R is for Reticence

30 01 2010

No, there is no entry on Reticence in An A-Z of ELT. Nor shyness. But it is nevertheless a topic that comes up often, especially in discussions about approaches that prioritise learner-generated talk, such as task-based learning or Dogme. “That’s all very well”, some teachers retort, “but my students don’t want to talk”.

As it happens, I dealt with the issue of student ‘shyness’ on the Dogme discussion list, which in turn gave rise to a blog posting on the Delta Publishing website last year:


In that posting I made the point that the teacher’s agenda can be a key factor in either encouraging or inhibiting classroom participation:

If [the students] are being asked to talk freely about something that matters to them, only to discover that the teacher’s ulterior purpose is to elicit, test, and correct a pre-selected language item (the future perfect, for example), they of course will be less inclined to play the game.

So, I was naturally drawn to an article in the latest ELT Journal (January 2010) by Xiaoyan Xie, called ‘Why are students quiet? Looking at the Chinese context and beyond’.  I came to the article with some misgivings due to its overt flagging of the ‘Chinese context’.  I expected that the writer (like many before her) would lay the blame for student reticence on the culturally inappropriate, Western-style communicative methodology (as instantiated in current best-selling coursebooks) and its ill-fit with Confucian values of modesty and avoidance of threats to face.  Not at all. Rather than appealing to cultural stereotypes, she uses transcripts of classroom interactions in Chinese contexts to demonstrate how the teachers’ interaction style – including their dogged control of the discourse, their inflexible adherence to the lesson plan, and their failure to engage with learners’ contributions at any level other than in terms of accuracy – contributes to students’ reticence. She concludes:

The findings suggest that the teachers should relax their control and allow the students more freedom to choose their own topics so as to generate more opportunities for them to participate in classroom interaction. Doing so might foster a classroom culture that is more open to students’ desire to explore the language and topics that do not necessarily conform to the rigid bounds of the curriculum and limited personal perspectives of the teachers. (p. 19)

She ends with a question: “So what is the appropriate degree of variability that Chinese teachers, or indeed teachers from other cultures, should allow for in order to expand the patterns of classroom communication?”

Get into groups and discuss!



20 responses

31 01 2010
Marcos Benevides

I often hear the same ‘culturally inappropriate’ argument here in Japan against various CLT approaches. Students are too shy, they worry about losing face, the ‘nail that sticks out will be hammered down’, blah blah blah. Yet, when I see them talking to each other in Japanese outside of class, they are as chatty, as risk-taking and as often outrageous as any group of young adults anywhere.

The problem is certainly not cultural, it is methodological. It’s a combination of the teacher’s well-intentioned overbearance (a byproduct of lack of experience or good training), and textbook materials which are geared towards control rather than creativity and exploration.

But insofar as they are human, students are certainly the same the world over; it’s the amount of damage which has been inflicted on them by poor teaching which varies!

Thank you for highlighting this article, Scott. I will point it out to my colleagues.

31 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Marcos for your comment.

“The problem is certainly not cultural, it is methodological”. I think you’re right, although of course the dominant methdodology is in a sense a product of the culture. But the educational culture that is often characterised as transmissive, textbook-centred and exam-driven is not an exclusively Asian artefact. Almost all my foreign language learning at school in New Zealand subscribed to the same principles. Exceptionally, one inspired teacher of German decided to depart from the book for the first few weeks of the course and simply got us doing dialogues together. At the time this seemed to be excitingly radical – and certainly at odds with the dominant methodological paradigm.

31 01 2010
mark andrews

Thanks for this Scott, you say that “the teacher’s agenda can be a key factor in either encouraging or inhibiting classroom participation.”

If the teacher’s agenda includes understanding how the social context of the classroom influences the pedagogical aspects and, arguably more importantly, encouraging the students to understand this too, then the culture of the classroom is more likely to be more supportive and conducive to student talk.

Cherchalli in her research in Algeria in 1988 quoted a learner who said:

“Sometimes I feel like asking the teacher a question, but just realising that perhaps the rest of the class understand I hesitate.”

This is a good example of social factors inhibiting good learning and teachers are likely to gain greater insights into classroom practices by trying to understand why it is that students don’t talk in class at specific moments instead of always urging them to participate orally. In fact, allowing people to sometimes remain silent instead of reprimanding them for not participating might lead to more oral participation in the future. If students sense that we notice and realise that they have other things on their mind, or aren’t feeling well, they are likely to respond more actively on other occasions.

