ELLs & the Silent Period
The following is an excerpt from The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Tranisition (Roman & Littlefield International, 2016). Interesting in exploring the full book? Find it on Amazon, Roman & Littlefield, or your favorite retailer.
The Silent Period & Obstructed Speech
The effects of a child’s emotional and psychiatric distress are routinely fleshed out in the Newcomer classroom. Often, the first of these symptoms are speech-related. In many cases, newly resettled students endure a period of marked silence. Silence is usually ascribed to the process of emotional transitioning. During the silent phase, which last for variant lengths of time, an individual will not express thoughts in the host language, either out of reluctance or inability. Those who experience this phenomenon are sometimes referred to as “shell shocked”.  The silent phase can last a period of days, weeks, or months.
In addition to silence, exposure to traumatic episodes at any period in a child’s life can trigger recurring nightmares and cognitive delays, as well as speech “freezes” and impediments. Such blocks include stuttering. Newcomer students who exhibit impeded speech should also be evaluated for traumatic stress.
Both silence and stuttering have a need to be addressed in the classroom. To begin, students should not be expected or mandated to produce oral language before they are ready. It is also wise to avoid situations that might embarrass new language learners, including publicly calling on them to speak before they are ready. We can be careful to offer caring encouragement and guidance. Also, we are responsible to practice patient wait time for processing speakers. In doing so, we model this behavior for other students.
Specific classroom accommodations must be in place to support language learners, and particularly non-verbal ELLs. First, to achieve this, a healthy and nurturing learning environment is critical. Small group engagement, tactile activities and positive feedback may encourage speech attempts and decrease overall anxiety. Alternative-expression tasks, such as drawing-and-labeling, script singing, or charade acting can provide additional opportunities to demonstrate knowledge in a language-centric environment.
Of course, kindness and caring are often the most influential antidotes to stress-stemmed silence. In the context of non-verbal ELLs, relationship and safety are everything. Simply, security induces speech.