Sunday, January 31, 2010

English Language Learners and the Silent Period

           According to research, most new learners of English will go through a "silent period" which is an interval of time during which they are unable or unwilling to communicate orally in the new language. The silent period may last for a few days or a year, depending on a variety of factors, and it occurs before ELLs are ready to produce oral language. New learners of English should not be forced to speak before they are ready and we don't want to embarrass them by putting them on the spot.

ELLs need time to listen to others talk, to digest what they hear, to develop receptive vocabulary, and to observe their classmates' interactions. When they do speak, we want the speech to be real and purposeful instead of contrived. This does not mean your students are not learning. They may understand what is being said, but they are not yet ready to talk about it.

What determines the length of the" silent period?" There are several factors involved. First, personality plays a key role. A normally shy and quiet youngster in native language is usually going to take longer before they feel comfortable speaking. Native culture will also play a role. In many cultures, for example, girls are not expected to speak out. They play a more passive role in family and classroom dynamics.

Teacher instruction is also an important factor in the length of the silent period. If the teacher provides "hands-on" activities and has students interact in small groups, ELLs will be able to participate in the life of the classroom a lot sooner. They will feel more confident in risking oral language. It should not be assumed that young learners of English do not feel embarrassment or shyness when attempting to speak in a second language. Classroom and subject-area teachers can alleviate many of the newcomers' fears by creating a language-nurturing environment in their classes. The first weeks are crucial. A good relationship with classroom teacher and classmates will provide a great deal of the help and support newcomers need to cope with the challenges they face. This can't be emphasized enough. The more comfortable newcomers feel in your classroom, the quicker they will be able to learn. The more anxiety students experience, the less language they will comprehend.

5 comments:

Ms. Flecha said...

I have a student who came to the US from China with his twin sister last March. They had been living with their grandmother and met their parents in NYC for the 1st time since they were babies. Both are very shy and quiet, but the boy especially. He has relaxed quite a bit in my room (last year he threw up any time a teacher worked 1 on 1 with him). At first, he refused to even acknowledge his sister or other Chinese speakers. He still often refuses to do any work (in math, writing, etc), and will sometimes totally shutdown, hide his head in his arms, and cry, if the other Chinese students take his pencil, and such.

The other students in my class who are also in the silent period will at least engage with the other students who speak their language. He doesn't. So, his silent period, I feel, is more pronounced than my other students' -- perhaps because of other ways he's experiencing the culture shock.

My concern is that there is no way to know if he needs other services (like if he has mild autism, ptsd, or needs counseling b/c of family issues, etc) because he's a newcomer and won't get tested (for good reasons, largely).

(sorry for the long comment -- you got my brain going!)

everythingESL said...

My heart goes out to this child. I usually give students a year before I start to worry. Your Chinese student is near that year mark. This seems to be an exceptionally severe case of culture shock and I think it might be because he just met his parents for the first time since he was a baby. Has he been separated from whoever cared for him in China?

If this were my student, I would look into some other support in the form of counseling. He has been through a huge upheaval in his life. He seems very sad. (and can you blame him)

Good luck with helping him.

Martin Tuttle said...

I teach EFL in South Korea usually at the university level. Do you think the silent period exists at all levels of learning? I am wondering if there is a time where we should encourage our students to participate? How do we judge when learners are ready to exit the silent period? Or is that not for the teacher to decide?

Martin Tuttle said...

I teach EFL in South Korea usually at the university level. Do you think the silent period exists at all levels of learning? I am wondering if there is a time where we should encourage our students to participate? How do we judge when learners are ready to exit the silent period? Or is that not for the teacher to decide?

everythingESL said...

I think in an EFL setting, where students are speaking native language most of the day, you can have silence at any level in the EFL classroom - but it isn't the same as the silent period. Let's take Jeon Soo, who is in the 5th grade and has been studying English for 2 years but does not talk in his academic classes. He appears to be able to understand most of what is said, He could even be able to read and write a little in English. He is definitely learning but is not communicating. You may want to ask some of his friends if he is very quiet in his native culture. In any case, you will want to breat that silence. Have student do activities where all students talk at the same time. They don't have to speak alone. But everyone must speak. Choral or duet reading takes the spotlight off of the shy student.
I have found that many male Asians are reluctant to talk much. They do not want to lose face if they don't answer correctly. They may also be shy in both cultures. Teachers need to help students to get through this buy giving students "real" reasons to speak. Demonstrate and model the language that students need to be in the discussion (the "housekeeping" words) Divide students into groups and give them a problem to solve. (i.e. plans for a party; setting up a game) Have one students make tally marks on a piece of paper next to each students name when they talk. Have groups study and discuss the number of marks after each person's name/ This keeps one student from dominating the group.

Your students will need to feel comfortable about speaking in your class. You need to control those students who "over talk" thus roobing the other students of their turns.
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