What happened when I didn't talk for an entire lesson

A sore throat led this music teacher to a novel idea: not talking for an entire lesson. The outcome was startling

Peter Simons

What happened when I tried not talking in a lesson

Have you tried teaching a lesson without talking? It sounds mad and it only happened to me by accident, but the impact was remarkable. Let me explain.

I am a music teacher in a primary school, and just before one of my lessons with my Year 1 class, my throat was really sore so I decided to try and talk as little as possible.

Usually, my lesson starts simply with a warm-up in which the children move their bodies in time to the music.

This was easy enough to teach without talking: on goes the music, I start dancing and the children copy.

I then always ask them the question "what is a pulse?" and I point to my heart.

This time, I didn’t ask the question, instead just pointing to my heart. Sure enough, the children shouted out: "The heartbeat of the music!" I was amazed. A simple gesture and the children understood what I was asking them.

At this point, I thought: "Let’s see how far we can take this…"

Follow my lead

We then moved on to the rhythm cards. I pointed at the notes and, sure enough, the children started naming crotchets, quavers, rests and minims.

If I caught a child saying "frog" or "tadpole" (these are the pictures I use to help the children play the notes), I would wag my finger at them and point to my ear, then point again at the picture. Sure enough, the child would correct themselves.

Counting in was the next obstacle, but I used my fingers to count to four beats and the children played each card at the correct tempo. It was fascinating to watch the whole class have their eyes fixated on me and everyone concentrating on the task in hand.

The novelty of my not talking had them mesmerised, it seemed.

Keep on going

However, around then, some of the children started to ask why I wasn’t talking. I decided to ignore the question so as to not break the spell and instead move to our next task: learning the recorder.

This was only the pupils' second recorder lesson, so after I handed the instruments out I demonstrated how to hold them properly – all through the act of mime.

Normally when I demonstrate holding the instrument, some children find it difficult and keep holding the recorder in the wrong hand. But this time, as I wasn't speaking, everyone had to watch me closely. They followed my miming and held the instruments correctly.

Next, I pointed to myself and then to the children, to signal call and response. I started blowing and so did the children. This is not what I wanted. They were supposed to listen and copy.

I used my hands to signal to stop. I then tried again, pointing to them, then my ear and then to me, as in "you listen to me". I tried again, and bingo: the children were now listening and copying me.

Once the children got used to this mime-and-follow approach, I was able to lead them through changing notes using different fingers, only pausing occasionally to say a few words to clear up misunderstandings.

Silence is golden

By teaching this lesson in the way I did, the children seemed to make so much more progress, as they were all fully focussed, engaged and intrigued with the way the lesson was being delivered.

They loved the challenge of trying to work out what I wanted them to do by guessing the actions from the miming I was doing.

On top of that, it was so much fun for me and I knew I had just taught a very special lesson, and one the children will remember for a long time.

Would I recommend teaching every lesson in silence? Definitely not. But as an occasional change to save your voice, or to shake up your planning? Absolutely.

Peter Simons is director of music at Thornhill J and I School and Boothroyd Primary Academy and silver award winner for primary school teacher of the year

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