How do you respond when students are silent in the classroom? Learn strategies to add to your teaching repertoire by understanding what silence means and how to use it.

My first teaching position was as a 4th- and 5th-grade teacher at a Friends School in Philadelphia. There, I learned the Quaker value of adding silence and periods of reflection to my teaching to provide a wider range of students with the opportunity to participate in classroom discussions. Later, a focus on silence as a teaching strategy led me to explore how students themselves use silence as a form of communication. I also investigated the ways students might participate in classroom conversations through both talk and silence.

As teachers, we often assign grades for class participation that are based only on verbal participation. It is often difficult for a teacher to gauge how much a student is learning if she rarely speaks in class. Yet, I began to think about the limitations of verbal participation and was particularly interested in understanding the ways a student might participate without speaking aloud. I wanted to pay attention to when a student silently agreed with a question or thoughtfully jotted notes for a future essay as she listened. I asked myself whether these were useful forms of participation. One student’s silence allows another to speak. Do students have a responsibility to contribute to the silence of a classroom so that others can talk, along with a responsibility to contribute verbally to the discussion? I began to wonder how we might understand, address, and ultimately encourage both silence and talk in our classrooms.

We often think of certain types of students as intrinsically silent and define groups such as timid girls and reticent Asian or Native American students in this way. However, a student may be shy in one setting and garrulous in another, distracted and rebellious one day, or simply playing her assigned role in the group. Understanding a student’s silence — or the silence of the group — in relation to the entire system of the classroom allows a teacher to rethink the processes and content of teaching and move beyond generalizations about individuals and groups.

Silent students

Many teachers have strategies for increasing student participation.

Log in or become a member to read more!
Want to read the rest of this article? Pi Lambda Theta members enjoy full access to Educational Horizons online.