The Silent Period for ELL Students

Instructor: Rebecca Bradshaw

Rebecca Bradshaw has a Master of Arts in Teaching and has experience teaching ELA, ESL, and high school CTE courses.

A silent period is the first phase of second language acquisition for an English Language Learner. Explore the reason for, length of, and type of language acquired during this period.

What Is a Silent Period?

You were invited to a party at a country club. You've never been there, and you don't know what to wear, but you throw on some clothes, hop in the car, and follow the turn-by-turn directions on your phone. You arrive and walk hesitantly to the entrance. You gently open the door, step in, and look around the room. Not seeing any familiar faces, you quietly walk across the room and find a wall to lean against. Anxiously, you look across the room for a friendly face as you silently become aware of your surroundings. You remain quiet until you have adjusted to your new environment. Once comfortable, you now begin to talk with others in the room.

This is comparable to an English Language Learner's silent period when entering a new school for the first time. The silent period is a time when ELL students are noticing their surroundings and observing the behaviors of others but lack confidence in their oral language ability. They do not want to be embarrassed or make a mistake when speaking, so they simply remain silent. They are not intending to be disrespectful or disobedient; they're merely taking it all in - how others talk, what they talk about, what they wear, classroom routines, rules, etc. They are observing what they need to know to fit in. Look at it as a time of acclimation.

During this silent period, most ELL students actually understand more than others may realize. They can usually follow directions and express their needs non-verbally. They often watch and mimic the actions of their peers. They are learning the norms of their new surroundings by quietly watching and listening. Remember, their goal is to fit in and become comfortable. This is accomplished by observing all elements in their new environment.

Silent Period Length

The length of the silent period varies according to the student, but ranges from a few days to a few months. Age, personality, and culture all play a role in the length of this period. Older students tend to have a shorter silent period than younger students. A preschooler or early elementary-age child may remain in this silent period for many months, while a teenager's silent period may only be a few days or weeks. Respecting the silent period of ELL students is important to the acquisition of their new languages. They need to know that it is okay for them to soak it all in. Forcing them to speak only tends to frustrate or embarrass the student and can even delay second language development. When they feel comfortable and have the confidence to respond correctly, they will begin to open up in the classroom.

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