speak up in class

Students who don’t speak up in class

October 19, 2017

Many children do not feel comfortable speaking publicly in class. When a question is asked these children will often break eye contact with the teacher, pretend to be deep in thought, write something in their notebook, squirm in their seat, or elbow the person next to them to in an attempt to distract others from their inability to process or formulate a suitable answer.

This is more common than you may think. One in five girls prefer not to put their hand up to speak to avoid drawing attention to their appearance[1] Halliwell, E., Diedrichs, P. C. and Orbach, S. (2014) Costing the invisible: A review of the evidence examining the links between body image, … Continue reading. One third of boys referred to school psychologists with challenging behaviour have undiagnosed oral language difficulties[2] Cohen, N., Davine, M., Horodezky, N., Lipsett, L. & Isaacson, L. (1993). Unsuspected language impairment in psychiatrically disturbed … Continue reading and hence find it difficult to speak aloud in class. The reasons for lacking confidence to speak in class are varied, and may include, language or learning difficulties, anxiety, mood, concentration issues, not having done the required work, not understanding the topic, or not hearing the question.

There are several approaches you might use to help students to respond to questions and to participate in class discussions. For example, you might diversify the way students answer questions in class to build confidence and reduce social anxiety.

  • Use inclusive questioning strategies for all learners such as ‘think, pair, share’, ‘turn and talk’ and other partner and small group approaches that allow the child to talk in a ‘safe’ environment.
  • Provide the option of jotting down responses or bullet-points during discussions and question and answer sessions. While some students are sharing thoughts orally, others can be invited to participate by sharing ideas in writing.
  • Occasionally pose a second question to give all students space and time to collect their thoughts and think things through, before requesting an answer to one of the questions. Anxiety can reduce processing speed and cognitive functioning. While more able, less anxious and quick-thinking students can consider two questions in the same time frame, other students may be requested to focus their cognitive resources on one question before answering.
  • Encourage the class to take risks and make mistakes. Acknowledge and thank students who attempt to answer, even if they get an incorrect response. You could also award house points to a child who provides the only response to a question, even if their answer is only partially correct or incorrect.

For children who lack confidence with public speaking, see the Psych4Schools ebooklet, Working with children who lack confidence speaking publicly. Note a revised edition of this ebooklet is forthcoming. For children, who are inherently shy or inhibited see the Psych4Schools ebooklet, Working with children who are shy (revised).

For students who have a history of not contributing to discussions or question and answer sessions, despite teacher intervention, consider further investigation by a psychologist or speech pathologist. Discuss students of concern with the school wellbeing coordinator or the assistant or deputy principal with the view of gaining parental consent for referral.

Psych4Schools members may also wish to explore the many resources in the Learning difficulties package in the Members Area of the website. Not a member? Join now to benefit as a Psych4Schools member.


Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim, Psych4Schools Psychologists