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:

http://www.deltapublishing.co.uk/development/learners-who-are-shy-to-speak

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!