Of course, making “why is it that some students are sometimes somewhat shy to speak in class” (that’s a lot of s’s) a topic to talk about might also lead to more classroom talk. If it is not only the teacher but also the students who have an understanding of how social factors inhibit what might be pedagogically more appropriate, everybody is likely to benefit. And with learners who are still at a level where this is difficult in English, in monolingual contexts or near monolingual contexts, why not do it in L 1? Hopefully this will lead to a more supportive learning environment in the classroom.

You can find a longer version of this here: http://markandrews.edublogs.org/

And Marcos, am sure your learners are very “chatty, risk taking and outrageous” outside the classroom but it is classroom language learning that we are interested in and the specific constrictions of the classroom culture which lead to the worries of losing face etc. Traditional classroom management techniques and methodologies which do not include an understanding of the underlying perceptions of the way that students define being in classrooms are not likely to “solve the problem”.

31 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mark, for your considered and well-informed response. It prompted me to visit your blog and I was delighted to find many of my favourite methodology texts being promoted, including the Allwright and Hanks book on exploratory practice, and the Gieve and Miller collection, also influenced by Allwright. I can see where you are coming from when you write that “Traditional classroom management techniques and methodologies which do not include an understanding of the underlying perceptions of the way that students define being in classrooms are not likely to “solve the problem”.” Allwright and Hanks’ foregrounding of the learners’ perspective on classroom practices provides a refreshingly (and challengingly) new gloss on the notion of appropriate methodology.

31 01 2010
Marcos Benevides

Mark, fair enough call. I should avoid off the cuff postings first thing in the morning. The point I had in mind is that what is often referred to as ‘Confucian values’ (in the classroom, at least) is really nothing more than poor pedagogy. Yes, it is important to keep in mind how students perceive the classroom context, but at the same time I think it’s a mistake to approach these pre-existing perceptions as inviolate cultural artifacts that must be tiptoed around for fear of accidental imperialism. I just don’t think it’s an issue of Western methodologies somehow being inappropriate in the east, which is the way this argument is so often framed. But you’re right that my example didn’t illustrate the point.

31 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

“The point I had in mind is that what is often referred to as ‘Confucian values’ (in the classroom, at least) is really nothing more than poor pedagogy.”

This reminds me of an email exchange I had with a teacher in China a year or so ago. I hope he won’t mind me quoting the question he asked me, and my answer. He asked me what I thought of the following claim:

Many people believe that the reason why CLT is not so successfully implemented in China is that the Chinese educational culture is resistant to the educational culture behind CLT… The Confucian mode of education stresses the transmission of knowledge, but does not pay as much attention to the application of the knowledge taught. The rationale behind this is that learners must first master the basics and only when this is accomplished are they in a position to use what they have mastered in a creative manner. For this reason, the ‘learn by using’ approach promoted by communicative language teaching does not fit in with the traditional ‘learn to use’ philosophy. … Students are expected to respect and cooperate with the teacher and not to challenge the transmitted knowledge or present their own ideas until they have mastered sufficient knowledge to make informed judgments. Given the perceived role of the teacher, it is against Chinese expectations to adopt a pedagogy that may put teachers at the risk of losing face.

I answered:

I’m not qualified to rule on the educational culture of China, but I do think that an educational culture that values knowledge more than the skilled application of that knowledge is not really an educational culture at all – and I’d be surprised if China – with its long history of technical and artistic innovation – subscribes to such a view. To me, this invoking of Confucian values sounds a bit like an excuse for inertia on the part of certain parties whose power or authority might be threatened by educational reform (hence the dubious argument that CLT might subvert or threaten the authority of the teacher). This resistance to change is certainly not unique to the Chinese context – and the same arguments are regularly rehearsed in the British press, for example – where a return to “tried and tested” traditional educational values, such as rote learning and drilling, is frequently urged by such “experts” as the heir to the British throne. Of course, I am sympathetic with the view that China – or any other country for that matter – should be cautious in adopting, uncritically, educational practices imported from other contexts. But China seems to be particularly adept at customising foreign technologies to its own purposes, and I see no reason why a Chinese re-branding of CLT couldn’t be equally successful.

1 02 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Excellent discussion and something I have given much thought to however I won’t be able to quote supportive texts as the others have, still I shall add my 2 cents nonetheless and hope it to be interesting – and perhaps you’ll be able to tell me where I can find more data to research my ideas (:-)).

My personal view on reticence in adult language learners lies, in particular, to the learner not feeling like he or she is him/herself when speaking another language.

I have talked about ‘ego’ considerably on various blogs, as well as my own – my conversation materials revolve around the concept – as, basically, I completely believe that “self” is a driving force in the acquisition of another language.

