Speaking Up

Speaking Up

Every year I have students who seldom or never speak up in a large group. Often, but not always, these are children from non-mainstream cultures. Do you think it’s important for all children to learn to speak up in groups? How do you handle this in your classroom?

A: It’s important for teachers to understand that children from some cultures—for example, Asian cultures—may have learned from home to be reticent or reserved in groups or around adults. That said, I think it’s also important to encourage all students to speak because in this country, it’s a skill that will be asked of them. I want them to be comfortable with it. I believe many of my students’ families feel this way, too. I’ve had Asian parents ask me, “Is my child participating? Is she speaking up?” They recognize that verbal assertiveness helps their children succeed in America.

I think the most important way of helping children speak up is to spend the time creating a tone of respect and safety. Then, I try to provide low-risk opportunities for children to come forth, perhaps one step at a time.

Let’s say it’s Martin’s turn to share some artwork with the class, but I know he’s afraid to. I might talk to him ahead of time to find out something he would like the class to notice about his work. I’ll then speak for Martin while he stays seated. Holding up the picture, I’ll say, “Martin says he would like us to notice the raised bits of glue.”

The next time, I’ll have Martin stand next to me while I hold up his artwork and speak for him. Martin might be pressing into my side, but he’s up there in front of the class, and that’s progress.

At his next turn to share, I might ask Martin to point to the words in the artwork while I read them aloud. The following time he might hold, point, and read himself, but with me standing beside him. Finally, I’ll step down so that Martin is up there holding, pointing, and reading by himself.

This process could take a couple of months. For children learning English as a second language, it could take half the year or longer because the children are often very self-conscious about their language ability. But if by the end of the year a child is just a little more comfortable speaking, I consider it a success.

Wendy Tang has been a primary grades teacher for ten years. She now teaches first grade at Hart School in Stamford, Connecticut.

A: I have learned so well from the children I’ve taught that shyness and quietness are not necessarily an indication of how engaged children are. Children who hesitate to speak are often observant, attentive, full of thought and opinion. The trick is to find ways for them to express their ideas, for our classrooms are richest when all voices are heard.

I begin by affirming for children that their contributions matter. “I want to hear your ideas. Your ideas help all of us know you and help us build our community.” Next, I might say, “I notice that you are often quiet and don’t like to talk in the group. I wonder if you are thinking about different things or if you are uncomfortable with talking right away. Are there some things that will help you feel more comfortable?”

Always, it’s important to perceive and work with children’s unique temperaments. Some children don’t like to call out their thoughts. They may need an invitation to speak (“Jess, would you like to share an idea?”), some time to think, or a chance to rehearse with the teacher or a classmate before speaking to the class. Some students respond better to partner sharing, in which students pair up to talk and then report to the class what their partner said. Still other children may prefer to express themselves through writing or artwork which is then shared with the group.

Sometimes a child’s reluctance to speak is a sign of a problem such as teasing, exclusion, or bullying in the group. Or it might be because of some bad personal experience the child had. If you suspect this is the case, take time to talk individually with the student to begin to figure out what’s going on and how to support the child.

Ruth Sidney Charney is a consulting teacher for Northeast Foundation for Children (NEFC). She has taught children in grades K–8 for over thirty years
and is the author of Teaching Children to Care.


A: I think it’s important to encourage all children to speak up because speaking is one important way for children to take part actively in learning. In my experience, the usual reason children don’t talk is they don’t feel safe enough. So I work on creating a safe environment. I try to reinforce, through actions and words, that it’s okay to make mistakes because mistakes are opportunities to learn.

With a safe environment in place, I gently nudge children into participating. For example, some children may have processing difficulties that cause them to take in a comment more slowly. I find it’s often helpful to give these students extra time. “This question is for you, Tori. I want you to think about it. I’ll come back to you later.” When I come back, Tori, having had a chance to think, articulates a coherent answer. That success makes her more willing to speak up next time.

Used well, games can be a relaxed way for children to practice speaking out. For example, if I know a student is a good speller, I might have the class play a spelling game. If a child is good at math, number activities might work well. The idea is to let children practice using their voice in low-risk ways before asking them to take bigger speaking risks.

Diane Boutin has been an educator since 1980, for years teaching preschool and special education preschool. She currently teaches fifth grade at Indian Orchard Elementary School in Springfield, Massachusetts.


A: I see it as my role to support students in learning to speak in group situations. I’ve found that when students feel they belong and feel valued in the class, they’re more willing to take risks speaking up. To have that sense of belonging, they need the class to know who they are, which includes knowing something about their family’s culture and interests.

During the past two years, as part of our unit on immigration, my students and I brought clothing, pictures, music, and food from our homes as a way to share our family cultures. We interviewed our families and relatives about their customs, then shared what we learned with classmates. We had discussions. We made posters and gave presentations.

At the end of the unit, we invited family members to come to school and lead activities that represent their home cultures. Last year, one parent taught a Filipino dance. Another taught Chinese brush writing. There were also Irish step dancing, a display of Dutch shoes, and a presentation about traditional life in the Austrian Alps.

Not all teachers need to plan such elaborate activities. The point is to create opportunities for children to learn about each other and to celebrate their differences. In our class, these opportunities helped bring the quieter children out because when it was their turn to share about their home cultures, they could speak with authority. And, because the children felt more known and valued, they seemed more willing to speak out during the rest of the year as well.

Gary Wight is a second grade teacher at Flanders Elementary School in East Lyme, Connecticut. He has been teaching second grade for nine years.

Relevant Resources

Cartledge, Gwendolyn, with contributions by JoAnne Fellows Milburn. 1996. Cultural Diversity and Social Skills Instruction. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Cazden, Courtney. 1988. Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Corden, Roy. 2000. Literacy and Learning Through Talk. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.

Cummins, Jim. 2001. “Empowering Minority Students: A Framework for Intervention,” Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 71, No. 4 (Winter).

Daniels, Harvey. 2002. Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs & Reading Groups. Second edition. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Freeman, David E. and Yvonne S. 2001. Between Worlds: Access to Second Language Acquisition. Second edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gambrell, Linda, and Janice Almasi, eds. 1996. Lively Discussions: Fostering Engaged Reading. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Nieto, Sonia. 1999. The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities. New York: Teachers College Press.

Searle, Dennis, and Curt Dudley-Marling. 1991. When Students Have Time to Talk: Creating Contexts for Learning Language. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Tags: Conversation Skills, Sharing