Student thinking time

Here’s a vocabulary game that I did with the kids in Jabalia a couple of weeks ago. I chose six different lexical sets that they would find in their coursebook (food and drink, things you’d find in a living room, clothes, fruit and vegetables, animals and things you’d find in a classroom) and wrote down five words for each set on separate slips of paper. The girls’ team and the boys’ team took it in turns to send one person up to the front. This person chose one of the lexical sets and then had a minute to try to guess the five words that I’d written down. Those sitting at the back could help out, but I only accepted answers once the person at the front had said them. If he or she guessed correctly I held up the appropriate word to show them. The team that guessed the most words at the end of all the rounds was the winner.

One of the things I like about this activity is how it challenges the learners to do a kind of ‘brain scan’, of their mental lexicons. It asks them to root around in their minds until they find what they are looking for, and in the process of doing this they are likely to be making a lot of useful connections between words. They may also end up saying a word that that they’ve never had to say before, which, of course, is a good thing to happen in a language class. Like most things in teaching though, getting the level of challenge right is key. If it’s too easy they find the words very quickly and they aren’t really pushed to think; if it’s too difficult it just becomes frustrating.

When I’m working in face-to-face settings I tend to do this kind of activity in pairs or groups. Each group has a different lexical set, and they agree on a definitive list of five words which fit their category, and write them down. The other groups then have to guess their words. The advantage here is that the ‘brain scan’ also happens at this planning and writing stage. I have another reason for doing it this way though: since my initial teacher training course I’ve had a long-term belief (some might say an obsession!) that pairwork and groupwork are the best ways to do activities, as they maximize student talking time. What about student thinking time though? Is this also maximised through pair and group work?

gaza groups
Groupwork in a Gaza classroom. Picture courtesy of Mohammed Dawoud

When teaching online it’s hard, if not impossible, to use pair and group work effectively because I can’t get round the groups to monitor and help out. In fact I probably wouldn’t even be able to put them into groups in the first place, and would be dependent on the person in charge at the other end to do this. So the default way of working for me when teaching online has become interacting individually with one learner at the front. It often happens to me when teaching that when I’m forced to work in a particular way I start to see the benefits of doing things like that. Now I’m wondering whether there might actually be some advantages in doing activities with one learner at the front, in face-to-face settings too.

For a start, in contexts like the one in the video, I don’t get the feeling that learners are used to working in pairs and groups very much, so incorporating it may require time spent on learner training. If learners aren’t used to a way of working, they’re less likely to see it’s learning potential, and consequently less likely to benefit from it.

One person speaking at the front requires entering into more of performance mode, as the rest of the class are listening to what is being said, and, in this case, a webcam image of the learner is projected onto the big screen for everyone to see. For some learners being in the limelight like this can be a useful challenge, and can be the push they need to operate at a higher level. Interacting directly with the teacher is also more of a challenge than interacting with peers, and there are more opportunities to expose the learners to useful ‘outer language’ (‘Good choice!’, ‘Which one do you want?’ ‘That’s right’ etc. in the video above). There are also arguably more opportunities for support and correction, and it’s likely that the correction will be trusted more, and therefore more effective, when it comes from the teacher.

I’m also wondering about what’s going through the minds of those who are sitting at the back. Even though they’re not all actively taking part, perhaps they are still learning. Are they shadowing what the person at the front is doing, thinking of their own words for the activity, and doing internally what the person at the front is doing externally? Could it be that they might even be learning more than the person who is speaking?

Richard Gallen (2012) kept a diary of his experiences learning Spanish as a foreign language in a language class. One of his conclusions was that he found it difficult to take on board feedback and correction from the teacher, that was given directly to him on his own utterances. On the other hand, feedback that was given to others in the class on their utterances was much more easily noticed, and he could learn more from it. Without the added pressure of having to communicate himself, and losing face if he ‘got it wrong’, he was able to reflect on the language much more. Another diary study (Schumann and Schumann 1977) found, surprisingly, that eavesdropping was generally a more useful learning activity than active participation in conversations.

Of course we don’t know what’s really going through the minds of those sitting at the back. It could be that they’re not eavesdropping, or even listening at all, and are actually daydreaming about what they are going to have for lunch, or what they’re going to do once they get out of this boring class! I guess the trick is that, if we are going to do activities that involve interacting with one learner at the front, we need to make them interesting so that others will want to listen and think too. One way of doing this, as I’ve tried to do in the activity in the video, is to turn the activity into some sort of competition.

So, how about your classes? Do you want your learners to be interacting in pairs and groups most of the time, or do you think they can also benefit a lot from listening to others performing tasks at the front? Is student thinking time as important as student talking time? If so, what’s the best way of maximising it in your classes?


Gallen, R. (2012) Spontaneous Teacher Talk; English Teaching Professional; March 2012

Schumann, F .M., & Schumann, I.H. (1977). Diary of a language learner:An introspective study of second language learning. In H.D. Brown,C.A. Yorio, & R.H. Crymes (Eds.), On TESOL ’77: Teaching and learning English as a second language: Trends in research and practice (pp. 241-249). Washington, D.C. TESOL.



