Do I hear silence?
Short link: http://bit.ly/v_silence
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.
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.
Here are some strategies teachers employ in this situation.
These are the strategies that I offer my trainees, whether they are pre- or in-service teachers, language or subject teachers. If readers have other suggestions or comments that they would like to share, please use this website's blog.