Silence is not a word that sits very well with most language teachers. After all, we teach how to communicate, it’s second nature to want to fill gaps with words. I know that when I first started teaching I wanted to fill every second of the classroom with some form of noise, whether it be mine or that of my students. I’m here to teach them language, they need to be talking, don’t they? While speaking English undoubtedly requires students to speak, from a teaching perspective it’s important to understand when silence needs to reign.
I am not referring to silent drilling or silent methodologies, both of which can be extremely useful of course. I mean the importance of letting students stop to process what is going on in the classroom. I think as teachers we overteach. We have an overwhelming desire to teach every moment of our lessons and, because of this, we don’t allow our students the time to process exactly what it is that they are studying. Everything in life comes down to balance and if we are denying our students the time, and the silence to get to grips with what are, in essence, ‘alien concepts’ then how can we expect them to ever produce language in a meaningful way.
I’m not suggesting deafening gaps of nothingness where the only noise is the clock ticking while the students look bored and the teacher looks uncomfortable. What I mean is making sure that on our lesson plans we don’t over-plan. Look at timings carefully, is there really enough time to explain a grammar point, allow our students to copy it down and think about it before trying to put it to practice? If not, how can we change our lessons to ensure that there is this golden thinking time before we expect students to magically activate it? Remember, the clearer the explanation, the more efficiently we will produce something. Rushing through things means we’re more likely going to need to repeat something or introduce further practice when we see students struggling to really adopt whatever it is we are teaching.
Another reason I feel so strongly about interspersing silent moments throughout our lessons is because of the varied learners that we might have in our classes. Students with SEN (Special Educational Needs) might appreciate this extra processing time, particularly where lessons have evolved into being so action-packed and fun that to certain types of learners this can be confusing, overwhelming and perhaps even demotivating.
I really believe that the more we step away from this manic need for noise, the more valuable our lessons become as we can enrich students with the time and space needed for processing language and, therefore, encourage them to become better language producers.
What are your thoughts? Is less more? Does silence breed better language learners or just lazy teachers?