22 thoughts on “Student thinking time

  1. Hi Mr Nick . I’ve watched the video . I believe this is a useful activity for recalling already learnt vocabulary . It’s similar to word clustering that we already do in our classes as warming up or a revision activity at the end of the period . However , the way you’ve performed it is more interesting as you added motivation and competition by dividing the class into two teams . Also , it’s interesting that you gave the stuents a choice of which kind of vocabulary they like to guess .


    1. Thanks for your comment Khalid. Yes, I think asking them to choose which lexical set they want to work with is also a way of promoting more thinking. In order to make this decision they have to think about which category they know more words for. If you have a limited number of lexical sets (as I did here) eventually they’ll have to do the harder ones too. I’ve never heard of word clustering before. Can you explain what it is and how it works?


      1. As you know , cluster means a group . In this activity I choose a main or general word around which too many specific items can be put . The general word is put in a circle . The students guess other related words . For example I write ” adjectices ” Ss say adjective and I write them on the board . Another way is to write a word in a circle and asks Ss to form other words from the letters of that word e.g ” Palestine ” They derive ” sit ” ” please ” “pin” etc.. .


    2. Use pair work to increase student talking time – even if it seems chaos. It gives Ss chance to speak in a non- threatening environment, However , you should have the ability to control the class.


      1. Yes I agree Khalid. We don’t want a threatening environment in our classes and pair work can help to avoid this. But I think we also sometimes want to increase the level of challenge a bit and speaking in front of the whole class can do this. That’s why I think sometimes it can work really well to go from closed pair work to a few rounds of open pair work. Would you agree?


  2. Hi Nick . I really like the activity you did with the children . Well , I did something similar with my students I found that some prefered to be at the front “they felt proud of themselves ” while others at the back gave correct answers and helped the student at front but when they had the chance to stand at the front they asked for more time to think may be because they were not relaxed . Student’s thinking time here depends greatly upon self confidence and how much s/he is alert or the amount of language s/he possesses ( stores )


    1. This is really interesting Samar. I think that this feeling of pride that children get from ‘performing’ at the front is really important to nurture. It always amuses me how when you’re working with adults it can be difficult to get anyone to come up to be a volunteer, but with children almost everyone puts their hands up 🙂 Sometimes teacher trainers (myself included) have been obsessed with encouraging teachers to use pair and group work all the time. While this might promote student talking time, it doesn’t necessarily promote thinking and learning. I’ve observed a lot of classes, in different parts of the world, where pair work and group work is used a lot but the students aren’t really being challenged or learning anything.


      1. I think learning could be achieved in pairs more than in groups . Some students in group work remain silent .They might follow their mates or day dream ,they miss the opportunity to think or to talk . So no learning takes place .


        1. Yes – I guess in groups there is always the chance that someone will take a back seat, and leave other people to do the work. But then in pairs you may get, in the words of Bob Dylan, ‘ten thousand whispering and nobody listening’


  3. Hello Nick (and teachers). This is a really interesting way of getting students think and use their lexical repertoire. What makes it fun is the competitive nature of the exercise. Children are attracted to participating in activities that would make them feel successful and accomplished over their peers; they’d do their best for that. I have implemented this technique in my classes, and every time I do it, it is lots of fun for the students and me. Regarding group/ pair work, I’m so into this strategy because it’s effective, but still there’s no black or white in teaching. There are certain contexts where group work becomes unnecessary and time-wasting. Actually, it’s just one possible way of doing it. It shouldn’t be the end but the means. Regarding students monitoring and reflecting, it would be so important for their understanding and criticality, but we’re running the risk of not guaranteeing this. Not all students are aware of this, and might be bored or not interested, so leaving them with the assumption that they are thinking is a bit risky, and involving them becomes necessary.


    1. Thanks for commenting Rawand. I agree that when pair work and group work actually works it can be really effective, but, as you say, it is high risk and needs very careful monitoring from the teacher – something which isn’t easy in a large class. If students don’t know the purpose of pairwork they sometimes don’t get much benefit from it, do they? A few years ago I was teaching a class of 12-14 year old boys in a public school in Pakistan. At one point in the lesson I asked them to compare their answers in pairs and, when they stared blankly at me, I tried to encourage them with hand gestures. I might as well have been asking them to dance the tango 🙂 I could see that they hadn’t done it before and were wondering why I was trying to get them to do it. I started to wonder that myself and quickly changed track! I think learners need training in pairwork and group work if it’s new for them. One way of doing this is modelling pairwork by the teacher working with one learner at the front as a demonstration. Like this, the learners also get an idea of the kind of things they can say to each other in pair and group work when they do it themselves later. That’s the theory anyway 🙂


  4. Hello,
    Thanks for the interesting article. We may fight over some stuff here 🙂 OK, I hated the idea of the backseat students. I believe that the way you carried out the activity created such passive learners. The student who volunteered to compete is already a self-confident student or why would he take risk and accept firing (questions)?! Such activity gives those five or six volunteers the opportunity to show off their abilities and get more attraction while their peers might be watching passively.
    I’m a passionate believer in group/pair work as an effective tool of learning. It’s the way that helps students not give up or withdraw. Students learn from their peers’ ideas which evokes their minds and help them build on those ideas to create their own thoughts and opinions. As you might know, Nick, we are trying to build self confidence not creating new personalities.
    As for your question about student talking time and thinking time, I think that thinking time invites students to challenge and participate. It is important as it makes students’ minds much more active and fast.


