The Silent Period, also known as the Receptive or Preproduction Period, is a concept developed by Stephen Krashen, a noted linguist. His theory states that second language learners spend time watching and listening to people before using the target language. Although the student does not participate orally, they are absorbing vocabulary and the structures of the new language. The Silent Period is a very beneficial time of language acquisition and should not be rushed.
Initially many immigrants, refugees, and students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) of all ages respond to their new life surroundings and educational situation by being silent. They may have increased anxiety due to being in an unfamiliar setting and linguistic environment. Some students have a very small vocabulary of 5-300 English words. But even those with a large vocabulary can still be reticent to speak. The Silent Period is a time for observing those around them, digesting what to do, and learning how to respond appropriately. They observe others having conversations and listen to the ways in which words are pronounced and put together in phrases. New multilingual learners (MLs) are building their receptive (listening) vocabulary, but are not comfortable enough to speak.
Length of the Silent Period. This depends upon personality, culture, and age factors. MLs may stay silent for a few weeks to a year. Students who are shy tend to speak later than those with outgoing personalities. MLs from quiet, reticent cultures will speak later than those from highly interactive cultures. Preschool students may speak later than older students. During this period, students should never be forced to speak. They should be allowed to remain silent until they are ready to speak.
Speak their language. Learning just a few words in a student's language creates a connection, acknowledges their culture, and encourages language learning. It makes a student feel welcome and comfortable in their new environment. Say good morning and goodbye to students in their language/s. Learn how to count to ten in their language/s. When multilingual learners observe their teacher struggling and making mistakes when pronouncing the student's language, they will gain the courage and confidence to do the same.
Modify your speech. Speak in a slower, but natural speed. Use high-frequency English words, examples can be found in the Dolch and Fry Word Lists. Speak clearly using short sentences. Do not run words together like "wanna" for "want to". Pause between sentences. Limit the use of pronouns and referents. Avoid contractions and idioms. Emphasize key words several times and in different ways.
Meaningful Input. Students are able to learn new vocabulary when taught in a meaningful way. Demonstrate vocabulary through kinesthetic movement or actions. Open a book while saying, "Open your books". Use pictures and real objects to teach vocabulary, explain meaning, or show a process. Picture dictionaries are available for different ages and subjects. These are very useful and highly recommended. Anchor charts, diagrams, and graphic organizers can also be very effective tools. Use cognates (Spanish - chocolate / English - chocolate) to teach new vocabulary in a dual language setting. Short demonstrations and videos are also helpful.
Communicate Differently. Encourage 'silent' students to communicate in other ways. Students can interact physically by pointing, gesturing, or nodding. (Remember that body language differs between cultures.) Encourage language learners to draw or act out an answer to convey comprehension.
First Language. Encourage 'silent' multilingual students to speak in their first language. Have an aide or another student translate. Allow students to use a translation program on their phone or class computer.
Encourage Speech. Teachers should also gently encourage students to speak in English. Emergent multilinguals often begin by responding with "yes/no" or one word answers. Build upon this by asking simple questions which require one word answers. To encourage students to repeat short sentences, teachers should model the desired speech and use sentence frames.
Praise and Modelling. To encourage continued participation of emergent multilinguals, the focus should not be on correcting errors. Praise all efforts, no matter how incorrect the pronunciation or grammar. Positive words and encouragement helps to build student confidence and to encourage future efforts. Continue to model the proper pronunciation/grammar and provide opportunities for students to practice.
Student Topics. Engage students at their age level. Find topics your students want to talk about. Topics will vary widely depending on a student's age and background knowledge. Practice the five "W" questions that require one word answers. Write the questions and sentences when appropriate.
Cooperative Tasks. Incorporate pair work and small group projects into your curriculum. This gives all students more opportunities to talk and listen. Hands on projects also provide kinesthetic learning.
Play Games. Playing games is a fun way to encourage speech for English learners of all ages. Whether it is a card game or a physical game does not matter. Laughter and fun promotes learning and also creates a safe environment for students to express their thoughts.
Computer games. There are many fun computer games available for all ages of multilingual learners. Students can learn and practice new concepts and skills while learning basic computer skills (click, drag, exit, etc.).
Sing! Songs have a unique way of locking information into the mind. Often the first English words people learn are the words to a popular song. Whether you sing the ABCs or the Bones song, they will help multilingual students learn and remember information.
Short Questionnaires. Create a form with one practice question and answer sentence frame for beginning readers to use. Provide a space for the students' names and answers. First model and demonstrate how to use the form with a student partner. Then students should walk around the room and ask different classmates their name (spelling) and the practice question. They record the names and answers on the questionnaire. Observe students and help them ask and answer the questions. After 5-10 minutes you can stop the activity and discuss the answers. Short questionnaires provide listening, speaking, reading, writing, and spelling practice.
Silent Learners are learning silently. Not talking does not equate to not learning. Are they learning to follow directions? Are they engaged? Are they trying to participate? Are they trying to communicate with others? Silent learners will speak when they have a basic vocabulary and feel comfortable and secure in their environment.