S is for Silence

10 06 2012

In Teaching Unplugged (Meddings and Thornbury, 2009) we have an activity called ‘The Sounds of Silence’, whereby the class simply listen in silence for one minute to whatever’s going on around them (open the windows or the door, if possible) and then share what they have heard.  You can see Luke demonstrating it here, on the shores of a lake in Austria.

Claire Kramsch, in her latest book (2009: 209), suggests that as teachers we are afraid of silence: ‘We like lively classes, we want to see the students participate, speak up, take the floor, contribute actively to class discussion.  Communicative language teaching puts a premium on talk and thus often rewards students who “do” conversation and self-expression rather than those who reflect and understand in silence.  But words have no meaning without the silences that surround them…’

In an interesting take on silence, Philips (1994) uses a framework devised by Jensen (1973) that identifies five different functions of silence, each function having both a positive and negative aspect:

a. linkage: silence can act as a bond or as a device to separate people.

b. affecting: silence can represent respect, kindness, and acceptance, and bring about a time for reflection and a healing period after a ‘confrontation’.  On the other hand it can be seen as embodying scorn, hostility, coldness, defiance, or even hate.

c. revelation: silence can lead to understanding and self-awareness.  It can also be used to conceal opinions and feelings.

d. judgemental: silence can lead to an assumption of assent and agreement with what has been said.  It can also be interpreted as disagreement and resentment.

e. activating: silence can communicate an attitude of thoughtfulness and consideration or an absence of thought or opinion.

Phillips uses this framework to suggest ways of intervening — or not intervening — during, for example, feedback sessions on teacher training courses.  The framework can also help make sense of trainees’ own silences.

The power of silence has, of course, being exploited in at least one teaching method: the Silent Way, in which the ‘the teacher is almost always silent’ (Stevick, 1980:45).  The teacher’s silence provides the cognitive and affective space within which the learner takes charge of his or her learning.  At the same time, by keeping quiet, the teacher is in a better position to ‘read’ the learner: ‘The teacher learns the student at the same time that the student is learning the language’ (op. cit.: 48-49).

Stevick incorporated moments of silence into his teaching when he was using other methods as well. For example, at the end of a Community Language Learning workshop, he asked the learners to sit in total silence for period of three minutes in order to reflect on the lesson, and he concludes that ‘the opportunity to sort things out free of distraction from the knower [i.e. the teacher] or other learners, and safe from competition from other learners, was evidently a very welcome relief to many’ (op. cit.: 154).

In a similar spirit, Jim Scrivener, in his new book, Classroom Management Techniques (2012: 187) recommends that teachers withhold their responses from time to time: ‘Acknowledge student contributions, but don’t feel the need to say something after each one’ .  Scrivener comments that ‘often, the space and silence (i.e. the absence of the teacher saying something) is what students need to organise their own thoughts and find something to say’ (ibid.). Likewise Kramsch (op.cit.: 209-210) suggests that ‘we may want to leave time in class for students to write in silence, to have a silent, private contact with the shape of a poem and its silent sounds, to listen in silence to the cadences of a student or to our own voice reading aloud, to follow silently the rhythm of a conversation played on tape, the episodic structure of a story well told.  We may want to even foster silence as a way of letting the students reflect on what they are right now experiencing’ .

And, of course, there is evidence that at least some learners need time – the so-called ‘silent period’ – to process the second language in advance of producing it.  As Krashen (1987:26) describes it: ‘It has often been noted that children acquiring a second language in a natural, informal linguistic environment, may say very little for several months following their first exposure to the second language’.  According to Krashen, ‘the child is building up competence in the second language by listening, by understanding the language around him.  In accordance with the input hypothesis, speaking ability emerges on its own after enough competence has been developed by listening and understanding’ (ibid.: 27). These findings undergird the methodology of what are sometimes called ‘comprehension approaches’, such as Total Physical Response, in which learners are not forced to speak until they are ready.

However, as Ellis (2008: 74) cautions:  ‘There is some disagreement regarding the contribution that the silent period makes to language learning’ and there is considerable individual variation between learners, some opting for production even when it is not required.  One researcher concluded that ‘the initial silent period is in many cases a period of incomprehension that does little or nothing to promote acquisition and that if the silent period is a prolonged one it may reflect psychological withdrawal’ (ibid.). Ellis cites research by Saville-Troike (1988), on the other hand, that found that ‘while some child learners may use silence as a strategy for avoiding learning, many make active use of it to prepare for the time they begin speaking the L2’ (ibid). In fact, such learners are only outwardly silent: what they are in fact doing is engaging in unspoken or barely perceptible vocalising, known as ‘private speech’.