Anyway, to the point, when the learner is unable to express her knowledge, her opinions and long-arrived concepts of life & the universe, within the full extent of her personality, with all the variety of lexis and control of language as she is able to do in her own language, a skill she took so long to create especially if she has any kind of “position” in the real world, then she feels inhibited, convinced that she is not herself in that moment.

The loss of self forces her to be quiet, to refrain from appearing to be a fool irregardless of her home culture and can in some cases, depending on culture, lead to tears, a loss of desire to learn and the inevitable “I can’t do this because I am too stupid.”

Later, she may not even attribute it to being in the classroom or to stumbling over the pronunciation of a word or getting a phrase right or uttering a grammatically correction sentence – just that she was completely wrong… she may not remember not being herself that day or the loss of her ego but somewhere in her brain she has made a negative emotional mark against learning and speaking in English.

And this is basically why I push so much for positivity and motivational activities in the classroom (as well as challenging students to go past their boundaries), that teachers inspire their learners, really not because I’m some kind a NewAgie Pr/Teacher but because I firmly believe, based on experience, that safety and comfort are imperative atmospheric conditions in a language learning space – factors which must be there to get learners over the hump of their temporary loss of personal identities.


1 02 2010

I agree with what Karenne says. If we can get students so interested in and involved in a topic to the point where that interest and enthusiasm actually over-rides their language limitations perhaps this would help break through barriers.

I wonder how people see the issue of error correction (how much? and how?) as being somehow tied in with students reticence?

2 02 2010

I’ve been teaching Chinese students for the last ten years. After the first two years, I was grasping around looking for any materials that might help me gain an insight into what I was dealing with. Eight years later, I still wonder whether the differences aren’t much hyped and all part of the orientalisation of the east. Trawling around the IATEFL conference rooms that focused on Chinese students was not much use as the speakers all spoke about a type of Chinese learner that was as far removed from those in my classroom as I was. Hmm, I began to think, perhaps we should be careful when stereotyping 1.6bn people…

We hear talk about not losing face, but this seems to be the same in classrooms from here to there with young people – people who are in the process of developing their identity- are understandably cautious about earning the ridicule of their peers.

We hear crap about the Confucian values of Chinese society -as if all cultural values were embraced and adapted wholesale by the youth of that culture. Where were Confucian values during the cultural revolution when teachers were beaten up by their charges? It strikes me that what we have in China is pretty similar to what we have in every other country where lack of funding results in enormous class sizes: crowd control posing as education.

Some years ago, I came upon the realisation that Karenne mentions above (and thought I had hit an untapped vein of research…gold and riches beckoned until I came across the work of bloody Bonnie Norton). Learning a language is a traumatic time for most learners; all certainty is stolen from you and you are left spluttering as you try to portray an identity that is no longer you. Many of us are unaware of the notion that it is possible to have a legion of identities packed inside our carcasses and so we struggle repeatedly to make the Real One come across in our new language. This is not easy. In fact, imho, it is impossible. What we are doing is creating a new identity and this is something that needs to be stressed to students from the outset.

I’m reluctant to subscribe too fully to any idea that it is exclusively the teacher’s job to override the quite understandable reticence and fear that language learning involves. I think that such an approach runs the risk of setting people up for failure or encouraging people to make the rash assumption that all is well in their classes. I’d argue for activities that are designed to scaffold (or “assist at the birth of”) a new identity. Lots of activities whereby students have the opportunity to put across an image that they want others to subscribe to and lots of unconditional positive regard as they do so, all cast within a context that reminds students that they will not be the same person in L2 as they are in L1 and that this is not a bad thing.

Apologies if it sounds like I’m talking out of my backside. It’s been a long night and I now have a wide range of distractions shouting at me. Better go.

2 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Karenne wrote:

“My personal view on reticence in adult language learners lies [in the fact of] the learner not feeling like he or she is him/herself when speaking another language. ….The loss of self forces her to be quiet, to refrain from appearing to be a fool regardless of her home culture and can in some cases, depending on culture, lead to tears, a loss of desire to learn and the inevitable “I can’t do this because I am too stupid.”

And Diarmuid added:

“We hear talk about not losing face, but this seems to be the same in classrooms from here to there with young people – people who are in the process of developing their identity- are understandably cautious about earning the ridicule of their peers.”

Coincidentally, in a Brazilian version of my original blog post (at http://bit.ly/9GsShR ) the moderator reports: “Sts commenting on my blog say they don’t like the idea of being the ‘laughing stock’ in class. That’s why they don’t talk!”

