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Humanistic Teaching

An approach to learning English

June 21, 2009

Mitigating Quietness

Silence may be golden but it can feel like lead. We've probably all experienced the situation of trying to get students to produce some English and getting nothing or next to it in response. This was brought home to me recently when I tried using a talking stick (see last week's post) with one group of 8-10 year olds. I thought that making "I like..." statements would be easy for them. For several of them it wasn't and the activity imploded. In this particular case it wasn't really a question of shyness. Part of it may have been some concern about making a mistake though I think a need to "get it right" might be closer to the mark. If we teachers are not careful then some less confident children may focus too much on producing what they think we want to hear rather than speaking from their own feelings. Another problem is that sometimes children have something too specific in mind and don't know how to put it into English exactly. Because they can't say it exactly they end up saying nothing. In this case I think the really problem with the activity was that it was too opened ended for some of the group. Some of the children just couldn't decide what to say. The week after I did the activity again but this time I put three piles of flashcards on the table in three different categories, food, activities and animals. This gave a lot more context. I also made sure that they realised that they didn't have to stick to a set phrase by writing alternative phrases on the board. I gave them:

  • I like....
  • I like.... a little
  • I don't like .... much
  • I don't like ....

This text was pushing at the edge of their reading ability. I use a home-grown reading program which grades words into 12 levels  and I'm careful about focusing on text that uses words outside a level. So I wrote some of the letters in read to draw attention to the unexpected pronunciation.

The result was vastly different. This time there were no awkward silences. The activity worked as I imagined it would.

While it is definitely true that some children are more vocal than others in my experience very few children are so shy as to say nothing at all. I realise this statement contradicts the theory of the "silent period" which can supposedly last up to a year.

I think children will be vocal when they are excited, confident or curious. Basically, when they are engaged. When their voices become small that's a sign that they don't fully understand what's going on, or that they they feel that they don't understand. Small voices are an indication that the teacher needs to break things up into smaller chunks and provide more context to aid meaning. But small voices are not the same thing as silence so this begs the question as to how to get children to speak in the first place. I haven't really encountered silence from elementary aged children but I have from kindergarten aged children and younger. My approach to getting them talking is as follows:

  1. I'm very careful to avoid pushing youngsters to talk but I create as many opportunities for them as possible to do so.
  2. I do a lot of repetitive self talk, showering the children with meaningful words.
  3. I use and encourage gestures and link them to individual words.
  4. I talk for the children . So for example if I ask a child what colour counter they want and the child points at a blue counter I'll say, "Oh, blue!"
  5. At first I focus on single words and two word phrases: yes, no, come here, this one, wake up, next page, (be) noisy, (be) quiet, show me.
  6. I use simple "or" choices. For example, "Do you want a cow or a pig?. If a child wants something but can't see it, it is more likely that they will be verbal.
  7. I'll pay a little bit more attention to children who are verbal in English.
  8. When children speak to me in Japanese, I'll give them the English and respond but after a while I stop responding to the Japanese.

In addition to the above I'll encourage children to be vocal by getting them to repeat, chant and sing as a group. In this respect it is important to play with the language rather than study or memorise it. In terms of production it is easier to do something in unison or in pairs with everyone acting simultaneously . The most difficult is to perform individually in front of the group as a whole. Children should not be pushed to this. For example, I have one class with a newly turned five year old in a class with 7-8 year olds. The other week we began doing charades. The five year old didn't want to do charades as it meant performing alone. This week we did a similar activity in pairs and she was OK with that. Depending upon the circumstances not speaking can be just as demanding as speaking. As with nearly everything else, the choice should ultimately remain with the child.

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Hello, Chris:

This is an excellent and timely articles with lots of useful ideas!! This week I had the grade 5's and 6's at my elementary school all stand up in front of the class and do a self-introduction using "Hello. My name is... I like..." It is interesting what you say about a lot of kids not wanting to speak because they want to get the "script" exactly right. Your article has made me realise that we have to give the kids more opportunities to be spontaneous and use other expressions, too. It would certainly make it more interesting for the listeners, too!

I have been thinking a lot about this issue lately with my grade 5 and 6 classes, so was happy to see even the quiet students get up and be able to say a few sentences in front of the whole class. We emphasized that English was not the only goal (mistakes are okay - you will definitely make them!), but that communicating was, so to make sure to maintain eye contact, to speak loudly and clearly, etc. and that a lot of nervousness could be alleviated by having a good audience - who listens, smiles and nods encouragement, or shows interest in what people are saying. I thought the lesson was good for this reason, but now I have some great ideas for improving on it.

Alison Miyake

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