Maybe, as the composer John Cage ([1961] 1973: 191) tirelessly pointed out,

                                        There is no

such thing as silence. Something is al-

ways happening that makes a sound.

No one can have an idea

once he starts really listening…


Silence seemed an appropriate topic on which to end this cycle of blogging.  I have a busy summer coming up, a good excuse to take an extended break.  Also, I need time to re-work a selection of these blog posts for an e-book to be published by The Round in the next few months, and called Big Questions in ELT. Look out for it!

Thanks to everyone who has followed this blog, contributed to the discussions, and helped make it such a rewarding experience for me.

So, until we meet again, ‘the rest is silence’.


Cage, J. ([1961] 1973) Silence. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press.

Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edition), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jensen, V. (1973) ‘Communicative functions of silence,’ ETC, 30.

Kramsch, C. (2009) The Multilingual Subject, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krashen, S.D.  (1987) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.

Meddings, L., and Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching, Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Philips, D. (1994) ‘The functions of silence within the context of teacher training’, ELT Journal, 48, 3.

Scrivener, J. (2012) Classroom Management Techniques, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stevick, E. W. (1980) Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Photos by ST.



63 responses

10 06 2012

Thank you for this intelligent and thought-provoking blog, Scott. Enjoy the sounds of summer, and the silence.

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob. And thanks for all your insighful comments over the two and half years of this blog.

10 06 2012

Yep Scott. TEFL likes loud and talkative classes but some students like to work on their own and if you are doing writing it is useful (it seems) to let students do it on their own. I’ve had many angry students complain and ask “why do we keep having to check with our partners, do pair work and work in groups?”. Their explanations were that it wastes time and they want independence and preparation for using English on their own.

I love writing classes and speaking ones too so I often give 1-5 min prep time for an exercise. Just look at the 1 min prep time in IELTS part 2. MOST people use it but some still don’t and prepare to dive in. The same in the writing parts. Planning is key but still they go straight for the writing.

A kid said he had 10 hours of classes last week and at 7 pm I asked him what he’d learned, he couldn’t remember. He just went from class to class. No thinking time, no reflection, absorption, assimilation, you name it. And I very much doubt he did it when he got home either.

This raises another related issue which is that of temp. We use it to keep student motivated and involved so we cut activity times and rush students. Well, it doesn’t work in the places I teach. One intensive exam prep class (10 hrs) even complained and said I was moving too fast and they’d prefer just taking it easy with 1 reading and questions/vocab for an hour. This definitely had lots of silent reading time which I timed. I also used to love reading case studies with students for 10 minutes. That communal feeling is good and then people say “hey, anyone understand this bit??” and “no,I’m not there yet” or “what does X mean?”. I purposefully didn’t read the texts before so I could enjoy them with the students and get involved in the exploration.

So, silence? Thumbs up for me, silent thumbs though.

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Good point, Phil, about a tendency to hurry students through reading texts. I have to say, though, that I’ve often felt that classrooms aren’t the best place for silent reading – I know that I am easily distracted myself by other readers, conscious that I’m either going too slow or too fast, and bothered by one student’s surreptitious rootling in a dictionary and another’s audible sub-vocalizations. But maybe if there were more of a supportive, communal feeling of the type you mention, where the text was tackled as a kind of collaborative challenge, it would work better.

12 06 2012
phil wade

Well said Scott! Many argue that reading is a personal solitary Experience that should be done at home. Perhaps if it’s like reading a newspaper or a book but what about kid story time?? That’s always in a group, oral and interactive and very engaging. A bit like watching a film with students and talking through it like you do when you watch a DVD with friends.

Thanks to your Degrammaring ideas I’ve grown to like reading with students again and discovering, taking to pieces then rebuilding and extending language and ideas, all from a text. When I’ve planned this it hasn’t worked well but when I’ve read the texts with the students and shared the emotions it’s really gone well.

This definitely makes you question how we teach reading. If we aren’t reading the text for the message, content, experience etc and only as a means to do some gist/detailed questions or introduce a language point then why bother? It’s all rather cloak and dagger.

