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Increasing Student Participation and Engagement in the ELA Classroom

    increasing student participation in the ela classroom

    Student participation and engagement are always hot topics. The question then becomes, how can we increase student participation and engagement? This post covers the strategies and tips you’ve been looking for.

    We’ve all been there, facing twenty blank stares after posing a question to a group of students. It’s the worst. You start to wonder: Are they listening? Do they understand? Do they even care? Am I boring?

    If you can relate, you are not alone. Between battling decreasing attention spans and competing against addictive technology, today’s teachers must carefully design a classroom where student participation and engagement can flourish. Of course, it’s no secret that student participation and engagement can positively impact student learning and success. However, teachers are often crunched for time and worried about teaching all the content, right?  It’s easy to forget the importance of setting the stage for student participation and engagement.

    While there are always those classes that naturally crush it in both categories, that’s usually not the case. Instead, increasing student participation engagement in the ELA classroom takes some planning and intention on your part. But don’t worry—read through the strategies and tips below, and increasing student participation engagement will be a breeze.

    What Do Student Participation and Engagement Look Like?

    Gone are the days when eagerly raised hands defined student participation and engagement. The truth is student participation and engagement can look wildly different from student to student, classroom to classroom, and year to year. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

    Therefore, the first step in increasing student participation and engagement in your classroom is clearly defining what you are looking for and why:

    • What does student participation look like to you?
    • Is it defined the same way for each student and class?
    • What are the key indicators of participation that you’ll look for?
    • How will this participation benefit students and their outcomes?
    • What does student engagement look like to you?
    • Is it defined the same way for each student and class?
    • What are the key indicators of engagement that you’ll look for?
    • How will this engagement benefit students and their outcomes?

    Answering these questions at the start of each year, unit, or specific lesson is a significant first step. Once you understand what you are looking for and why you can begin to plan your approach and activities accordingly.

    It All Starts With Classroom Culture

    Believe it or not, student participation and engagement begin with you. Now, of course, it involves your students, too. However, it all stems from how you set the tone for your classroom culture. Therefore, if you’re looking to increase student participation and engagement, start building a positive classroom culture from day one:

    • Start with Seating: Carefully consider the way you set up your classroom, including student seating. There are numerous ways to set up student seats aside from the standard rows. Consider arranging student desks in a circle or “U” formation if you plan on holding a lot of discussions. If you are big on group work, arrange the desks in small clusters or pairs.
    • Create an Inviting Environment: If you have the means to get creative with lighting, decorations, and cozy reading corners, please do. However, you don’t need a big budget to create an inviting environment. My two best tips for creating an inviting environment that encourages student participation and engagement are simply getting to know your students and showcasing their work around the room.
    • Lead by Example: This one is as simple as it gets. If you want students to be eager and excited to be active participants in your classroom, you need to lead by example. Show up each day prepared and excited to teach. Pay attention to your tone and delivery of material. Over time, your students (or at least most of them) will grow to match your energy. Sure, not all of your students are going to love ELA. However, you can certainly do your best to invite them to be part of an enjoyable experience.
    • Set Expectations: Every teacher has different expectations for their classrooms. Therefore, set your expectations around participation right from day one. Don’t leave students guessing, but instead be transparent about what participation and engagement look like to you. Additionally, explain why these are valuable components of their learning experience in your classroom. Asking students what participation and engagement mean and look like to them is a fun way to kick off the conversation too.
    • Learn Student Names: Calling students by their names can go a long way. Make it a priority to learn all of your student’s names in the first weeks of the school year. Calling students by name builds a sense of community where students feel welcome to participate as well as add a sense of ownership to their ideas. And don’t stop there. Encourage students to use each other’s names in discussions as well, especially when responding to or expanding upon another student’s idea.  

    Strategies for Increasing Student Participation and Engagement

    Strategy 1: Add Variety

    They say variety is the spice of life, but did you know it’s also the key to participation and engagement? Think about it: while some students thrive in the classic ask a question, raise a hand, answer structure, others do not. Therefore, it’s important to add a variety of ways students can participate.

    Maybe it’s in partners or small groups. Or perhaps it’s by posting to an online discussion board. In other cases, it might be adding a note to the whiteboard or volunteering to read aloud. Regardless, it’s essential to be aware of your students’ needs and comfort levels and balance opportunities for participation accordingly.

    Strategy 2: Include Low-Stakes Opportunities

    On a similar note, not all students thrive under the pressure of having all eyes on them. Therefore, it’s important to include simple, low-stakes opportunities for students to participate throughout your lessons too.

    For example, a quick check-in with a thumbs up or down (or in the middle) is a great way to quickly gauge a level of understanding in your class. Another example that students love? White boards. Play a quick review game with students by having them write their answers on individual whiteboards before holding them up for you to see. Low-stakes opportunities like these are especially helpful in engaging your more reserved or typically disengaged students.

    Strategy 3: Embrace the Silence

    It’s easy to feel compelled to fill the silence following a question you asked your students. However, I urge you to embrace the silence instead. While it might feel awkward at first, there’s actually a good reason behind it: That silence might just mean student’s brains are hard at work—especially if you’ve asked a deep, insightful, or challenging question.

