The Silent Period for EAL Learners

A new EAL learners joins your class, they speak no English and are new to the country! What do you do? Do you expect them to speak, read or write instantly?

The silent period is a phase that all EAL learners that are new to English will experience in some shape or form. It can last anything up to a year and during this time EAL learners will spend much of their time in your classrooms acclimatising to their new environment and receiving a lot of input in a number of ways. As teachers the expectation should not be that learners are producing language. The focus should be on receiving language and content in ways that are comprehensible to them.

How do we support the silent period?

During this period there needs to a great deal of comprehensible input. This can come in many forms that include: visuals, slower / modified speech, materials and resources in the learners L1, opportunities for group / collaborative work and a stress free environment where pressure to use productive skills are at a minimum.

Strategies that I have used to support the silent period include:

  • Copying – It may not sound like a great strategy but for a New to English EAL learner copying can help them to understand things such as English syntax, letter and word formulation as well as giving them something to do whilst others are working independently.
  • Visuals – It’s a no brainier to have visuals for your New to English EAL learner, and for the silent period they do help to make meaning more comprehensible. From strong visuals we could ask learners to recreate the visuals by drawing their own pictures etc. They could label the visuals with a list of key words given to them.
  • Circling keywords – When the teacher is talking the learner could be given a set of key words to listen for. To extend this task once words have been circled the learner could then look them up in their first language and create a dual language dictionary which helps to scaffold the learning of content.
  • Answering class questions through non verbal gestures. Non verbal gestures can be used by the learner to communicate understanding. They are also a great tool for teachers to use to help make meaning comprehensible.
  • Buddying the learner with a similar first language buddy is a great idea during the silent period. It might be that the learner will feel more comfortable working with their buddy especially over time and it might mean that this is the first person that productive skills such as speaking are first used.
  • Using L1. The benefits of using first language to support the learning of content are numerous. Valuing your EAL learners use of their L1 has great benefits to them emotionally and cognitively. Allowing them to use their L1 can break the silent period and raise the self esteem of your EAL learners.

The silent period is not something that we as teachers should feel threatened by. It is a natural part of second language acquisition and EAL learners will vary in the amount of time that they are silent. What is important is that we make our EAL learners feel comfortable while they are going through this phase. Do not put added pressure on them to produce language that may be out of their zone. Eventually the silent period will finish and you will see your EAL learner produce language from the wide range of strategies and approaches that you have used with them.

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