Best of luck for the summer and enjoy your break. I’ve got a good excuse now to sift through all your previous posts.

13 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

My memories of classroom reading or writing are often like this:

13 06 2012
TaosWire (@TaosWire)

You are awesome! I do consider TPR beyond silence. I consider it a way to engage speaking, even when the student may not be ready. This is a way to show them literally what the language means. Simon says, “Stand up.”. Doing is sometimes direct and fun. Have a great summer!

10 06 2012
Pearson Brown

Sundays wont be the same. You are a class act, Scott.

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Pearson. Sundays won’t be the same for you. Mondays won’t be the same for me! (Responding to the comments, I mean).

10 06 2012

Lionel Billows also wrote about “The importance of the incubation period”

“A new word or expression needs to sink into the mind and remain maturing there for a definite period, like a seed in the earth or an egg in the nest, until it emerges as an independent and living unit of speech. Plugging away at a new word or expression during this incubation period may produce only exasperation or staleness. I have noticed again and again that a class which seems slow to respond in speech to what I say, but waits and listens to my prolonged use of a new expression until the pressure becomes too great for silence, achieves fluency with accuracy in a shorter time than the class that begins to speak before the heard expressions have matured in the mind. I have learnt therefore to wait for the moment when a class has reached that degree of ripeness which produces a spontaneous bursting of the skins of reserve.”

“Wenn die Zeit gekommen ist, platzen auch die Pfirsiche im Schatten.” (When the time has come even the peaches in the shade burst.”)

This last reminds me of research I read on my MA in Lancaster of examples of students who say very little in class but learn by “eavesdropping”.

“Allwright (1984), Ellis(1984a,1995) and Schumann & Schumann (1977a) looked at what they termed spectator interaction or eavesdropping where learners are privy to the interaction but are not actually involved in it. They found that such bystander behaviour can be beneficial to learners.” I remember us discussing students who say nothing or very little in class but who absorb enormous amounts of language, rehearse what they would say in their heads if they did speak and learn a lot of English.

So maybe we shouldn’t be urging our learners to speak, speak. speak all the time. Time spent understanding the silence of our learners and really trying to understand why people might not want to speak can be far more valuable than urging everybody to speak all the time.

“People hearing without listening……the sounds…………..of silence…………”

Thanks for this post Scott, a very appropriate way of pausing the blog for the summer!

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mark – that’s a great piece of Billows! Is it from ‘The Techniques of Language Teaching’ (1961)? And, yes, that study by Allwright, in which he said that – for some learners, second language learning is ‘a spectator sport’ – do you happen to have a reference? I’d like to include it in one of the re-worked peices I do for ‘Big Questions’.

Thanks, tooo, Mark, for providing the lake for Luke’s ‘sounds of silence’ activity!

11 06 2012

yep, it is from his 1961 book. And the person who did the study with Dick was I think A.Slimani. I tried to find the reference but couldn’t but I’ll keep looking for it! I like providing lakes for lots of things Scott 🙂

10 06 2012
Sulabha Sidhaye

Silence is called “maun” in Indian languages and has been used for centuries as a tool for various planned purposes like reflection, concentration, meditation, patience and even punishment !
In a school where I was teaching, “maun” was to be observed on Saturday mornings, till the first break, by all . No bell rang that morning and things worked by the hands of the clock. It was an interesting experience for students and teachers. We found that we completed studying a greater amount of content on silent days ! Of course some students found imaginative escape routes like learning the sign language of deaf-mutes for communication !

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Great comment, Sulabha! I hasn’t heard of ‘maun’ but shall definitely co-opt this idea, and maybe use it on my courses this summer. Thanks!

10 06 2012

pretty much my blog post http://ara-bic-pen.blogspot.co.il/2012/05/silence-amplifies.html (Adrian Underhill’s idea) from a month ago 🙂 Enjoy the summer

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Ed. Your post was eminently more succinct and to the point than mine!

10 06 2012
James Quartley

Scott, I find my silence early on Sunday mornings. While my family are still asleep, I creep down to the office with a coffee to see what’s on your blog this week. Usually, it’s a guaranteed 40 minutes+. Precious and priceless with young children about to wake up the world.