    It’s okay (and actually recommended) to give students several seconds to think before they offer up their ideas. If the silence is stretching on for a little too long, consider rephrasing the question before giving in and answering it yourself. While this might be hard at first, it gets easier to embrace the “thinking time” the more you do it.

    Strategy 4: Respond to Students

    I’m not talking about a simple “mhm,” “yes,” or “that’s right.” I’m talking about engaging students with specific, personalized, and varied responses to their participation. Instead of simply acknowledging their contribution or confirming their answer, consider prompting students with engaging follow-up questions. Encourage them to clarify or support their ideas. Ask other students to expand or challenge what has been said.

    Now, if a student provides an incorrect, incomplete, or “almost there” answer, don’t simply correct them or finish their thought for them. Instead, provide a follow-up that encourages the student to expand upon their ideas, revisit the materials or a text, or reconsider their position. Remember, the goal here is to build students up, not tear them down. You want to avoid embarrassing students (or, worse, making them feel “stupid”) at all costs.

    Strategy 5: Make It Part of the Plan

    While on-the-fly participation has its place, it’s also important to plan participation opportunities that meet your students’ needs, including for those typically more reserved. Therefore, if you want to engage your students as active participants in their learning, it’s essential to plan activities that encourage just that.

    In other words, long-winded lectures won’t do the trick. Instead, incorporate more activities that are inherently rooted in student participation and engagement. Reading aloud? Have students volunteer to read for different characters. Holding a discussion? Engage students in a turn-and-talk before opening up a whole class discussion.

    More Strategies for Increasing Student Participation and Engagement

    • Embrace Small Groups: Small groups to the rescue! If you want to build student confidence and encourage collaboration, small groups will likely become a go-to strategy. While speaking up in front of an entire class can intimidate students, participating in small groups is a less-overwhelming alternative. Instead of having a select few students dominate the classroom discussion, more students will have a voice as they express their thoughts to their few group mates. 
    • Incorporate Technology: The digital world opens up a new realm for participation. With apps like Padlet and Google Classroom, there are all sorts of ways to get students participating—without actually speaking aloud! These tools are great for getting students to respond to questions and collaborate on ideas. Additionally, game-based apps like Kahoot are also great tools for teachers to gauge student understanding quickly.
    • Get Them Moving: Sitting in an uncomfortable chair all day doesn’t sound very fun, does it? Yet, that’s what most of our students experience day in and day out. While you might not have the budget to outfit your classroom with epic furniture and alternative seating, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Instead, simply plan more activities that get students up, moving, and interacting with the material—and one another—in meaningful ways! Some of my favorite activities that inspire movement include gallery walks, rotating citations, and 4 corner discussions! 

    Cold Calling: Yay or Nay?

    Cold calling is a participation strategy used for many reasons. Sometimes it’s to keep students on their toes and paying attention. Other times it’s used as a way to include seemingly disengaged students.

    While cold calling can certainly be an effective tool for student participation, it can also cause some students some serious anxiety. In that case, I recommend doing what I refer to as “warm calling.” Sometimes this involves providing students a short writing prompt or a list of questions before a discussion. This gives students time to develop a response ahead of time, taking away from the “on-the-spot” feels and fears. Other times, this approach  involves touching base with a student before calling on them during a classroom discussion. For example, if a student wrote an insightful response to a homework question, praise their good work and give them a heads up that you’d like them to share their thoughts with the class. This approach to warm calling gives students time to prepare for the spotlight and builds their confidence in their ideas.

    No matter how you approach “cold” (or “warm”) calling, it is a great tool to encourage student participation and engagement. It’s also a great way to avoid hearing from the same students over and over (and over) again. Because we all know that can get real old real fast.

    Should You Grade Student Participation?

    This is a big question a lot of teachers have—after all, the answer isn’t so black and white. Instead, it depends on how you approach the situation. Because there is no one definitive definition of what student participation is, means, or looks like, I return back to something I mentioned earlier: You have to have a clear idea of what student participation means and looks like for you. Then, it is an absolute must that you share that expectation with your students—especially if it is something they will be graded on.

    If you intend to include participation as part of an assessment or a student’s overall grade, be sure to clearly state that. Additionally, clearly communicate what that means. Is the grade based on quality or quantity? Is it written or oral? In person or online? (You get the point.) be sure to inform students of the specific criteria you will use to assess participation.

    At the end of the day, student participation and engagement go far beyond students raising their hands and regurgitating information. It’s about more than students “looking” busy when an administrator pokes their head in. It’s more than engaging with the content, but engaging with one another. Therefore, it’s time we reframe how we think about student participation and engagement, including what it is and what it looks like. After all, student participation and engagement are essential to fostering active learning experiences and student success.

    While I hope this post was helpful, I also know there are so many great ideas out there for increasing student participation and engagement. If you have any ideas, tips, or strategies to share, please do! Simply leave a comment below and keep the conversation going.

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