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October 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Do I Hear Silence?

James Thomas is a freelance teacher trainer, author and of late, a self-publisher. He worked at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic from 1997 to 2016. In the last eight years, he headed the English department's teacher training section. Every year since 2002, he has conducted intensive summer teacher training courses at NILE in the UK and for the British Council, mostly in China and recently in Algeria. He is now spending a year with the British Council in Uzbekistan.

In 2010, he won the British Council ELTon for innovation in ELT publishing for his co-authored book, Global Issues in ELT. His most recent publication is Out of your seats (reviewed in this volume, see …). Central to his work is the exploration of new findings and approaches in language, pedagogy and related fields with a view to integrating them into a coherent contemporary approach to language study for teachers and students. He is currently finishing a book for teachers on collocation and another for ‘good students’ on vocabulary learning. Email:



Have you ever asked a class a question and been greeted with a deafening silence? I think every teacher who respects their students has experienced this. I say ‘respect’ because asking students questions is living proof that we do not regard them as empty vessels.

But if they are not empty, why are they silent? It could be that they are having a bad hair day, that they are dealing with bigger problems in their lives than the answer to the teacher’s questions, that they are wishing the teacher would stop asking questions and provide the class with the information, given that this is the teacher’s job, at least as such recalcitrants see it. If the students do not understand the value of this interactivity, the process itself can be discussed, inevitably through more questions, during a moment of metacognitive reflection. They need to understand that rich questioning paves the way to a language rich learning environment.

It may be that they are quiet, shy people in any situation, unlikely to want the whole class’s attention shining on them even for a few seconds – ‘people’ here can be understood as ‘some individuals’ or refer to a nation, ethnic group, gender or religious group.

Alternatively, the students’ silence may be the result of ignorance – ignorance of the actual answer and ignorance of how to express it. Teachers can work with ignorance more profitably than with any of the justifications for silence suggested above.

If not a single soul in a whole class knows the answer to a teacher’s question, it would be worth considering why it was asked. The question may have been rhetorical and did not require an answer: the intonation of a question draws attention differently from that of statements. The question may have been deliberately asked to show the students that the teacher knows more than them – this can be both annoying and impressive. Students rightly expect some expertise from their teachers. If, however, the teacher genuinely expects the students to know something that they don’t, the teacher may then exhibit their mastery of eliciting by breaking the original question down into its component parts and lead the students to construct the required answer through each discrete contribution.

In a language classroom, ignorance of language is often the reason for silence. In this scenario, the students understand the question and know the answer, but they do not have the target language’s vocabulary for it. Below are some strategies teachers employ in this situation.


Some strategies

1. Encourage students to use their bilingual dictionaries. This requires choosing one word when the dictionary offers several. Discussing why one particular word was chosen is a fruitful discussion. Training students to use their resources is an important part of any teacher’s job.

2. Make the question a choice question – in this way the question contains the answer.

3. Give the students a little time to discuss the question in groups. Then one student from each group offers their group’s answer. This can reduce the pressure on an individual fearing being wrong in front of the whole class as the responsibility for the answer is distributed.

4. Teach the vocabulary in advance of the questions. Earlier in the lesson, the teacher can ask the students to write some new vocabulary into a Syllable Stress Table (SST) [] which in itself is a task.

5. When speaking a foreign language, we often baulk when we are not sure of the pronunciation. The SST is one way of addressing this. Teaching pronunciation systematically is another.

6. Invite one-word answers. If the students feel they have to embed the answer in a whole sentence, they might baulk at having to construct a sentence when the question only requires a word or phrase.

7. Single words can be difficult to understand especially when students have not been taught pronunciation. And especially if the sounds they are making do not resemble the ideas that the teacher is expecting. Challenging the student to spell the word or write it on the board can mitigate the awkwardness that ensues in this situation.

8. When students think they know the answer, they can write it on their hand-held personal whiteboards and hold them up.

9. Write the students’ suggestions on the board as they offer them. Not everyone in the room will hear and/or understand other student’s contributions. Writing them on the board also acknowledges the student’s contribution.

10. Structure the contributions. Some answers will be better than others and their position on the board and in relation to other words on the board can reveal how close to the required answer the student’s contribution was. This can lead to some fruitful follow up discussion.

11. Give plenty of feedback: nice idea, thanks for that, good word but it’s the answer to a different question.

12. Offer hints: it rhymes with, it starts with, we used it in our previous lesson, we used it when we were talking about …, the prefix means …, 

13. Provide face-saving sentence stems that empower the students to hedge, e.g.:

  • I was thinking that it might be …
  • The word … came to mind, but I’m not sure.
  • I think the word is … but I’m not sure how to pronounce it.
  • Some of our group thinks that it is …
  • Could it be … ?

These can be provided on the board, on a chart, on a presentation slide, etc. Regardless of the format, it has to be prepared. The affordances of sentence stems and question stems are legion, e.g.:

  • They are authentic language that can be used in many contexts, though not in any context.
  • An answer using a sentence stem is more satisfying than a single word. It feels more 'grown up'.
  • The suprasegmental features of the language can be reinforced when practising sentence stems.
  • The chosen sentence stems might use aspects of grammar which the students have not yet met. The students can be reminded of them when a certain grammar item comes up.

14. The layout of the classroom influences interaction. If students can see each other's faces when they offer answers, the question segment resembles an authentic communicative event. Heads may turn, nod and shake. Eyes may smile. Students may ask each other for clarification, elaboration and justification. They may tweak an answer, offer an alternative or a correction. However, If the only face the students can see is the teacher's, they are receiving aural input only.  Sitting in islands or in a circular arrangement humanizes the classroom.


Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.

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