In the classroom, I enjoy asking the questions and allowing the silence to linger as the students think, look at each other (to see if someone else will answer), or look at me -hopeful that I will continue talking. Just waiting for a student to be cajoled, by the ‘awkwardness’ of silence, in to uttering something can seem like a very long time, but it always works. The trick is to hold your nerve and make the ‘it’s your turn to speak’ face. Teacher silence is also a wonderful classroom management tool for getting attention.

Silence makes a space. I’m not sure every learner uses it as described by Stevick or Scrivener, but it does allow for reflection for some and perhaps the others fill the void with all the other thoughts they have (‘wish i’d got a coffee before class’, ‘how much longer to go’, ‘I’m hungry’, etc). It is a space for reflection, but what is reflected we cannot be certain or automatically attribute a pedagogic value to it.

When I moved to Germany 4 years ago, my daughter, at age three, was submerged in to a German Kindergarten. She spoke virtually no words there for three weeks and then started to try and communicate in her new language. She hasn’t stopped since. I can find some connection with Krashen, with regard to silence to listen, define or discover patterns, hypothesise on the ways and rules to produce, and then breaking of the silence in order to check the hypotheses.

Finding quieter moments for contemplation may be increasingly difficult, but what fills or makes up our silence is perhaps more interesting – I will miss the silence on Sundays and the thinking, reflection and discussion it produces. Have a great summer…hope it goes quickly.

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Hi James, thanks for the comment (and kind words). I was gratified to hear of your astute use of silence in question-and-answer routines, which would seem to bear out my (and Jim’s) point. Teachers are typically in such a rush to move through the lesson that there is very little ‘wait time’ after questions, or, as in your example, after learners’ responses.I remember once Adrian Underhill telling me of a very simple technique, which is not to give immediate feedback on students’ answers to your questions, but continue soliciting answers and then re-cap the answers you’ve been given and ask the learners themselves to decide which is the correct one.

10 06 2012

There are so many implications and applications for silence in ELT. In a group of 15 students, there’s always ones who are more silent than the others (in Brazil these would usually be at most 3 or 4, not more.) One thing I’ve noticed by monitoring my own teaching and observing colleagues is, as Scott argues above, we indeed tend to devote more attention to the ‘talkative’ ones, the noisy ones. For most of the time, the ‘silent’ ones just look on. We like students “who ‘do’ conversation”. The question is, why do they refrain from speaking more frequently? (or should the others be speaking a bit less?)

This semester I decided to pay close attention to a group of 3 teenage learners in an upper-intermediate class that takes place once a week (every Friday for 2.5 hours). These students are typically quiet. One of the them wouldn’t say boo to a goose. However, they all seem to articulate their ideas competently in pairwork tasks. Anyway, I decided to investigate their quietness by talking informally to each one of them separately during our breaks. There were some interesting findings. Here’s what they said: 1) “The other girls don’t like me. I feel every time I say something, they’re analysing me.” 2) “This is just the way I am. I don’t talk much in Portuguese, let alone in English.” 3) “The other students have all been in this group for a long while and are good friends. I’m a newcomer. I don’t feel completely comfortable yet. But I like discussing things with you,’teacher’.”

These learners’ answers (and the points in Scott’s post) make me wonder how effective I (we?) have been in managing noise and silence in our classes. How effective am I being in helping quiet learners express themselves more frequently and meaningfully in class and beyond? And how could I be helping the “noisy” ones perhaps become more reflective of their own learning and mindful of the quiet people in class?

Thanks, Scott, for a brilliant post and so much food for thought. Have a great summer.


11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Fernando, for that perceptive comment. Reminds us how important it is to get individual feedback from learners as to their in-class processes. Orchestrating the quiet ‘instruments’ alongside the noisy ones is as much a challenge to the teacher as it is to the orchestra conductor, perhaps!

Have a great summer – or is it winter? – yourself!

10 06 2012
martyn shannehaye.

I trust this silent rebirth creates waves of amusement and energy-filled bubbles of re-vision for a refreshed world view of simplicity and love for the sacred word….
…and which our being feels with our fingers… and feels with our toes, because..well….love is all around us… that’s how the feeling goes…

this silence is orgasmic…it’s aum-a-sexual :-)….Rumi knew that…and so did Osho…

Thanks for letting my previous posts through onto your blog, I just needed / wanted to let you ,in particular, know what happens when awareness meets restrictive conditioning in the daily grind…

….and that we all have a responsibility to create the (educational) world we love and that loves us back, with the assurance of ordinary people who are much more willing and able, as students and facilitators, than perfunctory education systems can imagine.
All of this begins and never-ends with all of us.

