This post originally appeared on the blog The ESL Nexus.
That concerned her teacher, who wondered if there might be a special education issue that was the reason for the student’s silence. I was asked to observe the child in her pre-school class. What I saw was a little girl who was alert and doing her best to follow along with what was going on. When the teacher called on her for something (so I could see how she reacted), she spoke so softly it was almost impossible to hear what she said.
|Silence is an important part of learning for ELLs; source: The ESL Nexus|
The Silent Period is a concept developed by Stephen Krashen, a noted linguist who has written prolifically about second language acquisition. All teachers should know about the Silent Period because it’s a stage in the process of learning English that all ELLs go through, regardless of age. Simply put, it means that before an ELL starts speaking in English, he or she spends time watching and listening to people use the language. During this time, it might appear that the ELL is just passively sitting in the classroom. In fact, although the student is not orally participating in class or rarely does so, she or he is absorbing the structures and vocabulary of the English language. Learning is definitely occurring! This stage of second language learning is also called the pre-production stage.
|Just because an ELL isn’t talking, that doesn’t mean an ELL isn’t learning; source: The ESL Nexus|
What are the teaching implications of the Silent Period? First of all, it’s imperative that regular ed teachers do not force ELLs to speak in class if they are just beginning to learn English. That is counter-productive; a major reason ELLs go through the Silent Period is because they don’t want to make a mistake when speaking English and risk being ridiculed by their classmates. Instead, teachers need to use other ways to involve their pre-emergent ELLs in their classes. Activities that involve movement, such as using commands to do things; letting ELLs draw about topics instead of talking about them; using lots of visuals and realia to explain meaning; working with a partner where the ELL need only speak to one person instead of the whole class, which minimizes embarrassment if errors are made; and letting students use their native language to communicate, will all support the language learning of ELLs in the Silent Period.
|The duration of the Silent Period varies among ELLs; source: The ESL Nexus|
In the case of my Chinese-American student, she was very quiet in my kindergarten ESL class and rarely spoke above a whisper. I had her again the next year in my 1st grade ESL class and she was much more talkative then. In fact, when she spoke, her grammar was excellent. She was obviously the kind of student who didn’t want to speak English until she was able to do so without making major mistakes. At the end of 1st grade, she exited the ESL program — which was highly unusual since virtually all of my students needed at least a third year of language support — because she was doing so well. Her time in the Silent Period clearly was beneficial and she was very successful in her classes in the years that followed.
Susan has 25 years experience as an ESL/EFL teacher and teacher trainer in Asia and the U.S., most recently in Massachusetts where she taught English Language Learners in Grades K – 8 at a public school for 16 years. Now living in Arizona, Susan specializes in creating low-prep resources for teachers with ELLs in their classes that develop the content and language skills of all students. In her free time, she enjoys taking photographs of the Southwest and playing table tennis. You can follow Susan at her TpT store, sign up for her newsletter, and find her on Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter, where she co-hosts the monthly #ELLEdTech chat.