Tuesday, March 20, 2012

ELL’s Not Talking–Understand the Silent Period

My class consists of 19 students, of which only 1 speaks English only in his household, and even he began his life in a bilingual environment. The other 18 speak at least one, if not two other languages in their homes. Most of my students speak Arabic, but many also speak French. I have 3 who speak French and not Arabic, 1 who speaks Spanish, and 1 who speaks a Philippine dialect. All of my students speak SOME English, but to varying degrees. My job is to teach them English, while also teaching them everything we normally teach in school (reading, writing, math, science, social studies etc.) Fortunately, I am certified to teach ESL and have some experience with English Language Learners. Due to my unique teaching position, I have had some readers ask for tips on teaching English Language Learners. So, from now on, I will now be doing a Teaching Tip Tuesday geared especially towards teaching English Language Learners. Here’s this week’s Tuesday TESOL Teaching Tip:

ELL Teaching Tip #18: Understand the Silent Period
I’ve taught enough English Language Learners to expect that all new language learners will go through a silent period – that time when they know enough imageEnglish to understand what’s going on, but they don’t know enough English to yet feel comfortable trying to make a sentence in English.  I’ve experienced it as a teacher multiple times, but just recently, I have experienced it as a learner.  I am currently taking Arabic classes two times a week, and wow!  Now I know why they say to learn another language if you are going to teach English Language Learners.  (I’ll delve deeper into this topic in TESOL Tip #25.)  I am DEFINITELY in the silent period with Arabic right now.  I can repeat, I know the key vocabulary and a lot of object words, but ask me for a sentence longer than “ I have xxx.” and you’re not going to get much! 
Your new English Language Learners will be like this – generally those who have been studying in English for less than 6 months – 1 year.  I have one student in my class who spoke not one word of English on the first day, and he has been stuck in the silent period until very recently.  Here are some strategies to help get your students (and you) through the silent period:
1.  Teach some survival words – In the beginning, student need to know those key words to take care of every day needs: bathroom, bookbag, notebook, pencil.  For your sanity, take some time in the beginning of the school year (or whenever the student arrives in your class) to direct instruct these words to any student you feel is in that “silent period”.  image
2.  Use graphics – Especially if your English Language Learner does not have any peers in the room who speak their home language, you will need a way to help them get their point across in those early days, picture organizers are a great way to do this.
3. Give them a chance – The silent period doesn’t end all on one day, it’s a slow progression.  When students get enough words (and courage) to put a sentence together, focus on the meaning, and not the grammar. 
4.  Repeat for them – Just like you do for toddlers learning language, repeat what your students say to model the correct language.  ie. Sofia says “Miss, am done?”  I say back to her “Yes, Sofia, you are done now.”
5.  Do You Understand? – I am so guilty of asking my students this!  I’ll tell you right now, even if they are shaking their little head yes, they probably don’t.  My Arabic teacher asks me this quite a bit, and I shake my head yes, because it’s easier than explaining what I don’t understand!  Be careful to know even when they say they understand, they may not.
6.  Don’t Think They Aren’t Listening – Often, when students are in the silent period we just assume they don’t understand.  Well, you know what they say about assuming – don’t!  Students pick up a lot from gestures, books, context etc.  So, don’t assume that students don’t understand anything that’s going on.

Do you enjoy the weekly TESOL Teaching Tips? Do you want to know more about teaching English Language Learners? I will be speaking on this topic at the Everything’s Intermediate Expo, and I’d love to have you “join” us. It is a virtual expo, which will help us connect no matter where we are! Click HERE for more information.

Find more TESOL Teaching Tips here, and come back every Tuesday for a new tip!
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