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.

F is for Feel

19 12 2010

Absolutely freezing: View from my hotel room in Warsaw last week

I’ve just come back from Poland where I gave a series of workshops on grammar teaching, one of which was called ‘Getting the feel for it’, and in which I told this story:

I was once teaching a group of fairly advanced students and the ‘structure of the day’ was gradable vs ungradable adjectives (of the type angry vs furious, hungry vs starving, cold vs freezing etc) and, specifically, the intensifying adverbs (extremely vs absolutely) that they collocate with. Not sure either of my ability to establish the difference nor of their existing knowledge of it, I decided to test the students first, and asked them to decide which intensifier (extremely or absolutely) went best with each of a list of adjectives, some gradable, some not. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, when I checked the task, most of the students had most of the answers correct. “Starving?” “Absolutely.” “Hot?” “Extremely,” etc. “How were you able to do that?” I asked at one point, fishing for the rule. Whereupon one student answered: “It just feels right”.

“Great,” I said, “you just saved me the trouble of having to teach you something!”

“It just feels right”: isn’t this, after all, the ideal state we want our learners to be in? To have the gut-feeling that it’s not “How long are you living here?” but “How long have you been living here?” and not “I like too much the football” but “I like football very much” – irrespective of their capacity to state the rule. This is what the Germans call Sprachgefühl – literally ‘language-feel’: a native-like intuition of what is right.

So, how do you get it? Proponents of the Direct Method would argue that instruction only in the target language is the pre-condition: any reference to, or acknowledgement of,  the learner’s L1 would threaten the native-like intuitions that an entirely monolingual approach aims to inculcate. Total immersion is an extreme version of this philosophy.

In the same tradition, but coming from a  humanist point of view, Caleb Gattegno believed that – in order to get a feel for the target language –  no amount of telling or of repeating or of memorising would work. Instead, learners must develop their own ‘inner criteria’ for correctness. In order to do this, they would need to access ‘the spirit of the language’. And this spirit was to be found in its words – not the ‘big’ lexical words, but the small, functional words that – in English at least – carry the burden of its grammar:

Since it is not possible to resort to a one-to-one correspondence, the only way open is to reach the area of meaning that the words cover, and find in oneself whether this is a new experience which yields something of the spirit of the language, or whether there is an equivalent experience in one’s own language but expressed differently (Gattegno, 1962).

Cuisenaire rods

In the Silent Way, then, learners engage with a relatively limited range of language items, initially, but with a great deal of concentration.  Concentration is facilitated through the use of such tactile devices as cuisenaire rods (see this comment in the last post on Body).

Subsequently, Krashen (e.g. 1981) would argue that a ‘feel for grammaticality’ cannot be learned; it can only be acquired.  That is to say, it can only be internalised through ‘meaningful interaction in the target language’ (1981, p. 1). Later still, the argument as to whether explicit knowledge can be converted to implicit knowledge, and by what means, has exercised the likes of the two Ellises (Rod and Nick), among others. Does practice induce it? Is exposure the trick? And how do you test for it? For example, do grammaticality tests (in which test-users simply decide which of a list of sentences are acceptable or not) provide a reliable measure of Sprachgefühl? And can learners eventually forget the rules they once learned, and function solely on feel?

Finally, connectionist models of learning suggest that feel is simply the effect of the strengthening of neural pathways that results from repeated firings across the mental network. This argues for massive exposure, coupled with continuous use and feedback: it’s really total immersion all over again. For many learners, of course, this is simply not possible. So, how else can they get a feel for English grammar?


Gattegno, C. 1962. Teaching foreign languages. The Silent Way.

Krashen, S. 1981. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.