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The non-awkward silence

silence teacher talking time ttt wait time Aug 31, 2021

We’ve most likely all had a social experience where we felt the effects of the dreaded ‘awkward silence’. One minute you’re engaged in conversation and suddenly, you reach a dead end. AWKWARD! In social situations, these moments of silence may feel uncomfortable, or even painful, but in the classroom, they are anything but!

The moments of silence your students need in class are akin to the ‘loading’ process you see when an app is getting ready to launch, your computer or smartphone are starting up, or your video is preparing for streaming. These uninterrupted moments of silence, or teacher wait time, allow your students time to process information and questions while giving them space and quiet time to formulate their responses. A good amount of teacher wait time can be useful in letting your students build some confidence before speaking and a bit of silence between activities can even allow students to take a quick break from processing new information – they are learning a new language, after all.

Giving sufficient wait time seems to be a pain point for most new teachers. In my experience teaching and observing hundreds of teachers in action, I’ve noticed that we tend to use a lot of words that simply don’t add value to the class or that actually cause confusion for our students. Have you ever filled silence by including a bit of running commentary in your class? You might say things like “oops, let me get my pen first!”, or “I’m just going to erase the board here because we won’t need this anymore”, and even “okay, I need to check the time here to make sure we have enough time for this activity”. Although this may feel natural for you, in the ESL/EFL classroom, all of these additional words can cause students to feel overwhelmed and sometimes confused, especially if they are at a lower level.

Maybe you’ve tried to fill silence by making sure your students understood your questions or instructions. Have you ever posed a question to your students and followed it up with “do you understand? Let me see if I can explain it another way”?

One of the most beneficial practices a teacher can adopt and perfect is the art of giving silence in the classroom. To do this, teachers need to first eliminate the idea of an awkward silence. In the classroom, silence from your students, paired with body language, will indicate one of two things – 1) lack of clarity and a need for clearer instruction, or 2) thought processing and a need for more time to think before participating. Be perceptive to your students’ facial expressions and body language to understand these differences in classroom silence.

To help teachers improve their wait time and silence habits, I recommend practicing:

  • silently, and slowly counting to 4 after posing a question or giving an instruction (count, 1 banana, 2 banana, 3 banana, 4 banana).
  • making yourself feel as comfortable as possible so that silence doesn’t feel awkward (try sitting to feel more relaxed in class, and be aware of any fidgeting or nerves, etc.).
  • giving non-verbal feedback while students are participating (use your facial expressions to tell students they’re on the right – or wrong – track).

Make it a goal to allow silence in your class so that your students can:

  • feel more relaxed and calm
  • process information at their own pace and not be rushed along
  • feel comfortable asking questions
  • build confidence to participate

Remember, the teacher’s voice should only be used to add value! 

Time to reflect: Have you tried allowing more room for silence in your classes? What have you learned by providing longer wait times for your students? What are your go-to tips and tricks for decreasing your teacher talk time and increasing your wait time?