October 8th, 2020
Those of us who work with English Language Learners are likely familiar with the “Silent Period.” This is the initial pre-production period of language acquisition, in which a student is taking in and processing a new language, but is not yet able or willing to speak in their new language. Some children will speak in their first language at school, while others will be truly silent in both languages while at school. For many students, this period lasts for several weeks to several months. For others, an extended silent period of a year or longer is required before attempts at communication in the new language begin. Every learner’s language proficiency journey is different, and timing can rely on prior literacy and educational experiences, family history, temperament, anxiety and comfort levels, as well as a variety of other factors. Most students will start to attempt to speak to express basic needs such as being hungry, thirsty, or needing a bathroom within a few months. When we see a learner’s silent period extending beyond several months, we often try to work closely with the family and specially trained teachers or mental health professionals to help us determine the best course of action to support a student who is struggling with oral English language production.
During the initial silent period, we try to honour all attempts at communication, and often encourage children to communicate using gestures or signs, drawings, using picture cards such as PECS or using technology such as google image searches as available and appropriate to the circumstances. There are many ways to teach and assess that do not involve verbal production, including hands-on demonstration, drawing, pointing, matching, miming, etc. and many teachers incorporate differentiated instruction and assessment into their classrooms on a regular basis in order to meet the needs of all of their students.
I’ve worked with several students who were diagnosed with selective mutism over the course of my career as both a classroom and ESL/ELD teacher. These students were often diagnosed initially as having generalized anxiety or as going through a silent period as a newcomer to Canada. I have found that many of the strategies that work for kids with selective mutism can also often be used successfully for any child who is experiencing anxiety in a new school setting, including our newcomers who are going through an initial silent period in which they are adjusting to a new country, culture and language.
In my experience, I have found that NOT pressuring anxious kids to speak seems to do wonders for them. When I was a classroom teacher, I had a “pass” sign that kids could use during our carpet time or class discussions, but I always gave them the opportunity to speak if they wished (I never assumed that a child would always pass, even if they had passed the past 98 times). I also find that avoiding eye contact works well with many anxious students — when a child feels like s/he is “on stage” and is being watched, it can feel pretty overwhelming. It’s always a good idea to reassure the student that you aren’t going to make her/him talk and that anything s/he says is up to her/him. Giving students choices like this can be very empowering. Thoughtful seating arrangements that detract from the student’s feeling of being the centre of attention can allow a child to feel less anxious in a classroom setting.
I also have found success with allowing children to whisper to me or to use a “whisper partner” in the class once they begin to speak (speaking quietly to another student carries with it a lower risk profile than speaking directly to the teacher or the whole class). I am also a huge advocate for NOT going out of our way to reward speaking, as this can draw too much attention to the act and scare the child, undermining progress that they have made on their journey. In my personal experience, I found that is has been best to act like it was perfectly natural when a selectively mute or anxious learner finally chose to speak in class, and to try to downplay it in front of the other kids so that they also don’t give the child unwanted attention.
Here is a lovely printable info sheet I like to share with teachers who are working with kids who are extremely hesitant to speak–it’s about selective mutism, but many of the strategies are good for any kids with high anxiety/shyness or those who are going through an extended silent period:
For more information on the “silent period” of language acquisition, see:
Saville-Troike, M. (1988). Private speech: Evidence for second language learning strategies during the ‘silent’ period. Journal of Child Language, 15(3), 567-590. doi:10.1017/S0305000900012575
For more information on Selective Mutism, see:
Tags: ELD · ELL · ESL · Selective Mutism · Silent Period · Trauma