Thanks again,



11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Martyn. Silence is perhaps the most appropriate response. 😉

10 06 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

Scott, I can’t believe there’ll be no more Sunday morning posts. I’ll miss this blog. I’ll really do.
Thank you so much for all the posts, the insights and the class and tact with which you replied to each and every contribution.
The best of luck with your next project.

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Luiz – it’s the comments of yourself and others that so energized me to keep blogging. But there comes a point… 🙂

10 06 2012

Silence is a big subject!

1) I once asked a classmate/friend why he never took notes. He said he couldn’t write AND listen. He missed what was being said when he focused on writing. He said he also didn’t comment in class as much as he wanted to because by the time he was ready to speak, the topic had changed. That was a revelation to me. For learners who struggle with distraction, a bit of (relatively) quiet time for reading, reviewing notes or organizing thoughts can be a gift.

2) You know how they hand out an evaluation form at the end of some seminars and meetings and ask you to turn it in as you leave? I always wonder about the quality of that information, since the presenter often talks relentlessly during the 2 minutes allotted for filling the forms out. Maybe in some cases it’s a way of *preventing* commentary — perhaps some presenters are not so sure they want to know what people really think!

3) It seems that my students are more comfortable with silent periods once they’ve gotten to know each other. It feels as if sitting together quietly involves trust. Maybe trust that the silence is being used in the 5 positive ways listed by Phillips?

I’ll miss these Sunday morning posts and look forward to their return sometime in the future, In the meantime, I guess I can get a “fix” by catching up on older posts and their comments!

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kathy, for this comment, and for many others. Your mention of the student who had difficulty processing language both receptively and productively at the same time raises the whole thorny issue of so-called multi-tasking — which may be second nature to us in our first language, but might not be so easy in a second.

Yes, the blog it is not going to go away, and feel free to post comments — I’ll be checking it regularly, but just won’t be posting.

10 06 2012

Scott, I love your blog and will miss it but want to wish you a good summer.

I appreciate what you shared about silence in the class. I find this difficult but will from now on will try some of the ideas.

Thank you once again and hope you will be back after the summer!

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Anne – I’m sure I will miss it too. But I plan to be back!

10 06 2012

Thanks so much for this and all the others, Scott. It’s been a really enjoyable read. Now I might have to go back to buying a Sunday paper 😉

10 06 2012
Marisa Constantinides

A fitting end of a cycle – one which has given us many enjoyable reads and sparked off some great discussions. I really hope you will be able to come back to it – if not, looking forward to your next great idea.


11 06 2012
Mark Kulek

Scott, thanks so much for your engaging posts. I’ve learned a lot.
Mark in Gifu

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mark. Hope to catch up with you again soon.

11 06 2012

Have a great summer, looking forward to these popping back into the inbox in September 🙂

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Karenne. September seems a long way off, but I’m sure it’ll come round before we know it!

11 06 2012
Ben Naismith

Like everyone else here, I’ll miss these posts showing up in my email and look forward to the book and the return of the blog. Have a great summer.

11 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Ben. Keep an eye out for the e-book – I’m sure it will be announced on Twitter.

11 06 2012

Thanks for giving me lots to think about, although I rarely comment I always enjoy reading your posts and look forward to reading more in the future. Have a great summer. 🙂

11 06 2012

Tara Scott – have a good summer. Thanks for your unstinting efforts here on your blog and elsewhere. A true inspiration, you are.

13 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Candy. It’s the likes of you what keeps me going. 😉

11 06 2012
Paraskevi Andreopoul (@pandreop)

Silence in teaching well reminds me of Reflection and redefinition of the teaching and learning goals…please stop to think back and reflect what went well or badly in class the past academic year… Have a nice summer!

13 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, reflection, incluidng introspection, seems to implicate silence – the kind of silence that is evoked by the image of mountains reflected in a lake.

12 06 2012

Have a lovely summer, then hurry up and return refreshed please! 😉
Oh, and here’s a little afterthought:

12 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Darridge – and thanks for that link. I particularly noted the following:

“Sometimes I think silence is one way of not letting our differences define who we are for one another”.

“On yet another level, silence means listening. …. That’s the great ethical element of silence: to check my words and listen to another point of view”.

