As we have discussed in the past, there are phases to acquisition of a new language. You can read about the Silent Period by clicking here. This phase can be confusing and frustrating for teachers as we want to see and be a part of learning. When children are reluctant to express themselves, we often think that nothing is happening or even that we are failing as teachers. But this is not true!
We would benefit from remembering that much is taking place in the minds of new language learners as they immerse themselves in the school environment. They are listening and watching. Children watch you show pictures of nouns and verbs. They listen to you read books. They observe their peers line up, wash their hands, and go to lunch or run outside. All the while, language is being matched with actions. Vocabulary is being silently attempted in little heads. This is an important time.
To help, the first thing to remember is to avoid forcing any child to speak. This can make the silent period last longer or even be harmful in other ways. Be patient - children will speak! To help children and to assure teachers they can implement strategies that will assist children, think about integrating the following into classrooms:
Always remember that receptive language is being built. Read simple books with pictures that match the text. We think this is simple, but the choice of text for ELLs is important. Many books do not have pictures that adequately match the vocabulary of each page.
Consider asking yes or no questions, but pair these questions with a hand signal like thumbs up or thumbs down. This way, children can give the hand signal until they are comfortable adding the simple words.
Pair children with others. You can match them with those who speak their language, but you can also watch for blossoming friendships. Often ELLs will try and speak English words to other children with whom they are comfortable. Watch and listen...but silently!
We like to plan constructivist activities to engage children. When we move beyond simply writing letters or numbers, children are more engaged and likely to share thoughts. Group children and let them explore. You can see for example, our post on the M & M Experiment. Activities like this integrate literacy and science, but they also help children learn inquiry skills and cooperate with others. For your ELLs, these types of activities show them that it is acceptable to take chances! And in the fun, they are more inclined to take chances with their new language.
Sing songs that have repeating verses and rhythmic language. These are easy to follow, especially if you pair gross motor movements with the words. This makes the language especially fun and age-appropriate.
It is also important to establish the idea that mistakes are acceptable and made by everyone. We like to be vocal about our mistakes and show all children that these are ways to further learning. We can be heard saying, "Oh I made a mistake but I can learn from it," several times a day.
Of course, if you can speak a few words in the child's home language, this will almost certainly bring a smile to faces. Look for books that have a few words in different languages. And, of course, if you have Spanish speakers, be sure to sign up for our Emergent Reader weekly activities in English and Spanish. Even sending home the Dear Colleague letter will help families who are fluent in Spanish.
NAEYC - 2.D.
Head Start - IX. A.,B.,& C.