Pre-production and the Silent Period
by Judie Haynes
If your new English language learner is not speaking, don't worry. Most newcomers go through a stage during which they do not produce language. This doesn't mean they are not learning.
According to Stephen Krashen, most new learners of English will go through a “silent period” which is an interval of time during which they are unable or unwilling to communicate orally in the new language. The silent period may last for a few days or a year depending on a variety of factors. It occurs before ELLs are ready to produce oral language and is generally referred to as the “Pre-production” stage of language learning. ELLs should not be forced to speak before they are ready and we don’t want to embarrass students by putting them on the spot.
ELLs need time to listen to others talk, to digest what they hear, to develop receptive vocabulary, and to observe their classmates’ interactions. When they do speak, we want the speech to be real and purposeful instead of contrived. This does not mean your students are not learning. They may understand what is being said, but they are not yet ready to talk about it.
What determines the length of the" silent period?" There are several factors involved. First, personality plays a key role. A normally shy and quiet youngster in native language is usually going to take longer before they feel comfortable speaking. Native culture will also play a role. In many cultures, for example, girls are not expected to speak out. They play a more passive role in family and classroom dynamics.
Teacher instruction is also an important factor in the length of the silent period. If the teacher provides "hands-on" activities and has students interact in small groups, ELLs will be able to participate in the life of the classroom a lot sooner. They will feel more confident in risking oral language. It should not be assumed that young learners of English do not feel embarrassment or shyness when attempting to speak in a second language.
The Pre-production Stage of Language Learning
Your students are learning during this silent, pre-production stage. They are acquiring language every day.
- They may have up to 500 words in their receptive vocabulary.
- New learners of English can listen attentively and they may even be able to copy words from the board.
- They will be able to respond to pictures and other visuals.
- They can understand and duplicate gestures and movements to show comprehension.
- Choral reading and Total Physical Response methods will work well with them.
- English language learners at this stage will need much repetition of English.
- They will benefit from a “buddy” who speaks their language.
- Teachers should focus attention on listening comprehension activities and on building a receptive vocabulary.
© 1998-2005 Judie Haynes, www.everythingESL.net