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Isn’t it great when we have ESL students who are very vocal about their needs?
They arrive to their first day of class, tell you all about their English-learning background and describe what they hope to accomplish. When they don’t understand, they tell you. If you’re going too fast, they ask you to slow down. If only all ESL students were like that…
By contrast, we are sometimes met with a quiet room full of blank stares. How do you know what’s going on in their heads if they don’t say anything? If you have students who are too quiet, chances are there is something they are not telling you, which you’ll need to find out – fast!
Important Things Your Students Are Not Telling You:
I’m hearing too many new words.
Do you give your students long lists of vocabulary words or do you introduce new vocab in digestible sets of five to six words? When you give them instructions, do you use words they may not understand? Students who are too shy or don’t want to be disrespectful may not tell you they did not understand half of what you said or the story you read. Make sure you introduce new vocabulary as appropriate, i.e. before reading a story or giving instructions for a new task. Check for comprehension of the new words, and only then proceed with the task.
It’s too hard for me to do this on my own. Can I work with a classmate?
Some students are overwhelmed by an exercise or task, and would feel much more comfortable working with another student. Don’t underestimate the value of pair work or team work. Lots of students enjoy it and thrive in this type of task. Of course, not all tasks should be completed in pairs or teams. But they shouldn’t have to do everything on their own, either.
Please don’t put me on the spot.
Some students love being in the spotlight, the center of attention. Others would prefer to blend into the wallpaper. If you believe a student in particular is having a hard time with an exercise or task, or if they can’t answer a question, don’t insist in front of the entire class. Check back with the student at the end of class to make sure he/she understood.
Please, be patient with me. I’m trying my best.
You’ve probably seen this happen. A student says he/she does not understand something, and you explain. The student still does not understand, so you re-phrase and try again. The student still does not understand. Under no circumstances must we lose our patience. You try by all means possible to help the student grasp whatever it is he or she is having trouble grasping, and if they still don’t, you set a moment to talk about it, perhaps after class.
I need some time to think before I answer.
Some people don’t like long silences or pauses, and ESL teachers are no different. But sometimes students don’t answer questions as quickly as we’d like them to. The question dangles in the air, and if the student takes too long, we either answer it ourselves or ask another student to do it. Some students need time to think. Give them a few extra seconds, and then perhaps a clue or a nudge to steer them in the right direction.
I don’t care about “Mr. Smith” from the book. This is boring!
Nine out of ten times when students are bored, they are bored with the coursebook. But they might not tell you that. They are not interested in some fictional character’s conversations with his boss or family. Though we should use a coursebook in class, sometimes it’s best to adjust it and adapt it to better suit our students’ interests.
I don’t understand your handwriting.
Students take forever to copy from the board and whisper amongst themselves while they do so. You don’t know that what they are whispering is, “What does question number 2 say?” Some students struggle with your handwriting, but they won’t tell you that. Instead of guessing, it’s far easier to just ask, “Is my writing clear? Let me know if you can read it all.” Try switching from cursive to print handwriting. For longer exercises, you might want to consider giving them copies – it certainly saves time.
Let’s bear in mind that cultural differences may come into play. In some cultures students are taught to respect their teacher, and they don’t want to offend. In others, it is not accustomed for students to make eye contact with their instructor.
Students are also different throughout the world. Some are naturally talkative; others are timid and shy. Whatever the reason for your students keeping quiet, just make sure it’s not due to the ones mentioned above!
Have you ever had an unnaturally quiet class or student? What did you identify to be the problem? Share below!
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