Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Why won’t they speak?!

Following on from Monday’s lesson, I deliberately made sure that my intermediate class today would have lots of opportunities to speak, starting immediately with the first activity. I hoped this would make a difference to the atmosphere in the room, and briefly, it did. After a while though, regardless of what I tried to do to get a response, it seemed that nobody wanted to say anything. I’d done everything ‘right’: put them in pairs, given them thinking time, played music (at their request) so they weren’t speaking into silence, suggested possible answers (yes, no, maybe for some questions), given them chance to make decisions (do you want to listen to anything again, or shall we move on?) and was generally greeted with silence, increasingly so as the lesson progressed. There were only 6 students, we’ve been working together since the end of September, and they seem to be quieter and quieter rather than more confident as the year goes on. They get on well with each other, and have been happy to speak to everyone else in class when we do mingling activities. I’d spoken to each of them individually during tutorials before our winter holiday in February, and talked about reasons to speak more and what might be stopping them. I know that none of them are particularly introverted in Polish and have regularly heard them conversing without any problems, even with people they don’t know. So what was stopping them?

I decided to ‘pause’ the lesson as we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. On the board I wrote a long list of possible reasons that could be stopping them from speaking, then stood in front of it and told them about my experience of learning Polish. I didn’t speak at all really during my first year, once I’d realised that I was mixing Czech, Russian and Polish and people couldn’t understand me. The turning point came when I went for a flamenco weekend. When people asked me conversational questions, I had two choices: ignore them and stay silent, or try to reply. Because I felt comfortable, I tried to reply, and this made me realise people could understand me, which was the kick-start I needed to start speaking. I haven’t really looked back since. I asked the students to look at the list of reasons on the board and write as many of them as necessary on paper I gave them, or any other reasons they may have for being reluctant to speak. Here are some of them (I probably had about 15 in all, but don’t remember them all now):

  • I don’t know enough words.
  • I’m worried about my grammar.
  • I’m worried about my pronunciation.
  • I’m not interested in the topics.
  • I don’t have enough time to think.
  • It’s too quiet in here.
  • Sandy scares me – she puts too much pressure on us.
  • I don’t have any ideas.

A couple of students mentioned being tired, and one said ‘Just a bad day’. Afterwards I asked them if they’d be comfortable sharing their feelings with their classmates. They agreed, so I put them in a circle and left the room, telling them they could choose whether to speak Polish or English, and suggesting they respond to each other, not just listing their ideas, telling each other whether they feel the same. They opted to have the discussion in Polish, and exchanged a little, though it was mostly monologuing. I could hear some of it from outside, but the background music and my intermediate Polish meant I couldn’t catch all of it.

When I returned to the room, I then spoke to them in my best Polish, saying something along the lines of ‘Language is communication. You’re here because you want to speak more, but if you come and sit in silence, then it’s just grammar, and you can do that at home. I’m making a lot of mistakes right now, but you can understand me, right? Grammar is not the important thing, communication is.’ I then switched into English and said that I’m tired too, and while I can try to give all 7 of us energy, it’s hard work and I need them to help me. I also explained a bit about the process of learning, going from knowing nothing to things being automatic, saying that some bits of their English are already automatic, things like using ‘I’ in the first person, or being able to spell ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without thinking about it. To help them make more things automatic, I need to be able to hear them so I can correct them if necessary, and they need to practise more.

We spent the last few minutes coming up with either/or debate topics, like cats or dogs, winter or summer, PC or PS…which they wrote all over the board. They will be the topics for a speaking assessment we’ll do next lesson, when I’ll see whether they can use the phrases for giving examples and expressing your opinion which were the actual topic of today’s lesson, as well as monitoring their interactive communication. They’ve got five days to think about what we discussed, practice the phrases and mentally prepare themselves for the assessment – I told them what it would involve and what they’d be marked on. I’ll be interested to see if any of this makes a difference…

At the end of the lesson, one of the students checked a bit of extra homework she’d done, and stayed for longer than the rest. I asked her if she thought this kind of discussion was useful, and she said she hoped it would help. She mentioned that at school, sitting in silence and listening to the teacher is considered respectful, and at uni you sit in silence because you’re taking notes, and you work out how to understand them later, so this is quite different for her now she’s an adult. As well as contained this idea to make me think, it was also the longest stretch of English I’ve heard from her all year. As I keep telling all of them, they’re much better than they think they are!

