The Importance of Wait Time and Think Time


Last week, on a sunny spring day, I wandered around the perennials section at our local greenhouse.

“What’re you looking for today?” asked one of the salespeople, smiling.


“Our geraniums are really great. They’re over on that side. Or are you looking for something else?” She gestured to the left.

“Well, I… I need something that can grow in a shady spot.”

“Do you want coleus?”

“What’s that now?”

“Or do you want something like a shrub?”

“Well…” I stammered.

But before I could respond, the overly-enthusiastic salesperson went on to describe every shrub on the premises. She was so bubbly and friendly that by the time there was a moment to get a word in edge-wise it had become awkward to tell her, actually I didn’t want a shrub at all. I was looking for hanging baskets.

“Thanks for all your help,” I said. “I think I’ll just look around for few minutes to decide.”

As she walked away, I was reminded of a writing conference I had taught just a few days earlier with a kindergarten boy, who literally said at the end of the conference, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I had laughed to myself at the time, thinking Out of the mouths of babes… but now I realized: that poor kid didn’t get more than a few sentences in during our conversation. I had probably done the same thing that the salesperson had just done to me: I wasn’t leaving any time to think.

In order to teach well, it’s important to make sure you leave time for students to actually think about your question and formulate a response. It’s also important to leave time after a student’s response for you to think about what the child has just said and formulate your own teacherly response.

Researchers call this “wait time 1” (leaving time for students to think and respond) and “wait time 2” (leaving time after students respond for teacher to think). This article is a sort of classic summation of that research, and this one is a somewhat updated version of the same concept.  Decades of research have shown that leaving at least 3 seconds of wait time can have all kinds of benefits for kids:

  • Kids responses tend to be longer; they elaborate more on what they have to say
  • Responses tend to be more correct
  • Fewer “I don’t know’s” or silence in response to teacher prompts
  • More students volunteer responses
  • Kids’ academic achievement scores tend to be higher in classrooms with more wait time

Researchers have found that teachers who incorporate wait time are also better teachers:

  • They ask a wider variety of types of questions and in different ways
  • They ask fewer questions, but better questions
  • They ask more questions that require higher level thinking

So how do you become the kind of teacher who leaves plenty of think time? How do you go from rapid-fire, to more thoughtful questioning?

Here are a few tips:

1. Count to five seconds in your head, butterfly-one, butterfly-two, butterfly-three, butterfly-four, butterfly-five.

2. Tell kids that you are working on wait time, and recruit their help. Encourage them to leave wait time for each other as well.

3. Don’t just work on counting seconds–practice actively listening to kids: look at them when they’re speaking, say back what you just heard them say, ask clarifying questions, encourage them to actually say aloud what they really mean instead of assuming or saying it for them.

4. Simply say less. Bite your tongue and just… wait… to hear what kids have to say.