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EAL: The power of silence

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By Halina BoniszewskaEAL teacher

Discover how allowing new English speakers to remain silent can reap rewards later on

Worried girl

Problem: ‘Help! I have a new English as an additional language (EAL) child in my class and she won’t speak. What should I do?’

Answer: The first thing that you should do is to relax. The more you make an issue out of the child’s silence, the more pressure she will feel, and will freeze and clam up. It is perfectly normal for a new arrival to say precious little during her first six months in a foreign country. She may need that time to acclimatise herself to the sounds of the new language. She will be busy listening: the more she listens, the more she will learn.

Trust me – I was once an EAL child. I spent a number of months attending ear, nose and throat outpatient departments because my teachers had told my mother that my refusal to speak probably meant that I had hearing problems. The truth was that my ear was just getting attuned to a new language; also, I was quiet by nature and a perfectionist. I was not going to make a fool of myself by opening my mouth and saying something that might not be quite right.

Fluency in any language

I recently heard a teacher ask an EAL parent to make an effort to speak more English to her child at home in a misguided attempt to get the silent child to speak some English. This is not to be advised. It is far better for an EAL child to learn to speak their parents’ first language fluently than to try to imitate the sometimes shaky English of a non-native speaker. Imagine your French teacher at school complaining to your parents about your refusal to speak French and then suggesting that they speak as much French as possible to you? Ludicrous, n’est-ce-pas? As long as a child learns to speak a language fluently – any language – that child will absorb the concept of language: what a sentence is, the function of intonation, and so on.

It is useful to recall your own experiences of learning and trying to communicate in a foreign language. Imagine holidaying in Spain with only school-level Spanish. You know lots of Spanish words, and you can even occasionally understand what the locals are saying. You want to speak to them, but it’s all too stressful: you just don’t seem to be able to get the words out in time. If someone asks you a question, you shrug your shoulders. Silence is safe: if you say nothing, you avoid embarrassment and misunderstandings. Now, think of your EAL child and let her take refuge in her silence. She will speak when she is ready.

Non-confrontational questioning

So, you agree with the above but would still like to accelerate the speech of your EAL child. How can you do this without causing her undue distress? You would do well to follow a technique favoured by marriage guidance counsellors, who suggest that when there is a difficult issue to be discussed between two people, they should go for a drive. When we sit side by side and avoid eye contact, we feel less emotional pressure and are more inclined to talk.

So, sit down next to your EAL child and do something creative with her, but take care not to overwhelm her with chatter. For example, if you’re making modelling clay figures, focus on key features of your model: look at the big head, small feet, long hair, and so on.

Ask questions sparingly: Is this you or me? Or, point at a clay figure and just say Look! and look expectantly at the child. The chances are that the child will speak. She may start with just one word, but will soon move on to two or more words, for example, ‘long hair’ or ‘big, round head’. Or, you could say nothing at all. You may well find that your own silence will encourage the child to speak as you will have given her time in which to gather her thoughts.

So, don’t be afraid of silence. You may well find that it will lead to moments of magic.


Key Stage 1
  • creative activities side-by-side with the child
  • point and say ‘Look!’, then wait for the child’s response
  • give the child headphones so that she can work her way through audio or e-books in peace and quiet
Key Stage 2
  • dedicated EAL sessions in a quiet room
  • make use of the peace sometimes offered by the ‘outdoor classroom’
  • give the child headphones so that she can work her way through e-books with related activities.


  • ply the child with questions – you may cause her distress
  • ask the parents to substitute the native language for English in their home.

Image © 2011 Images



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