    1. Hi Amal. Thanks for your comment and the challenges you raise. I like a good fight 🙂 Thanks too for all the arguments you’ve put forward in favour of pair and group work. I agree with all of them.
      As you can see, this isn’t a very high level group of learners. The first learner who spoke in the video excerpt I put up is probably the strongest in the whole group and the most confident, but the second one isn’t usually very confident at all (so I was particularly glad that she won this section for her team!). There were eight different lexical sets so we had eight different learners coming up to the front, of varying levels of ability and confidence. Actually I don’t know if they volunteered to do it, or if the teacher on the ground picked them. Some of them got a lot of support from their peers and some less. If I was actually in the room with them, and not teaching online, I might have chosen to do the activity in groups, but then I wouldn’t have been challenged to do something in a different way, and reflect on it. It’s hard to really know when you can’t work with them face to face, and this is a drawback of teaching online, but I suppose the key issue is what is going through the minds of those who are sitting at the back. Even though they are not speaking, are they engaged and are they thinking? Like most things in teaching we’ll never know for sure – we can only wonder. Thanks again for making me wonder a bit more 🙂


  5. I agree with all the comments above!
    The ‘brain scan’ idea makes perfect sense. Is this an aspect of Student Thinking Time? I particularly associate the term Student Thinking Time with mental preparation before a speaking activity.
    I use a lot of pairwork and a bit of groupwork. It is true that a lot of student training is required for this to work in most learning environments. Also teachers need to make sure that the pairwork task is clearly set up and doable. The best way to do this is often to invite one student to the front to model the pairwork activity with you the teacher (as in the video clips you have put up). Equally I agree with Richard Gallen’s comment about learning more from other students’ teacher feedback than from his own. Again this learning requires a high degree of engagement and autonomy, so a lot of learner training may also be required for this to work.
    I imagine that Nick’s online teaching classes are excitedly anticipated by students so the level of engagement from students at the back will be high. However this level of engagement may be hard to maintain on a day to day basis.
    So I seem to be saying that the teacher in the classroom could follow Nick’s lesson by getting all the students at the same time in pairs or groups doing the same activities Nick has done one to one online.


    1. Hi David, You’re right -student thinking time is normally associated with mental preparation before a speaking task. I guess as teachers we often underestimate how much time people need to think before they speak, especially when the speaking is happening in a foreign language. This has also been referred to as ‘wait time’. I’m sure you know about the interesting bit of classroom research we can do where we ask a question and force ourselves to not fill the silence but wait until somebody says something. It can be interesting what comes out when learners are asked to fall back on their own resources and not have the teacher mother them too much.

      I think I’m using student thinking time to mean something slightly different here though and I’m contrasting it with student talking time. In the same way that teacher talking time should be about quality not quantity so should student talking time. The teacher going on and on about grammar for hours on end may not be a good use of teacher talking time, whereas telling a story, scaffolding what the learners are saying, or just chatting in English may be. In the same way, students might all be talking a lot in a lesson but this doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a lot of thinking happening. I know plenty of people who speak without thinking. My wife would say I am one of these people:-)


  6. Hi Nick, Student’s ‘thinking time’ is similar to Krashen’s ‘silent period’. Whether it be language learning or acquisition, young learners definitely need this learning opportunity. Group work has many advantages, but it also comes with risks; one of them is not having “thinking time” as other members immediately say the answers! One way to overcome this is the task design were different members have different roles. Reflecting on the video, I liked the level of challenge which was just right. I thought the girls seemed more of a group than the boys! In a way maybe this is why they won! I can’t comment on the level of participation/ thinking of other members in the team, but I guess this is one of the pitfalls of online learning! In addition to other members in the same group, I am also thinking of members of the other group. I would ask them to be ready to complete the missing words that the original group didn’t find. This I think would make them think while the other group is playing. Just an idea! Well done, Nick


    1. Thanks for your comment Salam. Yes – giving people roles in group work can certainly make the conversation more even. Can you tell us what these roles might be? I used to do a thing where each member of the group had a set number of pieces of coloured paper. Each time someone speaks they have to put a piece of paper into the middle. When they run out of pieces of paper they have to stop talking!

      That’s an important issue you raise about what the other team are doing, while one team are trying to guess. I like the idea of giving the other group the chance to steal a point at the end by trying to guess a word that they missed. I’ll incorporate that part next time.


  7. Using the same idea of colors with the ftuits & vegrtable group for example, I might assign each member a colour (a red or yellow fruit .. etc). This way each one of them is giving an opportunity to think and contribute. Then they will discuss and agree on 5 fruits or vegetables to give as an answer!


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