideas and new confidence based on independent, thoughtful thinking that all students are capable of producing.   

Roy F. Smith is an instructional coach and AP English and Dual-Credit teacher in Round Rock, Texas. Follow English Roy on Twitter for his latest thoughts and musings. 

One thought on “In Praise of the Pregnant Pause

  1. I firmly believe in the pause. Something as simple as, “What do you make of this?” is non-threatening and allows for a variety of student expressions. Then just wait. And wait. Someone will begin talking or ask a question. A teacher’s having the ability to wait makes all the difference.

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