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February 10, 2008

The "Silent" Treatment

Language acquisition has always intrigued me. It is amazing to see four and five year olds come to my class with very little English and, in matter of weeks, be repeating, practicing, and even formulating their own English phrases!

This year, however, I noticed that I was getting the "silent treatment" from several of my English language learners (ELLs).  They could go through most of our day without saying a word, in English or their native language!  Concerned, I started to pull out all the tricks. I had the students work one-on-one with a teaching assistant to practice environmental print words (door, chair, table, etc.) and daily greetings ("Good morning, How are you?", "I am good and you?"). I tried small groups with two language learners and two native English speakers. We even worked with native speaking interpreters!

After doing some research, both through online articles and emails with ELL teachers in other schools, I have found out this a normal and common stage of language acquisition. (Something I probably knew deep down!) This “pre-production” stage is a time in which many learners are silently taking everything in. It may last a few days or a year. I was reassured to hear from many sources that these students are learning! As children learning a new language interact and observe, they hear common phrases, learn basic language skills, and develop confidence to begin trying out their newfound language.

I see this happening with some of my students. They are mostly silent but enjoy repeating phrases with a teacher or student one-on-one. Ramon is a good example. He will say his name during our circle time and he knows the names of at least three other students in our class. During our free choice center time, Ramon often starts out alone in the book area or stands on the outside of the block area watching to see what is going on. With encouragement and help from a teacher, he will usually join a group of students who are already working. At our calendar and weather time, he has recently started to open his mouth and move his lips, although the sounds are very quiet and hard to interpret. Once or twice a week, I have him and another English language learner work on the calendar and weather with me. When he is repeating after you, the days and months of the year are understandable.

These recent developments in Ramon’s language are really exciting! Every day at snack or before he leaves to go home he tells me something about his dog. He seems so excited to be able to communicate these stories with me. Although they are often very similar stories, it seems as though he has spent our two hours together building up the courage to try out his English language skills. We will continue to model, practice, and encourage language for him and all the others in our class.

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