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3 Steps for Using Wait Time to Improve Treatment Outcomes

by Klaire Brumbaugh
written by
A young teacher waits and looks on in the background listening to a student's answer.

Wait … what?!

Working with children with speech and language delays can require significant patience. Sometimes expressing this patience translates into waiting—I mean a bit longer than we normally do—for the student to respond. Children benefit from extended wait time to allow them to process.

Let’s look at the positive outcomes associated with increased wait time.

How much time is enough time? Classroom teachers rarely wait more than one second after asking a question for a student response. However, when they wait three to five seconds, teachers see a higher accuracy in responses, decreased “I don’t know” and negative responses, and improved test scores. In addition, a greater number of students tend to volunteer to answer the question with more time.

Waiting those extra seconds also results in students giving longer responses and demonstrating more speculative thinking,

Increased wait time when asking for a response from students results in positive effects on academic achievement, classroom behavior, social skills, student confidence, and outcomes for teachers. It sounds like a win-win, so what’s the catch? Three to five seconds is a long time!

Try counting three Mississippis in your head right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait …

This poses the next question: How can we intentionally provide wait time in our sessions without it feeling awkward?

Step 1: First, I let students know to expect the extra time and direct them to use it appropriately—thinking about an answer. Try to pair this wait time with a visual cue to redirect potential off-task children without providing more verbal information:

  • Pointing down to the desk or workspace
  • Pointing to your temple, as in “think about it”
  • Hand on chin in a thinking pose
  • Model different visual cues and let the group pick their favorite

Step 2: What can you do to mark this time? Here are some ideas.

  • Take a drink of water.
  • Organize the next activity.
  • Catch up on data collection.
  • Repeat the question to yourself at least one time.
  • Take a few deep breaths.
  • Walk to your desk and trade out your pen.

But what happens if the prescribed wait time does not result in a correct response?

Step 3: If you asked your students a question, try to repeat, rephrase, or reduce the complexity of the question. I try to avoid phrases like, “Yes, but,” because this suggests although their answer might contain some correct portions, it’s also incorrect. As communication specialists, we understand the importance of word choice. A student’s reluctance to answer a question might hinge on their confidence level about their response as much as their skill level. How we encourage an additional or difference response can make a difference.

These phrases work for me to positively encourage a different response:

  • “I like how you said…can you tell me more about that?” This highlights what students said correctly and allows them to expand.
  • “Do you think it is ___ or ___.” A binary choice can help them recall the correct response.
  • “Tell me one more thing about that.” Expecting multiple answers expands their cognitive flexibility.
  • “How is that the same as ___?” or “How is that different than ___?” When using these phrases, the student must analyze the information.

And remember, it’s not all about the wait time, but the quality of questions. To individualize the educational process, pair appropriate wait time with questions that are consistent with the desired learning outcome.


Klaire Brumbaugh SLPD, CCC-SLP, is an assistant professor of communication disorders at the University of Central Missouri. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 10, Issues in Higher Education; and 11, Administration and Supervision  brumbaugh@ucmo.edu



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