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!
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!