Silence is golden
by Patrick Seifer
Getting students to participate in class, especially Asian classrooms where the concept of “face” is so important, can be a real challenge. In addition, many Asian students have grown up in educational settings where the classrooms are “teacher-centered” and they spend much of their time “listening to the teacher.” This makes it hard for some students to adjust and feel comfortable in classes taught by Western teachers. Regardless of these challenges, we teachers have some tools at our disposal to promote more language practice by our students in the classroom.
How teachers’ silence helps students participate more
You might be asking yourself, “How will silence help students who are already quiet to speak more?” Good question. If we teachers start out by making it clear that one goal of our course is for students to participate and speak up, then we have taken an important step toward creating the needed environment for our students to participate and speak more. The next step we need to take is giving our students more opportunities to speak. One important way for us to do this is to remain silent.
It may seem counter-intuitive but we must keep silent more often. The less we talk, the more our students will talk. After more than 20 years of English language teaching in China, I have learned to keep my opinion to myself in the classroom, or at least until after my students have given their opinions. If I offer my opinion too quickly, sometimes my students will simply adapt theirs to mine. They may do this to avoid offending me, or they may do it for a more practical reason. When I give my opinion, this models an idea with organization and vocabulary for their own writing or speaking. Have you ever seen your ideas appear in your students’ papers or presentations? I have.
Also, teachers need to remember that students need time to process and produce language in their foreign or second language. This is a complex process, and students need time for it to take place. For those of us who have studied and speak another language, we should have more empathy for our students. We, too, have gone through this process and are probably still going through it.
Finally, if I offer my help too quickly to a struggling student trying to speak or write, I rob them of a chance to formulate their own opinion and use their own language abilities to create their own meaning. As students take responsibility for formulating their own opinions and producing language, they learn even more about the language.
We are still the teachers
This does not mean we do not answer students’ questions or correct errors. Neither do we stop monitoring group work. We need to be ready to help when students have questions or produce language errors. However, we need wisdom and patience to answer their questions without doing too much of the students’ thinking or work and instead encourage their growth.
Therefore, the English saying “Silence is Golden” applies to our language teaching. Teachers need to be patient, and at times, silent, and let students work to produce their own language and be responsible for their own learning. When we come alongside students and help them, without interfering, then we give them opportunities to learn even more.
 Zhenhui Rao, “Matching Teaching Styles with Learning Styles in East Asian Contexts,” The Internet TESL Journal, 8, no. 7, (2001), http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Zhenhui-TeachingStyles.html.
 Larry Ferlazzo, “Dos and Don’ts for Teaching English Language Learners, edutopia, November 3, 2016, https://www.edutopia.org/blog/esl-ell-tips-ferlazzo-sypnieski.
What’s your perspective?
We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.
- How would you use the saying “Silence is golden.” to describe the language classroom?
- What’s the ratio of teacher talk time to student talk time in your classrooms? How would you assess the ratio?
- What holds your students back from participating in activities (if anything)? What are some things you could do to encourage your students to engage and talk more?
Patrick Seifer has lived in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China since the fall of 2008. He has trained Chinese middle school English teachers and is currently in his 4th year of teaching at Ningxia University. He and his wife (Amy) have lived in China for more than 20 years, and their 17-year-old daughter (Abigail) was born and has been raised in China.
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash