Elementary Science Program


Wait Time


waitingWhen you are standing in line waiting for an elevator or for a checker at the grocery store, you want the wait time to be as short as possible. When you are asking kids questions, lengthening the wait time provides big rewards.

Broad, open-ended questions typically require much thinking, and it is essential that children have the time to do so. Mary Budd Rowe has found that many teachers ask questions and then react so quickly to the silence that pupils are unable to thoughtfully respond. [Typical teachers ask a question then call on a student for an answer, allowing no time for the students to think about an answer.] But teachers who ask a question and wait about five seconds before asking for a response (Wait Time I), and wait again after the first response before reacting to it (Wait Time II), get vastly improved student answers. The quality and length of pupil responses increases, and they listen and react more to each other's statements rather than only the teacher's comments.

Try this scenario with your students:

Before asking the question, say something to tell your class what you want them to do.

  • I'm going to give you time to think before I call on anyone.
  • Before you raise your hand, think carefully about what you might say.
  • Take about 10 seconds to think about your answer.
  • In fact, you may even want to have them not raise their hands until you tell them to.

Ask a question. This technique requires an open-ended question, or a question that will require some thought to puzzle out the answer.

  • What evidence do we have that large parachutes fall slower than small parachutes?
  • Here is the chart that shows the data we just collected. What is one conclusion that we can reach from this data?

Allow at least five seconds of wait time (Wait Time I).

  • One helpful trick here is to slowly count to yourself to at least five, possibly eight or ten. Five seconds of silence seems like a long time while you are standing in front of a group of kids.

  • This few seconds of silence will give every student a chance to think about an answer. Their level of concern will be high since they don't know who you will call on.

Call on a student for an answer.

  • Pick a student to give you an answer. Be careful not to always select a child that you know will have the correct answer!

  • One very good technique for selecting students to call on is to write the name of each student on a separate 3x5 card. When you need to call on someone, pick the top card on the pile and call on that student. No fair skipping the student because you are afraid they don't have the answer--call on them anyway. After you have called on someone, put their card back into the middle of the pile so they don't know when their card will come up again. Periodically shuffle the cards.

  • Try this and you will see that, in spite of your best efforts, there are some students that you rarely call on.

Here's the really hard step! Before you respond to the student's answer, count to five again (Wait Time II).

  • Almost always, the student will take advantage of your silence to expand on the answer they have just given. The expanded answer will give you much more insights into the student's thinking and understanding.

Respond to the student's answer in an accepting way.

  • Correct answers are great. Incorrect answers are even better because they give you insights. If one student can verbalize an incorrect response, chances are that several other students have the same idea. Now you have an opportunity to help the student's change their thinking.

Follow up with a related question. Remember to use Wait Time I and Wait Time II.

  • Johnny just said that large parachutes fall faster than small parachutes. Do you agree with what he said? What evidence do you have to support your answer?

  • We just heard Susie's explanation of what happened. Let's hear from someone who has a different explanation.

Training yourself to use Wait Time I and Wait Time II will take some time. Be patient. Practice. You will see an immediate improvement in the answers your students give during discussions. These better answers are indicative of better thinking by the students!!

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