The Silent Learner: How to Scaffold ELLs in Their Pre-Production Phase

The pre-production phase, or silent period, is one which many beginner second-language students have had experience with. In my years teaching EFL to young learners in China and Korea, I have dealt with many students who looked completely overwhelmed by the new language. I believe the most important thing for a teacher to do is to respect this silent period as a natural phase. It is part of the development, that is the language development, that a period of input needs to be built up before a student is ready to produce, and so it is the teacher’s job to provide the student with a developmentally appropriate environment while he or she works through this initial phase in language acquisition.

Keep them moving

One approach which I have found to work really well during this phase is the Total Physical Response (TPR) approach. In this approach, the teacher gives a series of commands while demonstrating (or modelling) each one; the student then demonstrates comprehension, not verbally, but by physically acting out the response (Van Duzer, 1997).

Customizing instruction: Many intelligences, one summit

In a class full of diverse students, each with their own learning styles, preferences, skill levels and abilities, how can we possibly customize our lessons to meet the needs of every learner? The answer to this differentiation challenge may lie in the simple framework of multiple intelligences. The theory of multiple intelligences is based on Howard Gardner’s influential 1985 book Frames Mind, and, more recently, his 1999 book Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. His theory presents several categories of intelligences, or intellectual strengths and competences. The bottom line is, our learner will identify with one of these six categories of intelligences. Therefore, if we simply incorporate these different aspects into our class, we will be providing an optimum learning environment to our English learners who may be struggling to comprehend, produce and acquire the new language. The major categories, according to Gardner, are:

– Linguistic Intelligence. These are the verbal pupils, the ones who learn by listening and speaking. Since our learners here are in the silent phase, reaching out to these students will mean providing them with lots of oral input and repetition drills. They also tend to memorize words quite readily.

– Musical intelligence. As the name states, these are the pupils who remember when language is presented in musical forms. Therefore, it is essential that our classes are filled with songs, and rhythm. One good example is jazz chanting. Jazz chants are poems that use jazz rhythms to illustrate how natural language is produced, with emphasis on the natural stress and intonation patterns.

– Logical-mathematic intelligence. Students who prefer this type of learning will work well with manipulatives, symbols, concrete operations, and directions.

– Spatial intelligence. Pupils who are high spatial awareness can visualize with their minds’ eyes. These learners are visual, and they will greatly benefit from rich imagery in storytelling. They learn well through the use of pictures and other visual aids. Using American Sign Language in class will also greatly benefit these learners as it gives them an extra visual reference for their L2 lexicon.

– Bodily kinesthetic intelligence. Most children respond well to physical stimulus in class, but pupils who are highly kinesthetic will benefit the most from Total Physical Response methods, physical activities, and even American Sign Language as a way to scaffold learning.

– Personal intelligences (interpersonal and intrapersonal). These are technically two types of intellectual competences: the ability to understand others (interpersonal), and the ability to understand oneself (intrapersonal). Interpersonally intelligent pupils will work great in groups, while intrapersonally intelligent students will benefit more from quiet opportunities for self-reflection.

– Naturalistic and existential intelligences. These two types of intellectual strengths have been proposed as also being part of the greater body of multiple intelligences. Naturalistic learners relate well to nature, animals, and the natural world. Existential learners relate well to bigger ideas like religion, philosophy, God, and the spiritual world. Since many of our English Learners come from different cultures with different religious customs and natural wonders, learners who are naturalistic or existential will really benefit from opportunities to show and tell their families’ customs and values. If you want to be creative, decorating the classroom with various samples of nature from various parts of the world will provide existential and naturalistic learners with a sense of appreciation for their diversity and home.

Mellow out

In the early 80’s, influential researcher Stephen Krashen proposed that learning can be affectively blocked, or filtered, much like noise can block out auditory comprehension. The affective filters, according to Krashen, are motivation, self-confidence and anxiety. If students are nervous or overwhelmed, learning is blocked. If they are not motivated to learn, particularly if they are not intrinsically motivated, learning is blocked. If they feel embarrassed, or if they feel they will lose face in front of their peers and authority figure if they try and not succeed, then learning can be blocked. It’s imperative that teachers understand the power these affective filters can have in an ESL and EFL classroom, particularly when we are dealing with students in their silent period. The silent period is a time when teachers must communicate that the classroom is a safe, welcoming environment for trial and error. The students must feel appreciated and confident that their participation will be met with anticipation. Words like “no”, “wrong”, “incorrect” must not be in the teacher’s vocabulary of instruction.

In conclusion, it is important for teachers to be aware of the factors that influence students while they are in their pre-production phase of language acquisition, and for us to understand that this is an important phase and that language input needs to be strategically outlined through good lesson planning and the incorporation of research-based practices.