Enjoy the Silence
By VASILIKI LISMANI (email@example.com)
EFL Teacher, Bed., MA (Special Education)
In the light of the new school year, EFL teachers are about to make new decisions about organising their classes. It is something like “New Year Resolutions”, a promise to do an act of self-improvement, a strong determination to abandon any practice that has been proven unsuccessful and switch to new teaching strategies and educational ethos. Speaking for myself, one of the decisions I have been making every September since I first got involved with EFL teaching is to make my students, no matter how unwilling they are, interact in English so as to create a completely monolingual class environment. To be honest, what sounds like a personal challenge is also a demand: principals, school owners and parents ask for quick and immediate results. In other words, the more students are able and willing to communicate in English, the more effective teacher you are.
What EFL education stakeholders do not take under consideration is that every new learner of English will go through a “silent period”, a period when students are not ready to produce oral language and therefore promote oral communication (Krashen, 1982 in Haynes, 2013, Cunningham and Shagoury, 2013; www.teachingenglish.org.uk). In fact, the Silent period is the first learners experience in the total five stages of second language acquisition process: 1. The Silent Period, 2. The Early Production Period, 3. The Speech Emergence Period, 4. The Intermediate Production Period, 5. The Advanced Production Period (Foppoli, 2013). The silent period emerges from the simple fact that we understand more than we can actually produce both in written and oral communication. Some linguists tend to parallel this period of L2 acquisition with the pre – production period of a L1 learner (Granger, 2004). Toddlers have reached a quite satisfactory level of oral understanding although the language which is used to convey the message is above their current language level. We often listen to mothers boasting about the fact that their children can understand everything even though they cannot speak yet or they can say only a few very simple words. The same applies during L2 silent period; learners might understand almost everything (depending on their level) but cannot produce oral communication. However, a profound distinction between L1 and L2 silent period has been reported. According to Granger, (2004, p.2) “in SL acquisition the development of the physical apparatus has been achieved and a language (and therefore, presumably some knowledge about language) has been acquired”. Ellis’s opinion (1996, p. 82 in Granger, 2004, p.2) follows suit since he describes L2 silent period as non obligatory because a L2 learner “already knows about language”.
Back to our EFL classes, teachers should regard the silent period as something very common a stage that many students experience more or less. The occurrence, the actual length and the degree of this period depends on many personal, inter – personal and social variables that come into play (Granger, 2004; Foppoli, 2014). The exposure a learner has to the foreign language may contribute to some extent. Personality issues are also of paramount importance; reserved and low self – esteem learners are more likely to experience a longer silent period. This is because the affective filter, “a mental barrier between the students and the information is raised when students are nervous or uncomfortable” (Shearon, 2014). Added to this, as McLaughlin points out (1992) among L2 learners we should expect younger students to present a longer and more psychologically stressed silent period. In contrast to more experienced learners, young children only have limited, if any, awareness of metacognition. It is also wrong to assume that younger learners have fewer inhibitions than adults. Embarrassment around peers and lack of memory techniques and learning strategies can provoke a long silent period to our younger learners (McLaughlin, 1992). Personal teaching experience has shown me that high grade students, who take great proud of their excellence, may also undergo a silent period under the fear of failure which will damage their general excellent image in class. It is also possible that learners who have reached a certain level of oral communication skills might fall behind at any time of their L2 acquisition process and undergo a temporary silent period because they cannot keep up with the increased difficulty and demands of their EFL class or because its quick pace does not let them assimilate new knowledge.
In the core of the discussion, the big question always emerges: “How to deal with my students’ silent period?” The answer comes naturally: with respect! Our students should take their time to listen to others, observe their mates and their teacher, and digest the input before they are ready to produce a comprehensible output themselves. The first and maybe the most important thing is to acknowledge our students’ right to remain silent if they do not feel ready to expose themselves in front of an audience, even if this audience is the familiar faces of their classmates. Being in the spotlight can be very frustrating.
When we deal with beginners, we should ask questions that allow our students give “yes” or “no” answers, accept even facial expressions as responses and incorporate methodologies such as James Asher’s (Asher, 1969) Total Physical Response (Bowen, 2014). Our students understand more than they produce because they are just not ready to talk about it yet, hence any kind of understanding should deserve teacher’s reward. Speaking is not about “showing off” their knowledge but conveying an oral message in a simple yet clearly understandable way. This is what the theory of Natural Approach (Thornbury, 2014) is all about; the important thing is that there is no grammar ‘agenda’ as such: the learners perform the tasks to the best of their ability. Moreover, they are given beforehand all the necessary tools, all the “scaffolds” to carry out their speaking task. Sometimes, the way teachers correct their students can give them the necessary boost to overcome their silent period. If we are not eager to correct every single mistake or slip of the tongue they make, our students will feel more relaxed during the speaking class. This is also a great opportunity to take advantage of group dynamics. Friends, school classmates, cousins and siblings can be found in our EFL classes. We can use these relationships to promote our students interaction within pair or group activities. Silent students may feel more confident to interact with a couple of friends than the whole class.
Maybe it is time to control our “obsession” with monolingual classes. Speaking for beginners, withdrawing L1 too soon can cause bigger harm than benefit. McLaughlin (1992) has indicated that “increased exposure to English does not necessarily speed the acquisition of the language”. Having a comprehensive input, for instance in the case of instructions, helps students get rid of the stress of not having understood the task and concentrate on it. Sharing some words in the learners’ mother tongue will not jeopardize our efforts; on the contrary, it will shift the burden from our students.
Last but not least, produce and promote an ethos of tolerance and patience in your class. In a nice way make clear to your students, even the younger ones, that you will not accept any negative comments on their peers’ performance. Despite their angel faces, young children can be very tough - even not deliberately). Explain that everyone has the right to mistakes and that they are all in this EFL class to learn, help, and support each other, not to judge.
The reason for this article is to show that students’ silent period is a common fact in an EFL class. If teachers accept it as something natural without the stress of not reaching their goals, they will deal with it effectively and then they will share the joy of teaching and learning procedure with their students.
Asher, J. J., 1969. The Total Physical Response Approach to Second Language Learning. The Modern Language Journal [online]. 53 (1), 3-17. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com [Accessed 25 August 2014].
Bowen, T., 2014. Teaching approaches: total physical response [online]. Available at: http://www.onestopenglish.com [Accessed 25 August 2014].
Cunningham, A., and Shagoury, R. 2013. Understanding the “Silent Period” with English Language Learners [online]. Available at: http://www.choiceliteracy.com/articles-detail-view-print.php?id=47 [Accessed 13 October 2013].
Foppoli, J., 2013. The Silent Period of Second Language Acquisition [online]. Available at: http://www.eslbase.com/articles/acquisition.asp [Accessed 13 October 2013].
Granger, C., 2004. Silence in Second Language Learning: A Psychoanalytic Reading [online]. Multilingual Matters Ltd. Available via: http://books.google.gr [Accessed 15 July2014].
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McLaughlin, B., 1992. Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning: What Every Teacher Needs to Unlearn [online]. National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning. Available via: http://books.google.gr [Accessed 1 September 2014].
Shearon, B., 2014. James Asher’s Total Physical Response. A short introduction [online]. Available at: http://www.c-english.com/files/tpr.pdf [Accessed 28 August 2014].
Thornbury, Sc., 2014. Methodology: the natural approach [online]. Available at: http://www.onestopenglish.com [Accessed 25 August 2014].