Colouful speech bubbles

Discussing it with my colleagues afterwards, one suggested that it could also be because we’re at (I hope!) the tail end of winter, a lot of students have been ill recently, it’s still dark and pretty cold, and maybe that’s tipping over into a relative lack of enthusiasm in the classroom – it’s definitely reduced as the year has progressed. Another said it could be a good idea to ask them to have discussions in Polish first, then in English, which I’m certainly going to try. I’ve only ever used that strategy once or twice, and it’s always worked before. She also suggested getting them to set goals, even if it’s just ‘I’ll answer three questions in class before Easter.’ That fits in quite nicely with the topic of our next lesson.

Do you have any other thoughts or suggestions on this? I’m not sure I’ve ever had a class quite this silent before!

Comments on: "Why won’t they speak?!" (19)

  1. These days, I feel a lot of this comes down to group dynamics, especially how it is established in the early days of a group. This might explain why individually (and in their L1) these people are fairly extroverted and outspoken and yet still fail to exhibit these characteristics in an English-driven group setting.

    Personally, I would dismiss any explanation along the lines of “too tired” or “wrong time of year”. Regardless of a long day, or a dark time of year, if you find yourself in the company of friends, with clearly established patterns of interaction, you immediately loosen up and start enjoying yourself.

    I also find it extremely hard to uproot/change group dynamics once those patterns have fossilized. And sometimes, I believe, it’s ok to let go. Not every group needs to resemble the group you can imagine to be, I think. And there’s definitely more to language learning than just spoken interaction. A lot of productive work can be done in total silence.

    Of course, the usual caveat applies. I don’t know the group really, and might be completely off the mark here with the assumptions I’m making. Hope it helps.


    • Yes, group dynamics definitely play a part here, and you’re right that it’s hard to change them once they’ve fossilised.
      The idea that it’s OK to let go is also a valuable one, but since I only teach one group a year, it feels quite frustrating for me at the moment. Perhaps if I was still teaching full-time I wouldn’t notice it so much! I also know that total silence can still mean production is happening, but a large part of why students come to our school is to get them speaking, which frustrates me even more! Watch this space…
      Thanks for taking the time to comment, and I’m going to keep thinking about the fossilisation side in particular.


  2. The Oven Spring said:

    Hi, Sandy,

    Given their cultural position of ‘it’s respectful to be quiet and listen’, maybe they need to feel that they are obligated to talk, rather than, if you will, enabled to talk.

    Have you any insights into what motivates them to work at uni? And I don’t mean work they enjoy or want to do, necessarily, but work that needs to be done. Maybe, and I’m not saying this will work, but maybe they will respond better if there are sanctions, or if they feel there is some academic gain from speaking (e.g. explicit formative assessment), moreso than waiting for you to bestow them with language.

    Just some musings


    • Thanks Rob. I’ll see if I can find out that information. We don’t have grades for the whole year, so I’m not sure if the assessment side will work, but I can investigate.


      • The Oven Spring said:

        You wouldn’t need grades for formative assessment, as long as there is clear evidence of learning progression (e.g what you can do now compared to what you could do before, or how quickly, or how many errors, etc). This could be done through study/error journals – audio recorded, or written – maintained by ss


  3. Oh, my! Getting students, specially kids and teens to talk are no picnic! :/
    I’ve literally came up with all sorts of activities to make them feel the need to use English and guess what? Nothing.
    I’m in a monolingual environment and It contributes enormously to this lack of effort to use L2! 😦


