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The Importance of Wait Time and Think Time

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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.

“Umm…”

“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.

BethMooreSchool View All

Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.

10 thoughts on “The Importance of Wait Time and Think Time Leave a comment

  1. I love your suggestion to tell the kids your working on wait time. I sometimes say the ABCs in my head but I often have my more impulsive 5 year olds blurt out their thoughts because waiting for someone else when you have the answer literally sitting on your tongue is oh so hard. But I think that if I tell them I am working on giving wait time I can enlist their help.

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  2. I found my ability to allow for “wait time” with my elementary students was much easier than when I am working with my own child. As I have homeschooled him throughout his preschool years, I have learned how to give him the same respect 🙂 I also very much agree with number 2 on your list! When I worked in the elementary schools, I always encouraged and recognized those students who afforded their peers “wait time”!

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  3. I am a person who needs wait time, so I try to give it to my students. I am often thinking and formulating right alongside them. If we give them wait time, gems can rise to the surface. I was recently having a conversation with a 1st grader about what he wanted to write. After giving him time to think, he created an imaginative poem about God wanting a genie to help him. Their ideas are usually so much better than mine.

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  4. It seems like always waiting at least 5 seconds could also help those kids who are waving their hands frantically before you even finish your question! If everyone knew the teacher was always going to wait, maybe everyone would take the time to really think. I will have to work on this!

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  5. The gift of time! Ahh, what a gift indeed. I still remember my special education professor telling me, “Sit on your hands and bite your tongue if you have to, but wait at least 10 seconds.” I have taken this advice into my classroom, my parenting and my husband wishes, my marriage and it does matter! Wait time is a gift to all!

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  6. Wait time is one of my most focused on skills. I teach the kids about it too and praise those that give each other wait time. My principal was impressed by how my kids let one of my very slow processing kids take a long moment of thinking silence. It is so important for everyone to not feel panicky as they think.

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  7. This is extremely hard to do for those of us who talk too much and listen too little, but it’s important that we give it our best effort. I am currently teaching “big kids” (aka teachers), and I am definitely going to start putting my mouth where the research – on mute.

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  8. #2 is a big one in our world. our daughter needs a few extra seconds to motor plan her verbal responses due to her speech and language issues. Not only are her teachers supposed to provide her with wait time, but we have asked that they talk to her peers about this too. I believe everyone, not just MY kid, will benefit from greater wait time while they are young.

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