There’s a common thread here – the fear of appearing stupid: something that is not specific to any one ethnicity or culture, and nor – I might add – to any particular age-group. (In fact, I would argue, pace Diarmuid, that it gets worse the older one gets).

This prompted me to hunt out an article whose most memorable one-liner is “In order to be a wit in a foreign language you have to go through the stage of being a half-wit – there is no other way”. It comes from a paper in Applied Linguistics (1980) by Peter Harder, called ‘Discourse as self-expression – on the reduced personality of the second-language learner’. In this paper, Harder describes the recuded role of the learner: “The learner is not free to define his [sic] place in the ongoing [L2] interaction as he would like; he has to accept a role which is less desirable than he could ordinarily achieve”. Harder goes on to argue that silence is the logical outcome of this role reduction: the alternative to silence, for the second language learner, might often be the socially-unacceptable (because painfully disruptive) and potentially humiliating negotiation of meaning involved in using communication strategies to get one’s meaning across. If students followed the advice given by those who promote “good learner strategies”, such as that the learner should “not …give up any contact he has with a native speaker” (Hatch, 1978) he/she will likely come across as either “a pest or a simpleton”. “Most learners will probably, in deciding what to say (if anything) have a sort of cut-off point for the reduction [of personality] they will tolerate, below which silence is preferable. Instead of seeing silence as the extreme point on the scale of message reduction, it can also be seen as the alternative to it”.

This, to me, raises the (painful) question as to whether it might not be better to have students practise speaking in the context of rather banal, game-type activities, in which they have NO personal investment (i.e. the very opposite point that Karenne is making) so they can at least have the experience of communicating (and perhaps even get better at it), but without the inhibitory threat to self-esteem involved in trying to be “one’s real self”.

On the plus side, there is evidence (as Krashen has always argued) that a silent period needn’t necessarily be an indicator of zero learning. Dick Allwright (I’ve lost the source) reports on a student in a class who said little or nothing during the course of the, erm, course, but who scored highest in the end-of-course speaking test, leading Allwright to conclude that “for some learners, at least, language acquisition is a spectator sport” (sorry, again, for not having the actual reference).

3 02 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Thank you for your references, Scott.

I’ve seen it – I’ve heard it. I work with a lot of management types in one-2-one scenarios and they inevitably confess to the horrid feeling of being half-wits in another language. The resentment on their faces is distinct – here they are now, in this global world, being literally forced to reinvent their personalities and set aside a major investment of time and commitment to just… be themselves when they get to a boardroom where, most of the time, there is only one person in the room who doesn’t speak German.

And when a major politician (two, actually) are posted up on YouTube and ridiculed publicly for their poor pronunciation and English skills it makes my learners feel even worse!

Conversely though, so much does really depend on intrinsic personality – I have one older student (early 60’s) who has an A2 level of English and the fight on his face is really incredible, he’s absolutely determined to “get” English. It’s a competition for him and I can’t help but favor him and help him to get through his not knowing the right words :-).

2 02 2010

I agree that such banal games sound very painful, but it is an interesting argument to be considered. I wonder whether or not the sheer banality might mean that learners aren’t actually prepared to invest and then tend to focus more on product than process.

My own (unscientific) opinion is that learners need support (from both teachers and peers) in working through those difficult moments. In my experience, this support is rarely forthcoming as most of my students regard communication as a display performance of skills (or lack of) and tend not to listen very attentively to each other when one is talking to/at the teacher.

3 02 2010
Nick Bilbrough

This is another really interesting area and, as you say, one that teachers everywhere talk about.

What about the links between reticence and roleplay and other forms of drama? In my experience of working with learners playing roles in other languages, and trying to act in other languages myself, I’d say that there’s a fairly even split between those for whom this kind of activity can lead to diminished fear of losing face, and those for whom it may have the opposite effect. I’d also say that those who seem to respond well to this type of activity are sometimes the people who find it more difficult to talk about themeselves out of role.

The question is whether it’s transferrable though. Can doing roleplay activities with a shy leaner help to enable him or her to feel more comfortable when speaking in other activities out of role?


3 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Nick.

Like you, the issue of role play is one that I find intriguing (perhaps I should post on R for Role Play?). It would be interesting to know if there is any research into correlating learner types with attitudes to role play. Of course, one problem is that the term is stretched to cover everything from students performing a coursebook dialogue in pairs, to a class production of War and Peace! I think, though, you could devise a sliding scale of “theatricality” for role plays, from virtually zero – where the students are not expected to act as such, but simply pretend they are Bill or Kim or Debbie, as they perform a dialogue – and 10, where the students are asked to improvise an emotionally-charged scenario from the point of view of a pre-defined character (“You are a football hooligan who’s just been arrested by a Turkish policeman…”) . The more theatricality, the more inhibiting it may be for many students, who are being asked to conflate two skills that may be ‘foreign’ to them: acting, and speaking in a second language. It’s a bit like being asked to juggle and sing at the same time.