  4. Helen Manou said:

    Very interesting topic. I deal with teens in a mostly monolingual environment and it is a struggle. It’s the end of winter, the schooling they’ve had and the inhibitions of using the language freely in front of others. Especially at intermediate level.
    I’m lucky enough to be working at a school that facilitates communication in L2 from the very little ones so most of my students can be quite fluent.
    What I’ve been doing a lot recently is give them a voice over topics and assessment as well. I ask them to monitor and evaluate pair work, collaboration and interaction. I give them time to brainstorm voc items and language casually (race game like) before the task and share/ compare / compete over the most language/ voc items for the specific topic and then do the opinion giving or problem solving task.
    Last week there was very little natural interaction between ss, instead they resorted to a very dry monologue with the well-known minimum response like: I agree,… another monologue! I was happy that at least I heard them explaining their opinion, Instead of correcting anything I asked them to evaluate the pair work they had. How natural did it feel? How pleasant was it? Did you learn enough about what the other person feels about the topic? etc Then I collected the slips and briefly had a look, some did say that there was no interaction and responding to ‘their need’ I gave them functional language to respond and acknowledge input more naturally.
    It has had a positive feel in my class. With weaker or younger students – last min voc brainstorming and a set of functional language – even laminated/ on board – to use and monitor its use by their partner will give them a solid go-to language to use. I have never used L1 in communication tasks and I’m really curious to see how you all use it.


  5. Charlotte Giller said:

    An interesting and always relevant post, Sandy, thank you. I have a similar issue with an (in theory) advanced group of young adults who are strangely silent. I’m still incorporating a lot of get to know you type activities with them (a term and a half in!) because the group dynamic isn’t great. I suspect it’s not only a “they don’t want to speak” problem, it’s also that they don’t really want to speak to each other! I’m trying to help them find reasons to want to do that, but it feels like hard work right now.


    • Thanks for the comment Charlotte. I had a similar problem with my group last year, and the teacher who has taken over most of that group still has it. I didn’t really know how to address it – as you say, it can be really hard work! Have you used activities from Classroom Dynamics by Jill Hadfield? It’s something I often recommend, though I haven’t used any myself yet (I only teach one group a year at the moment).
      Good luck!


  6. Thanks, Sandy for this great blog post. I’ve been in that same situation for a while. During the week I teach one on one so no problem there… even though I’ve occasionally resorted to question flash cards such as The Ungame to get the odd shy or bored/boring student into speaking something. But on Saturdays I volunteer teaching a large group class and my students have been uncomfortably quiet in recent weeks. The reasons given are similar to the ones you listed especially “fear of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves”. I’ll positively try giving them some chance to speak to each other in their mother tongue (Portuguese) before English… that might help them break the ice. Thanks again for the post. Cheers, Mo .


  7. Geraldine said:

    Sometimes I ask students to close their eyes and show me the score they’d give themselves for their communication (out of 5, using fingers). Once they’ve done this I ask them to remember their score and try to improve it in the next lesson. For weak/shy groups. I tend to start the lesson asking them to write a short response to a question or two I write on the board. I monitor and check while they are writing to increase their confidence. they then discuss the questions in pairs. With some groups I find it useful to relate this to them and what’s happening in their lives and I’m often surprised by their replies. (Example: How are you feeling today? Why?). I’m surprised how much they are willing to share. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences of a less successful lesson. I think there is so much to be gained by looking at what isn’t going well. I’ve used your blog as a reference point so many times for ideas.


    • Thanks a lot for your comment and ideas. I’m hoping to come back to this over the next few lessons as I keep reflecting. So many helpful responses in this thread! 🙂


  8. […] Source: Sandy Millin, Why won’t they speak […]


  9. Victoria Toth said:

    Hi Sandy, I usually bring examples from my own life when we discuss a topic and it seems to help most of the time. For instance, last week we learnt about the structure : ,used to’ and I told them what I used to and didn’t use to do back in the nineties. Or when it comes to describing a friend, I’m the first to demonstrate it. My experience is that it generally helps my students open up. 😊


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