“People sometimes talk as if they were “looking for silence,” as if silence had gone away or they had misplaced it somewhere. But it is hardly something they could have misplaced. Silence is the infinite horizon against which is set every word they have ever spoken, and they can’t find it? Not to worry—it will find them.”

12 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Now that I’m taking a break, regular readers might be interested in these stats (since you contributed to them).

This blog has run up

130 posts (since its inception in Dec 2009; i.e. one a week), of which the most viewed have been

P is for Phonemic chart
T is for Technology
C is for Coursebook (a guest spot by Lindsay Clandfield)
P is for PPP
K is for Krashen

It has garnered 5500 comments, and these are the posts that attracted the most comments:

T is for Technology
C is for Coursebook
F is for Fluency
N is for Neoliberalism
P is for PPP

The most popular tags were Dogme, coursebooks, methodology, teaching unplugged, and SLA.

Viewing rates have quadrupled since inception, reaching 20,000 a month in April and May this year. By far the majority of viewers (this year at least) hail from the UK, followed by the US, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Brazil, Japan, Italy, Australia and Poland, in that order.

Thanks to you all – I couldn’t have done it without you.

12 06 2012

Greece follows too 🙂

12 06 2012

From psychological point of view, the introverts are at a disadvantage in the productive skill, speaking, because they either are too shy or do not take risks talking. Therefore, many teachers traditionally do not approve of the students’ silence in their classrooms. In fact, they prefer to have extroverts who express themselves freely whenever they get the chance. However, I have experienced that by short silence, the teacher can stimulate the students to talk. It would be a good idea for the teacher to remain silent so that the students would “hold the floor” for some time. In conclusion, I think that silence is not desirable whenever the teacher focuses on improving the students’ speaking skill while the teacher’s silence is desirable because it would prevent him/her from holding the floor. Generally speaking, silence may provide both with a meditative atmosphere to come up with creative ideas and self expressions.

12 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Shahram, and it reminds me of a comment I posted last year on the N is for Not Interfering thread in this blog:

I have done something similar, whereby I simply announce, at the start, “A strange thing happened at the weekeend…” And then nothing. And wait. Eventually someone will fill the gap: “What?” And then the conversation evolves. (Tip: it helps if you are sat down).

12 06 2012

Hi Scott, I remained silent for a couple of days 😉

Thanks for the link. One reason I like that activity is that it embodies the idea that there is more in our immediate environment than is at first apparent.

What initially feels like silence actually isn’t, and sounds multiply like stars in the night sky to the accustoming eye, and the interest comes from realising that everyone has noticed different things, or has used different words to describe the same things. It suggests something about the quality of attention we give the world and one another, something which my lakeside colleague Mark Andrews will I’m sure be exploring in his own book for the round.

Someone who sat in on a class recently gave an interesting bit of feedback which may or may not be related – they said it was interesting how slow it was.

By which I think (or hope!) they meant that I wasn’t rushing people. I think those moments in class when we think ‘oh my goodness, no one has anything to say about this’ are very important. More often than not people do have something to say, and one thing leads to another. Of course, sometimes it means that the task instructions were hopeless and no one knows what they’re being asked to do! But trusting in that moment of reflection – which probably feels longer to us as teachers than it does to anyone else in the room – is also an important use of silence. A gathering of thought.

I can’t wait to see more of Big Questions in ELT, and I would suggest that one reason this blog has been so successful, and so consistently recommendable, is that your own rich posts have been succinct enough to allow space for comment and reflection.

Thanks for all of them


13 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Luke – although your silence was equally eloquent 😉

I am definitely planning to build more reflective silences and more wait time into my on-site teacher training classes this summer. One of the interesting things about teaching online is that silence is, in a sense, already integrated into the task cycle – tasks are posted, students respond on disucssion boards (much like this) taking as long as they need, and the instructor responds in kind. There is much more TIME for reflection to kick in. The challenge is, then, how to build this into face-to-face teaching/training – without a frustrating lack of pace or loss of the sense of immediacy.

Perhaps I should take them to Central Park and we can listen to the ducks 😉

12 06 2012
Nick Bilbrough

Hi Scott,

A few things about silence that have come up for me recently…

1) The other day a Chinese trainee teacher trainer from a group I’ve been working with for the last three months mentioned how frustrated she felt when we kept asking them to discuss things in groups without allowing thinking time first. She said that more vocal participants would always jump in with their ideas before she’d even had a chance to process the question and that thinking time was something she definitely would want to incorporate into her own teacher training in China. It reminded me of the old ‘think, pair, share’ idea and how this may also be a useful in a teacher training context.

