240 What should I do with "The Silent Student"?


The “Silent Student” may be a student who fails to respond because s(he) is shy, timid, afraid, scared, overwhelmed, or simply reluctant or unwilling to respond.   Each of these reasons for a student remaining silent needs to be dealt with differently.  

Students who are very shy or timid may require lots of time to overcome their inhibitions.   These students may need a buddy or a good friend who would answer for them the teacher’s questions after consultation between the timid child and the buddy.   However, the teacher can get evidence of the “Silent Student’s” learning if the instructional activities require responses that may be given through signals –raising the hand, showing a specified number of fingers, raising a card that shows YES or NO, pointing to an object, or raising a picture or a word that describe the object.  Thus, the teacher can have, within a lesson, activities that may require verbal responses, and activities that may require visual and/or physical responses, as described above.  

For example, the teacher may show color cards and say:  “If I name the color on the card, raise your hand; if the word I use is NOT the name of the color on the card, do NOT raise your hand,” Timid or shy students may be willing to raise their hand instead of talking.   For the same activity, the teacher could have asked the students to match the color of the card the teacher shows to one card in a set of color cards that the students may have in front of them.  Also the teachers could have asked students to point to the same color s(he) displays on a set of colored shapes on a large sheet in front of the students.   The students could have picked color crayons to match the color displayed by the teacher.   These examples, of course, are not limited to colors.   Geography teachers could do the same types of activities using maps, or names of countries, or land formations, etc.   Science teachers could have used labels: “vertebrate,”  “invertebrate,” etc. held by students as the teacher names or displays different animals.   Language teachers could do similar activities using the parts of speech, etc.   The point is that students ACTIVELY respond to questions but do not necessarily SPEAK or provide VERBAL RESPONSES.  

 Sometimes the “Silent Student” is just afraid, scared, terrified, just plain overwhelmed with the teaching/learning situation.   The student may be new to the school, or the state, or the country, and has no knowledge or very limited knowledge of the language of the school or the language of the classroom.   For these students, it may be helpful to have them just “visit” the classroom for a few days with a relative or friend.   They need not be asked to do anything or respond to questions involving learning activities; rather, these students become familiar with the learning environment, the activities the other students are asked to perform, how the school day provides a variety of learning opportunities, and how the other students interact with each other and, whenever possible, with the “Silent Student.”   These students may be asked to bring something to share with the other students, or their parents or friends may bring food, or items of interest from their own cultural background to share with all other students.   These objects may be displayed in the classroom to make the environment as familiar and as comfortable for the “Silent Student” to enjoy staying and participating in the class.  

Whether the student is shy, timid, afraid, scared or overwhelmed, the teacher needs to constantly observe this student, possibly with a smile on h(is/er) face, and, as soon as the student reacts positively to the classroom environment, to the other students or to the learning situation, the teacher needs to acknowledge the involvement and praise or positively reinforce the “Silent Student” profusely.  

When the “Silent Student” is unwilling or reluctant to participate, or just defiant in h(is/er) non-participation, the teacher may need to hold a private conference with the student to find out the reasons for, or the source of the non-participative behavior.   In many other situations, the psychological principle of “Extinction” may work; at least it has worked very well for me!!!

When a teacher IGNORES a behavior, and I mean totally ignores a behavior, the teacher increases the chances that the behavior may become extinct, that is, that the behavior will not re-occur because NO positive reinforcement is provided to establish the behavior.   Now, AS SOON AS the teacher observes an undesirable behavior for the first time and the teacher decides to extinguish that undesirable behavior by IGNORING it, then IMMEDIATELY the teacher MUST focus h(is/er) attention on opposite behaviors that other students are performing or exhibiting AND POSITIVELY AND REPEATEDLY REINFORCE THE DESIRABLE BEHAVIOR(S).   Thus, as soon as a student becomes “SILENT” because s(he) refuses to participate or is unwilling to participate, the teacher MUST immediately acknowledge the full participation of ALL other students as they willingly respond to questions by positively reinforcing “question answering” behaviors on the part of the other students.   The teacher may switch also to instructional activities that require other types of behavior, as described above, and positively acknowledge “Silent” students as they participate using non-verbal or physical means to respond.

The Silent Student, of course, may also be a student who is most willing and most eager to participate, but cannot participate because s(he) is at the “Silent” stage of second language acquisition.   During the “Silent Period” of language acquisition, or during the Pre-production stage of language acquisition, students need to be provided activities that allow them to give evidence of learning through non-verbal behaviors.   Silent Period or Pre-production students just cannot verbalize the thoughts and ideas they want to communicate in response to the questions --in English-- that they may passively understand through visuals and through their high level thinking in their own primary language or L1.   These “Silent Students” need to be provided instructional activities that allow them to respond by performing some physical activity or by giving non-verbal responses.   It is very important to remember that Pre-production students quickly begin to master the English language.  However, every time a NEW topic or subject is presented by the teacher, the student, now more versed in the English language, returns to a Pre-production level because s(he) faces NEW vocabulary and NEW grammatical structures.   The student may become a “Silent Student” once more.   Thus, the teacher may have to continue to provide opportunities for these Silent Students to respond in ways other than verbal responses.   



For more in-depth information, classroom demonstrations, and "coaching" of new and/or experienced teachers, Dr. CARMEN SANCHEZ SADEK offers:

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2. Cross Cultural Diversity - Multicultural Strategies
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4. Promoting Academic Success in Language Minority Students
5. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
6. Oral Language / Literacy Skills / Higher Order Thinking Skills
7. 50/50 Dual Language Programs: design, planning and implementation
8. The Structure of English / The Structure of Spanish
9. Transition: Introduction to English Reading

Web Site Programs for Teachers: Numbers 1, 5, 7, 8, and 9.
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Identifying / Responding to Students' Language Needs
Phonemic Awareness: Teaching English phonics to L.E.P. students
Relationship Between Reading, Writing and Spelling
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