The soundness of silence

The idea of writing this article first occurred to me after I read “Do instructions have to be that dull?“, a great article by Rubens Heredia. The common ground between the lesson I describe below and his post might be that both deal with observing teachers teach. I believe we all agree that being either an observer or an observee is simply no easy task, especially when the lesson does not run as smoothly as one would have liked it to. By the way, this is just not the case with what is reported below.

I had the chance to observe this lesson during the last In-Service Teacher Training Course I conducted at the school where I have worked for the past fourteen years. The primary goal of this Exam Preparation class (CEFR level B2) was to introduce set phrases serving different language functions and to provide the students (in their mid-teens) with speaking practice opportunities.

After the teacher had greeted the students, handouts were distributed by a volunteer student who made sure they were laid face down on each student’s desk, according to the teacher’s instructions. Then the teacher said she was going to show the students some ‘touchy’ statements on the iWB, one at a time, give the students some time to think about them, and finally allow them to turn their handouts face up, pick out the best beginning for their reactions to the statement and give their opinion. She also said anyone willing to comment on any opinion could do so provided they started with an expression from the list.

At this point, I must admit I was a bit worried that the teacher had not yet ‘presented’ any of those “ways of expressing ideas“, which had been divided and listed into different categories (i.e. giving an opinion, expressing reservation and agreeing, among others). My main concern stemmed from the fact that the learners would remain silent for the lack of some minimum knowledge regarding the meaning of (at least some of) the sentences on the handouts.

The first sentence was then shown on the WB. To my surprise, after some 30-40 seconds – which felt as long as eternity – the students started using the expected so-called set phrases to react to the first ‘controversial’ statement the teacher had shown them. Whenever a student mentioned that s/he was not really sure as to the meaning of a certain word or phrase, the teacher promptly asked if there was anyone willing to help him/her understand it. The majority of the class produced examples which, with a few exceptions, were good/clear enough for the lesson to go on as smoothly without the teacher having to intervene.

As far as my experience and understanding of ELT go, some of the main factors which effectively contributed for this to be a very successful lesson were:

–         The teacher’s choice of the commonest, most useful phrases to add fluidity to a discussion;

–         Her choice of going inductive in the presentation of the materials;

–         her brave act of fearlessly stepping back and remaining silent thus allowing time for her students to digest and process the input she had intended them to learn.

Finally, I strongly believe that the element which did come into play to make this such a successful lesson was the teacher’s ‘overestimation’ of her students’ abilities. She confidently waited for her students to take charge and avoided spoon-feeding them, a teaching behavior that is more common than one would wish if learning is to be a memorable experience. Although the concept of learner’s autonomy is not new, seeing this teacher perform made me think once again that anxiety, regarded by educators, psychologists and psychiatrists as a modern plague, might be taking its toll on teaching and teachers.


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Edmilson Chagas

Edmilson is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials designer. He has been involved with ELT for 32 years and and currently works for B.A. English School in Goiânia, where he teaches advanced levels and preparation courses for international exams. Former president of Braz-Tesol Goiânia Chapter, he is now a board member of Braz-Tesol Teacher Development SIG. His interests include reading, writing, translating and CrossFit.

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