2) Richard Gallen’s diary of his own experiences learning Spanish in a class (IATEFL presentation a few years back) where he found that he was often more able to take on board corrective feedback from that teacher that was related to other people’s utterances (i.e when he was silent), rather than his own

(3) Last Sunday I went to a Quaker meeting and basically sat in silence for an hour with a group of about fifty people. About five people got up to speak at various points but you could tell that it was to say things that they’d been thinking about in the silence and was not pre-planned. Every one who spoke kind of built on what had gone before. This felt very different from other religious gatherings where you might have a vicar delivering a pre-planned sermon to an audience. Is Dogme the quakerism of the educational world?

Enjoy your break Scott!


12 06 2012

This interests me, Nick. I think I posted a similar question on the Dogme discussion list a long time ago. For some, Dogme must seem a bit like a Friends gathering, while for others I think Teaching Unplugged comes across more like the Shaker movement.

A Canadian teacher with whom I once observed a class commented how we need to get away from the traditional church’s seating arrangement (pews facing forward) in our classrooms. It would be fun to match up methods, techniques, and practices from ELT with those of various religions. Of course, who would dare? 🙂


13 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

“Is Dogme the quakerism of the educational world?”

I’d prefer to think of it as the Zen of ELT. But, hey. 🙂

14 06 2012

This is the first time i am reading your blog post and i must say that i really enjoyed it while learning new thing. İ have never thought about the importance silence in the class. Thanks for making aware of the place of the silence in class.
Enjoy your holiday!…

23 06 2012

Dear Sir,
I know that this isn’t where I am supposed to ask this question but still I’ll go ahead and ask. Sorry. Can you please tell me the benefits and limitations of the Covert and Overt Approaches in Teaching grammar to primary ESL students? Thanks a lot Sir.

26 06 2012

Thanks Scott!

Beyond the don’t say anything, just listen task which I guess can be adapted to suit all levels, with responses ranging from concrete to abstract and which I really look forward to trying…I do believe silence has a HUGE place in the classroom and it is thanks to ‘active’ silence that I’ve heard comments that have given me plenty of food for thought. I remember, when after a test, I asked ss if they thought the test tested what we’d learned….. and following a very long awkward silence, they said… not really…perhaps, if I hadn’t brought this topic to discussion and if we hadn’t endured the awkward silence, I wouldn’t have heard some very insightful comments which indeed contributed to our assessment cycle.
Lots of people talk about critical thinking these days, and I guess that in lessons where ss are asked to come up with reflective questions and to see things from different perspectives, silence should have a very important place. So thanks for somehow recognising the importance of silence.

Now I do hope your silence doesn’t endure that much and that you come back full of insightful ideas in the very near future. Cheers to your ‘silence rebirth’

29 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nati, for the comment, the anecdote, and the good wishes!

29 06 2012
Ben Knight

Another angle on getting comfortable with a bit of silence is the benefit of increasing the wait time after asking a question. If a teacher is too quick to jump in when there’s a silence after a question, students (esp in schools) soon learn that their best tactic is to wait for the teacher to jump in and give them more help – instead of trying to think it through themselves. Longer wait times result in greater/wider participation, longer responses, more variation in answers. Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black (Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment) go into this in more detail.

29 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Ben – thanks for the reminder about the importance of wait time. The impulse to drive a lesson forward by means of rapid question-and-answer routines must leave many learners anxious and frustrated. One of the benefits of the Silent Way is that it prioritises thoughtfulness (beautifully evoked in a recent post by Anthony Gaughan).

7 07 2012
Jon Duckett

Interesting framework. Silence is certainly a powerful tool which needs to be used with skill, as it can be so easily misinterpreted.

29 10 2012

I clicked on the John Cage video but there was no sound. Did anyone else have the same problem?

9 11 2012
Nick Bilbrough

I’m all for allowing sufficient wait time Scott, but this is going too far 🙂

3 01 2013
Adam Simpson (@yearinthelifeof)

Rumours are you’re returning to blogging soon… any truth to it?

3 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Adam – yes, see the comment inserted into the blog intro. First post in the new cycle will go up on Sunday 6th Jan!

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