This post originally appeared on the blog Comprehension Connection. 

Student engagement is a sign that students are learning, and if you’re teaching in a classroom today, then chances are very strong that student engagement is on your school’s radar. Even though this quote was shared long, long ago, it could not be more relevant than it is today. Think about it just for a moment.
Tell me and I forget.
Teach me and I remember.
Involve me and I learn.
~Ben Franklin

Today’s workforce and industry demands are changing at a breakneck speed, and this means that the education train needs to change along with it. What skills do today’s and tomorrow’s employees need? According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, these were the top ten qualities for new hires:

ability to work in a team
communication skills (written)
problem solving skills
communication (oral)
strong work ethic
analytical/quantitative skills
technical skills

Out of this list, the top five aim at collaboration, higher level thinking skills, and problem solving. So, how do we work these skills into our everyday routines and yet ensure that our students are able to read on grade level or above and master grade level math concepts and processes? The answer is to incorporate these structures into our planning and teaching.  

Be Intentional with Your Teaching

What does being intentional with our teaching mean? What does it look like? Well, it does not mean working on skill worksheets, and it isn’t quiet and still, and sadly, it’s not always print and go. Planning for high engagement takes thoughtful work on the part of the teacher to match content with the learning activity and the learners. High engagement is active, purposeful, thought-provoking, challenging, and is usually a little noisy, and when you see kids working in this way, you can tell they are having fun, on task, and are eagerly sharing their learning and discoveries with others.  

Teaching Techniques that Increase Engagement

Want a checklist to refer to when you're planning? This freebie is just what you need. Try one or two or ten ideas and see if you see a difference.

Schedule Stopping Points:

During your lesson, include stopping points at strategic places for your students to stop and jot big ideas, turn and talk in response to a question, or give individual responses.  You might keep whiteboards or response pads available for collaboration. Kids also enjoy brainstorming together on bulletin board paper to create graffiti walls or teaming up in the corners for group responses. Discussing with elbow partners or activities such as quiz-quiz-share gets students talking and sharing their thinking. 

Put It to Movement:

One of the big takeaways I had when visiting the Ron Clark Academy a few years ago is the importance of movement and music. Movement activates the brain and is actually calming to the child who needs to wiggle. Plus, movements and music makes the content stick. Recently, [this clip] came through my Facebook feed, and you may not be one to crawl up on tables or want your kids to, but I share it because you might take pieces of this idea that work for you. If you look on Youtube, you can see many other great examples like [this one]

Keep Things Moving Along (Pace):

Time is critical, so we must make the most of it. Keeping the pace going is key, and we must be aware of how long we’re taking to explain. The learning train has to keep moving, and this means we must not underestimate the thinking skills of our kids. Here are a few tips on pace:
  • Watch that you provide just enough wait time for kids to form ideas. Prompt where needed, but be cautious that you don’t tell information kids need to figure out.
  • Mix up your teaching strategies. If lessons are structured in the same way day after day, kids feel like they’re watching Groundhog Day, right?
  • We want to keep them on the edge of their seats to some degree so that they have a reason to pay attention. Surprise them by coming in costume or with mystery guests.
  • Keep high expectations so that the children will rise to the occasion. A little bit of challenge makes kids feel pride upon completion and feel that they are learning something really important.
  • Be organized. Having everything prepared and ready helps with pace too. Keeping my materials in color coded tubs has helped when I’ve had back to back intervention groups, and using them for guided reading and math works well too. 

Keep Things Unexpected:

Questioning skills definitely up the rigor, and by randomly picking students by drawing names (popsicle sticks) from a name jar or using an app like random name picker, we keep all kiddos on their toes. Does this improve engagement? I’d say it does, but there are other questioning techniques we can use too. Techniques such as Think, Pair, Share or Pairs Check gets 100% included. These techniques help students realize that the teacher expects everyone engaged. Here are a few variations on Think, Pair, Share that you might try out:
  • Mingle Pair Share – kids move about the room to pair up
  • Sticky Note Responses -pose the question and have students respond on stickies for sorting and discussion
  • Huddle Up – kids form groups to discuss and respond
  • Silent Partners – kids get up, find partner, one partner is silent and other talks out answer and then they switch. When time is called, kids share what they’re partner said.
  • Scoot/Quiz Quiz Trade – students have question cards, pair up, discuss questions and then move on to another friend.
  • Graffiti Walls – this brainstorming technique works well for questioning and is easy to use since all you need is a blank piece of paper and something to write with. Students record their questions, answers, or big ideas.
In addition to these ideas, you might visit [THIS POST] from A Lesson Plan for Teachers on Think-Pair-Share variations for the secondary classroom. Even though the post was intended for secondary, many of the options would work beautifully in upper elementary. 

Choose High Interest Topics and Activities:

WhenWe are lifelong learners. We are teachers. We want our kids growing up loving learning too. Check out this post for ways to spice things up and increase your students' motivation and engagement. we select activities that are fun and active, kids’ attitudes and motivation are much more positive. Let’s face it. Worksheets just do not motivate you to want to work hard if they are just skill and drill. Interactive notebooks, graphic organizers, bookmarks, and mini books all work well for notetaking and deeper thinking. Kids want to get messy and use their hands. Here are a few worksheet alternatives you might use:
Class Interviews
PBL projects
Maker Spaces
 Creating with Technology
Yes, these types of activities take more time to think up and prepare, but we must keep in mind that these types of activities build the skills our kids will need in the future. If you’re pinched for time or need ideas, you may find exactly what you need on TPT for a small investment.  For another time saver, planning with teammates can help. Two heads are better than one, right? As we are planning, we have to keep in mind that we’re preparing our kids to be leaders, team players, communicators, problem solvers, thinkers, and doers. As we do this, we shift to more of a coaching and/or facilitator role. We want to shift the workload to the kids.  

Growing and Changing

When we committed to being teachers, we signed up to be lifelong learners too. As demands change for our kids, we too need to grow and change with them. A teacher’s life is So Busy and Ever Changing. I definitely appreciate and understand that, but I also see how changing things up and learning new options can be fun and refreshing too. What we gain depends upon our interest, effort, and willingness to learn and share with others. No matter whether you’re at the front end of your teaching career, have 10 years under your belt, or approaching the end of your career, we all have strengths to add to team planning. Bringing out the best of a team with co-planning and collaboration (like in other industries) creates amazingly engaging, fun, thought provoking, and motivating classrooms. Teaching is a journey, isn’t it? I hope you turn to those you work with and seek out those who have passion and drive for trying new things. I hope your journey is filled with positive teaching adventures that motivate you to get up in the morning and greet each day and your kids with a common thirst for learning something new. 
For more ideas on student engagement, check out [THIS PINTEREST BOARD]. It is filled with other blog posts, teaching ideas, references, and tools for teachers. 


Carla Fedeler is an elementary literacy coachComprehension Connection: Teachers Pay Teachers in central Virginia. She enjoys working with classroom teachers and staff to improve literacy instruction as well as parental involvement in literacy. In her spare time, she enjoys creating resources, blogging, walking her dog, and traveling with her family. You can follow Comprehension Connection by using these links: TpT, Blog, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter