Suffering in silence

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Quiet children are disadvantaged by their inability to talk freely. Teachers who show understanding and sympathy can help them overcome the pain of their shyness, says Janet Collins. Not all children have the confidence to talk freely in school and some are habitually quiet and withdrawn. Acute anxiety about talking in front of relative strangers - teachers and other pupils - can be detrimental to learning.

Having met several children like this I embarked on a four-year longitudinal study with a group of 12 quiet pupils to highlight their plight and the need for teachers to understand and support them.

I had taught Justina at primary school, and as a researcher went to observe her, aged 12, at secondary school. One day began with a French class. Throughout the lesson, Justina was hard at work, writing in her exercise book - even when the main focus was oral work. Judging from the comments in her exercise book, the teacher was delighted with her progress. Page after page, she was complemented for the neat presentation of her written work.

But, despite her diligence, Justina did not speak a single word of French and I felt she had missed the central point of the lesson. Her one interaction with the teacher was conducted in English and focused on a point of detail about the setting out of her work. He seemed oblivious to her lack of participation in the oral part of the lesson.

When, out of sheer frustration, I asked Justina to read what she had just written, she said, "I don't speak French, because it confuses me". Justina's compliance with her teacher's expectations for written work was matched by an equally stubborn refusal to share the language with anyone. What, I wondered, did Justina expect to learn during the French lesson?

Sadly, Justina also refused to participate in the English lesson. Pupils were to present a talk which they had been asked to prepared as homework. Justina said she had been off school during the previous lesson and was not aware that homework had been set. The teacher accepted this excuse and Justina sat through the rest of the lesson in total silence, not even joining the discussion about other pupils' talks. This refusal to participate is all too common.

Another example of Justina's non-participation occurred during a craft lesson in which groups of pupils worked independently. Justina seemed reluctant to "get her hands dirty" by handling the equipment and spent significantly more time watching her partners working. Throughout the lesson, and even when the teacher visited the table where she was working, there was no obvious communication between Justina and the teacher. The teacher addressed her comments to the other two girls at the table. During this time Justina stood slightly to one side, head bowed, still and silent.

Quiet pupils and their parents can be acutely aware that the behaviour is detrimental to learning. One mother spoke of her concerns forher daughter's education: "She doesn't let the teacher in. She doesn't communicate with the teacher on a one-to-one basis. He finds that difficult because he thinks he would be able to help more if she would talk to him. She's not going to compete with other kids and actually ask questions, and she doesn't initiate any contact with him unless she really has to."

This mother identifies with the need for positive relationships between pupils and teachers. She also recognises that, while talk is important for learning, her daughter is unlikely to have the confidence to initiate contact with her teacher, especially if that involves competing with other children.

In the course of my research, I examined the possible causes of quiet behaviour and developed teaching strategies that have proved useful in empowering quiet pupils In brief these strategies are as follows: u Emphasising the value of talk and making it the medium for learning rather than the precursor to the 'real' work of writing.

u Rejecting whole class teacher-directed talk in favour of small group child-centred talk.

u Identifying the rules of discussion and making them explicit to the pupils.

u Increasing feelings of security by establishing friendship groups or 'talk' partners and using them as the basis for all initial discussions.

u Providing activities which encourage collaboration.

u Giving pupils time to consider what they want to say before calling on them to speak in front of large groups.

u Working with the pupils to devise ways of assessing talk and what makes for effective talk.

Janet Collins is a former primary teacher in inner city schools who undertook a PhD on "The Silent Minority - developing talk in the primary classroom". Having completed her doctorate, she is now a research fellow at the Open University. Her book The Quiet Child, reviewed in the Off the Shelf column on page 10, is published by Cassell.

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