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Working with new arrivals – the silent period

An initial silent period, which may last for a very short time, or even months, is a natural stage when learning a language. Toddlers do not begin to speak until they are about 1 year old or even older – they are however listening and imitating the sounds they hear around them.
English as an Additional Language (EAL) pupils may also exhibit a ‘silent period’. This is also part of normal development and children are not passive at this stage. It is a time for listening and tuning into the language and routines of the lessons. It is important not to make them feel anxious or under pressure to speak; they are absorbing lots of information.
Do not panic – the silent period is only a cause for concern if it is prolonged – it could last for several months.
Clarke (1992) suggests 10 strategies for support during the silent period summarised below:

  • Continue talking even when the child does not respond.
  • Continue to include the child within small groups of children.
  • Structure activities to encourage child-to-child interaction.
  • Model a variety of questions.
  • Use other children as the focus of the conversations.
  • Use First Language as often as possible.
  • Always accept non-verbal responses.
  • Constantly use praise, even for minimal effort.
  • Activities should include expected responses of repeating words or counting or both.
  • Provide activities that reinforce language practice through role-play.

Examples of reasons for a silent period could include:

  • the child waiting to feel safe enough to speak – and not being laughed at
  • being shy at home equating to being ‘mute’ at school
  • having suffered trauma before arriving in school, for example, asylum seekers and refugees from war-torn countries
  • pupils choosing to be ‘elective mute’ to make parents suffer after leaving all their friends in their homeland

If the silent period is very prolonged then it is possible through first language assessment to find out if the child:

  • has a social language that is age-appropriate
  • has expressive speech but obvious language difficulties
  • is an elective mute – they may appear to be but some will then speak in first language during assessment

This information may be key to informing any decision-making process. It is important to collect a wide range of evidence and meet the parents with an interpreter if needed, to gain background information, especially about previous language development.