Brainstorming about Quiet English Learners

Dear Dr. Mooney,
About half of my students are ELs. Their language abilities range from beginner to almost native-speaker like. Most are really well behaved, polite, kind, and hard working. I really enjoy being their teacher! The problem is that some are very hesitant to talk when I call on them in class. Even when I know they know the answer, they seem too shy or intimidated to speak in front of the class. What can I do to encourage them to engage more in class discussions?

Teacher of Quiet ELs

There are many reasons why an English Learner (EL) might remain silent during whole class discussions. They might be in the Silent Period. Many need more wait time when questions are asked. Still others need different opportunities to engage with peers.

Quiet, but Busy

If you have indications that the students understand what’s being said, then a potential cause of their silence is that they are still in what scholars call the Silent Period. It happens to almost all language learners. It’s during this time that they are very busy absorbing everything that’s going on around them. Their brains are working to sort out this new language and connect it to what they already know. The Silent Period can last up to two years depending upon the students’ prior exposure to English and their schooling experiences. In the meantime, continue to make your speaking as comprehensible to them as possible and be patient with their developing skills.

Increase Your Wait Time

Responding to a question in front of a room full of your peers can be overwhelming for many native English speakers. Now imagine doing so in a language you don’t yet fully grasp! To prepare to respond, beginning English Learners must hear your question, translate it into their native language, come up with an answer, and then translate back into English. Many teachers don’t provide enough wait time for that process and by the time the EL is ready to respond, the teacher has already called on another student or asked a different question, which starts the process all over again! If you know the EL knows the answer to your question, try giving them more wait time. While you wait – Smile encouragingly. Require other students to wait patiently. Point to any words or visuals that might support their answer. Nod affirmatively when they begin speaking. Don’t cut them off, but reiterate and fill out their response, if needed. Most importantly – wait quietly so they can think!

Engage in Small Groups

Another idea to consider is the environment in which you are expecting them to speak. Even if students’ brains are working quickly at the process described above, they may still be hesitant to speak to the whole class. An easy solution is pair or small group work. Classes of 25 or more students can’t allow every student to speak individually when the teacher asks a question. However, when students are placed in pairs, triads, or small groups, they have many more opportunities to talk. Discussing an academic subject with 2 or 3 other students is much less intimidating. Small groups typically support one another in their efforts to communicate and when the tasks they are given to discuss actually REQUIRE talk, most students will engage. Even students in the silent period will often find ways to communicate their thoughts and ideas, even if it’s through gestures or drawings. 

Suggested Activity: Progressive Brainstorming

A fun way to utilize small group work is with Progressive Brainstorming. This activity can be used with all grade levels and with any content area subject. 

Step 1

Divide students into 4 or more small groups. On each table, place a paper with a question related to the content topic for discussion 

Example: Mammals

Table 1: List every mammal you know. 

Table 2: Where do mammals live? 

Table 3: What do mammals need to survive?

Table 4: How are mammals different from other animals?

Example: Civil War

Table 1: List countries that have had a civil war.

Table 2: What are some reasons why a country may experience a civil war?

Table 3: What are the short- and long-term effects of a civil war?

Table 4: How could civil wars be prevented?

Step 2

Each group meets at a table and is given a different color marker (red for one group, green for another, etc.). At the beginning of the activity, groups read their discussion question and talk about their collective response. One person in the group records the group’s ideas on the paper, but everyone in the group must contribute their thoughts. 

Step 3

After a limited amount of time, the groups rotate to a different table, taking their colored marker with them. They read and discuss the question at their new table, adding their ideas to the paper. Students should try to come up with ideas not already written by previous groups.

Step 4

Once groups have rotated through each discussion question, they return to their original table. Now, they read what every group has contributed to this topic and create a summary to share with the whole class. Differently colored markers allow for the teacher to see which group contributed various ideas.

This activity comes from Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning (2015) by Pauline Gibbons.
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Because ELs have had the opportunity to contribute ideas in multiple small group discussions, they may be more willing to share the same ideas during a large group wrap-up. Teachers can encourage their sharing by talking with students during the small group work, pointing out for students when they’ve had a good idea, and suggesting they share with the whole class during the large discussion.

Encouraging quiet students to speak can be challenging when you don’t know the cause of their silence. Hopefully the information above gives you a few ideas to consider the next time you hear those proverbial crickets after asking a question!

Excerpts of this article appeared previously in “Why Won’t My ELs Speak Up?”
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