Another variable to factor in is, of course, the amount of preparation (including scripting and rehearsal) this is built in. Research suggests that – in terms of optimising output – the more the better.

3 02 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Hi Nick,

I too am a bit dubious on the roleplay issue – at early stages of the development of a classroom dynamic or with very shy students… hmmm… generally, not that many people, whether learning a language or not, like acting unless very much part of the feel of the classroom, an integrated activity or they’re caught unawares.

Something I picked up from Ken Wilson and used in a class had great results but this was very much because I knew my students and knew that they could handle the craziness. 🙂

Personally I feel that the this sort of thing comes after you have broken through the reticence.

3 02 2010
Marcos Benevides

Scott, your blog consistently has the best discussions, I must say!

I really like this idea for a scale of theatricality–but I think you leave out another kind of role-play, which I personally find very effective. I find that having students simulate, say, being employees at an English speaking company over the course of a semester (must. resist. plug.) allows for many of the identity-exploration advantages of role-plays, but without the silliness that turns a lot of Ss (and Ts) off of play-acting. What I mean is something more of a contextual simulation than something where Ss take on different characters, but one which nevertheless allows students to explore L2 identity issues.

I suppose that could fit into your scale as zero, but I don’t know. It just feels somehow… atheatrical. Perhaps what your RP scale needs is an identity x-axis and a context y-axis? Thus my approach to RP could be described as X=0 and Y=7 or 8 (low play-acting value, but high context). Your Kim and Debbie textbook dialogue would be something like X=3 and Y=1 (low X because of cookie-cutter characters, yet very little context); and a full stage performance of a play, with sets and costumes, could be high on both axes.

Hmm. Now you’ve got me thinking on my vacation. Thanks! 😉

3 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Marcos – your comments are consistently interesting, so take some credit for the fact that this is the best blog in the history of the universe. 😉

The distinction you make, between identity and context, is a good one. It’s more or less how I was taught to distinguish between role plays and simulations, where the latter are configured for 0 character change (i.e. you play yourself) but with varying degrees of context change: you play yourself as if you were trapped in a lift, on a desert island, in a company that manufactures Widgets (there! I did the plugging for you!). For those who don’t like acting, simulations seem a safer bet.

8 02 2010

I like this discussion of the nitty gritty of how teachers may help or hinder learners’ talking. This is arguably our most important job as teachers, but few coursebooks or resource books appear to give the matter much thought. Watching classes I have often noticed that the most successful speaking activity are the ones which hit a sweet spot somewhere between “too boring to bother” and “too interesting to do in the L2”. In the latter case learners often prefer to speak in L1 or say nothing at all rather than risk misrepresenting themselves and this often perplexes teachers. Perhaps we could adopt a “learner investment scale” for speaking activities, as you suggested with the role plays Scott, which takes into account these psychological factors.


17 02 2010

Ms Xie concludes that teachers should give students freedom to choose topics but from my own experience of teaching in China this is often a disaster. Unfortunately for us, most university students are accustomed to being told what to study and learn. For instance in a debate class I asked the monitor to collate some topics from the class. The results ranged from ‘having a holiday at home or going out’ to ‘canteen food’. With some dedication and enough energy you can wake them up and get them used to speaking and arguing about topics but only when they are abstract debates.

2 other problems constantly arise. Firstly, many students do not understand why they should argue against something they like (and they probably all like the same things). Secondly, students will say they have no opinion, or rather not one they will voice. After many years of suffering I eventually found that students need to learn about the topic first, then find an opinion. I always ask them to research before class and collate for and against arguments. Although most are copied and pasted from the net and simply repeated. I was once amazed by a class of 30 who all memorised a debate for their exam. Sadly, students are used to this method of listen and repeat or read and repeat and it is only by actually debating, especially in front of their peers, that they will have to think on their feet and possibly find an opinion. With regards the topic,s they should be well introduced and part of their content learning.

23 03 2020

Hi everyone. Very interesting comments. But the problem is in part cultural too. But i am also of opinion that a good teacher can overcome the reticence by working on building rapport with students outside the classroom. In the Indian education system teacher’s job is only to teach. But as a teacher i noted that interacting with students outside the classroom, chatting with them in the caffe’, cracking jokes (things which you don’t see an average school or university teacher doing) helps in making the environment more relaxed in the class room also.

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