Silence is golden: Why listening needs to be valued as much as speaking with new EAL students

Ciaran Gallagher
3rd February 2017 at 14:03

Listening and speaking

"I'm worried that she doesn't seem to be talking?"

"He just sits there." 

I have heard these comments made about EAL students all the time and even said them a few times.

It's natural to feel worried when children do not speak, especially when they have been in your classroom for weeks ... even months. Nevertheless, it is completely normal and we shouldn't pressurise the children to talk as they are developing their listening skills.

I can testify that as a teacher who works in China and does not speak the language that I have often remained silent.

It is not that I'm being rude, but instead I am trying to recognise patterns, individual words and understand the meaning of the words from body language, visual stimuli and other contextual clues.

Now after a few months, I am able to use simple phrases to order and direct a taxi. If I didn't engage in silence and listen more, I wouldn't have learnt how to speak these basic structures.

Currently, I have a student in my early years class who would often sit in my lessons and not utter a word. Nothing! I would direct some questions however there would never be a reply.

Fast forward three months and there is hardly a moment when this student's hand is not up and she now initiates conversations with me independently when in the playground.

If it were not for the silent period earlier in the year, she would not have made this amount of progress when speaking.

Unfortunately due to pressures and accountability, many teachers are scared if their EAL students remain silent for too long because they need to be able to show that they are making progress.

This doesn't mean we need to force them to speak, but it does mean we need to give them lots of opportunities to listen so that they will then be able to speak themselves.

Firstly, when ever group work is used, ensure you place beginner English learners with two other children – preferably with good oracy skills – as they will be able to hear how conversations are structured.

Secondly, train another student or number of students to explain and help your beginner English learners to learn key vocabulary as part of early morning work in preparation for your lessons. By using other students, your EAL students are perhaps going to feel more at ease and less segregated.

Finally, allow the students to use a friend to give answers to questions. Sometimes, new EAL students are scared to make a mistake in front of the teacher and the class.

By putting structures in place to help your EAL students to hone their listening abilities, they will soon find their speaking wings.

You may find that you wish they were silent again when they keep speaking to you as you are swigging back a vital coffee.

Ciaran Gallagher is an early years teacher in China. He tweets at @ciarang_1