46. Please, explain the "silent period." Why do some (English Language Learners --ELL’s-- or English-As-A-Second Language) students begin speaking earlier than others?

The "silent period" refers to the time period in an infant’s development of the native language skills during which the young child is unable to speak or communicate verbally, although the child can demonstrate understanding of the native language through the actions (s)he performs. For example, young children cannot verbalize language but they can and they do (most of the time) follow the verbal directions given by their parents. Thus, during the "silent period" the young child demonstrates acquisition of language skills –listening, and listening comprehension—although the child cannot respond verbally using the words and expressions of the native language (s)he appears to understand so well.

When we talk about English Language Learners, or ELL’s, the "silent period" refers to the time period in the development of second language skills during which the ELL is unable to speak or communicate verbally in the second language --English, although the student can demonstrate understanding of the second language through the actions (s)he performs. For example, ELL’s cannot verbalize in English their thoughts or feelings, but they can and they do follow verbal directions given by their teachers in English.

We refer to the "silent period" that all English Language Learners experience as they are exposed to English language instruction as the "Pre-Production" stage in the acquisition of language skills.

It is very important to remember that ALL students –ALL human beings—go through the Pre-Production stage of language development every time they begin to study a new topic, a new concept, a new idea, anything new. Why? Because they need time to acquire the language needed to communicate about the new topic, idea, or concept. Thus, for example, if I would like to discuss taxes with my accountant, I would find myself unable to verbalize neither my thoughts nor my questions. I really have not developed the language skills –the vocabulary, the idiomatic expressions, the concepts-- to talk about taxes, or mechanical problems in my car, or brain surgery – if I needed it. I would need time –the "silent period"—to listen to others talk about these topics, to listen to them while I observe the reality they are talking about, to listen with understanding the new ideas, concepts, thoughts they are talking about.

In teaching language skills, then, we must ALWAYS remember that NEW topics, NEW concepts, NEW ideas, NEW realities we present to students, require that we begin teaching students who are in the PRE-PRODUCTION stage of language development.

What instructional activities are best suited for the Pre-Production stage of language acquisition and development? Activities where students are provided opportunities to:

Observe, recognize, locate, identify, classify, practice, collect, distinguish, categorize, repeat, match, show, select, construct, assemble, arrange, put things in order, etc. That is, instructional activities where students can provide "evidence of understanding" through physical actions they can do.

Now, just like infants who begin to speak their native languages at different times – at nine months, 12 months, 15 months, etc.—English Language Learners vary in terms of the length of time they remain in the "silent period." For some ELL’s, the Pre-Production stage of second language acquisition and development may last only a few days, a few weeks. Pretty soon they move into the "Early Production" stage, when they begin to enunciate single word responses, very brief phrases. Other ELL’s may require more time for many reasons. There are personality factors involved like shyness, timidity, introverted personality, etc. There are cultural factors like respect towards the teacher, proper manners, saving face, etc. There are social factors involved like the ELL’s perceived social standing within the class group, etc. There are physiological factors like students’ age level, similarities in sound systems between the native and the second language, etc.

But the most important factor that determines how long the "silent period" lasts is instruction. The teacher, by providing "hands-on" instructional activities that allow students to fully participate in instruction through physical performance, can build the self-confidence and the sense of accomplishment of ALL students while helping them develop second language skills --listening and listening comprehension skills.




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

1. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
2. Cross Cultural Diversity - Multicultural Strategies
3. Effective Instruction for English Learners (L.E.P. students) Parts 1, 2, 3, 4
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.
Web Site Programs for
Paraprofessionals: Number 3.
Web Site Programs for
New Teachers:
Enhanced Cultural Sensitivity - The Challenge of Students Diversity
Identifying / Responding to Students' Language Needs
Phonemic Awareness: Teaching English phonics to L.E.P. students
Relationship Between Reading, Writing and Spelling
Improving Reading Performance -- Building Oral Language Skills)

Write and e-mail any additional questions you may have, and Dr. CARMEN SANCHEZ SADEK will establish with you, your school or district a Technical Assistance Service Contract. Dr. CARMEN SANCHEZ SADEK will answer all your questions promptly and to your satisfaction.


For information and credentials please click on the link below or contact directly:


Educational Consultant, Program Evaluator

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3113 Malcolm Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90034-3406

Phone and Fax: (310) 474-5605

E-mail:  csssadek@gte.net