The Sound of Silence

Last week my lovely intermediate students were uncharacteristically lethargic on Monday and Tuesday.  Their usual chattiness and enthusiasm was unnervingly low and I found myself filling the silence with pointless, superfluous teacher babble.  This didn’t feel good at all.  I decided to do something about it.  So, the next day, not a sound escaped my lips for the entire 3 hour lesson.  Well, not until the last 5 minutes, when I asked the students for brief feedback on the experiment and to write up a review for homework.

Not a peep!

Perhaps this approach was a bit drastic, but the effect was staggering and the experiment achieved exactly what I wanted it to: the students were more attentive and more engaged; they talked; they laughed; they studied and practised the target language.  One nice ‘side effect’ of the experiment was also that those who usually don’t say much were contributing much more.  At one point, when several students were a bit confused about the target language, one student who is more often than not miles behind the rest was actually the only one to pipe up with a clear, accurate and very helpful explanation of the grammar.  I nearly fell off my chair!

Not that all the students loved it – in fact, some of them claim to have downright hated the whole experience (see the comments below!).  But curiously, they didn’t show that much resistance during the lesson.  And if I’m honest, I think it’s OK that some of them didn’t like it.  I’d rather my students had a reaction to a lesson than indifference.  They all got something out of the experiment, if only a better understanding of teachers’ and students’ different possible roles, responsibilities and behaviour.  When I finally spoke again at the very end of the lesson, they breathed an audible – almost comical! – sigh of relief and even gave me a round of applause, which I certainly wasn’t expecting!

“But how am I supposed to teach the students without talking?!” a trainee on the Trinity CertTESOL course once demanded of me, in response to my continued tirades against unnecessary TTT.  (And note that, please: not all TTT is bad!)  Well, here are some things I found useful:

I used the whiteboard.
Not much more than usual, actually, but for helpful visual prompts.  For example, we always start every day with a brief review of vocabulary we’ve studied recently.  So in the silent lesson, I wrote categories on the board (e.g. education) and the students twigged right away that they needed to suggest words in each of these categories, then commence the activity they usually do, i.e. take turns choosing one to define for their partner, who has to guess it.

I mimed.  A lot.
I accompany most of my speech in the classroom (and even out, to the amusement of my friends) with mime, gesture and facial expression.  Thankfully, this meant I could relay most instructions (e.g. “work in pairs”, “close your books”, “repeat”, etc.) without needing to utter a word.  The students know what I mean even when I don’t say it!

I got the students to read things out.
For example, we did a ‘line-up discussion’, where the students stand in two rows facing each other, speak about a question/topic for 2 minutes with the person opposite them, then one student in one of the rows peels off and the rest move along one place, finding themselves opposite a different partner for the next question/topic.  These were all written in the coursebook anyway, so I got the students nearest me to read out the questions for the others.  Similarly, when we looked at the lesson’s grammar point (the second conditional), I prepared some concept-checking questions before the lesson and distributed them (along with the answers, of course) to the students to ask each other.  They took great pleasure in caricaturing my method of asking a question, then waiting expectantly for an answer from the group and their confirmation that they agree with each other.  Laugh though they might, it worked!

I got the students to model pronunciation.
They’re all familiar with my way of marking word and sentence stress on the whiteboard and with my way of eliciting stress placement from them.  So I gestured, they offered their ideas, it went up on the board and then they drilled it themselves.  We often click our fingers on the stressed words when practising sentence stress and in this lesson they started doing that themselves before I could even suggest it.  At moments where one or more students were pronouncing things oddly, I listened for one student doing it well, then used “thumbs up” and pointing to indicate that the others should follow his/her lead.

As you can probably see, a lot of the lesson stages were actually based on routine, and depended on students’ familiarity with the activities, games and instructions I typically use.  However, rather than be a cause for boredom or monotony, this allowed students to be much more confident in running the lesson smoothly as I handed the reins to them for the day.

Here’s some of the positive feedback I got from the students:

– “We [paid] attention to the class more than ever.  We [tried] to push the class on by ourselves.”
– “It was very strange…but after the class I was thinking about this ‘strange’ experiment.  [It] was a great opportunity [for students to] speak more.”
– “This exercise forces us to speak even if we are shy.”
– “I have to say thank you so much for [the] new experience.  I have never had [this] before!”

And some of the negative:

– “No, I don’t like the deaf [sic] way of teaching.” (!)
– “I think [it’s] very bad for [listening] to pronunciation.”
– “[From] my point of view, it is harder to learn [the] accent and intonation if you don’t speak.  Thus we can’t speak correctly.”
– “The only negative thing that I know is [the] teacher [has] to waste a lot of time [explaining] what she wants students to do.”

And some in-between comments/just plain bemusement:

– “It was very strange.”
– “I think it’s good but you should do it for [a] short time.  For example, if you do it, just 20 minutes.  After that, we can ask [for] more detail.”
– “You made us wonder yesterday.  Mostly students had [the] question, ‘Who’d made you angry?'”

Now, I don’t pretend to be the first to conduct this kind of lesson, nor do I pretend to have read or followed any kind of theory about this sort of thing.  I just wanted to wake my students out of their sleepy state and encourage them to get more involved.  I think 3 hours of refusal to speak on my part did the trick.  (Note: refusal to speak is not the same as refusal to do anything a teacher normally does.  It just makes it harder for the teacher to direct every bit of the lesson, which forces responsibility for studying and learning onto the students, who are often all too content to just be led through an easy, safe, comfortable lesson structure.  And as we all know, truly learning something isn’t always easy, safe and comfortable.)

What’s more, in the next few days’ lessons, I took the advice of that one student who suggested I just occasionally stay silent, e.g. let the students conduct task feedback entirely without my help, and it made a really nice change to the pace of the lesson.  On the funnier side of things, they also showed just how much they pick up from my (deliberately) repetitive ‘teacher-speak’, mimicking catchphrases like “with your partner”, “much better!” and so on, which made the whole thing even more fun for them.

I suppose it’s a strange paradox of teaching how gratifying it was to have one student quip at the end of the lesson, “See, we don’t need you any more!”

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

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