Slowness and Silence (Express Fluency reflection 1)

Elissa is a fabulous host!
(photo by Andy Winter)

Last week I had the thrill of joining 70-some language teachers and another 30-odd community members of all ages in Brattleboro, Vermont, for the annual Express Fluency conference. I was honored that founder Elissa McLean had invited me, along with Annabelle Allen, Grant Boulanger, Tina Hargaden, and Dustin Williamson, to teach language classes for four mornings and offer teacher workshops in the afternoons. Kara Jacobs, Amy Marshall, and César and Pilar from Kent House also shared their skills and enthusiasm.

Several participants and presenters are blogging about the experience, and I thought I’d offer some notes on mine, based mainly on comments that students and observers made during our daily debriefing sessions. Here are some of the most-repeated things that helped students or stood out to observers:

  1. The just-right pace of the classes
  2. The use of my body and voice to achieve connection and comprehension
  3. The realization that twelve-plus hours of varied and enjoyable interaction could flow from some basic TPR (Total Physical Response) and a single question (“What is a place you would love to visit?”)
  4. Our use of interruptions and other would-be distractions, such as unannounced visitors, camera crews, broken pens, and students’ comments, to shape and enhance our interactions
  5. The smooth progression from simple to complex sentences throughout each lesson
  6. The early incorporation of “advanced grammar” into our conversations

In the next few weeks, I’ll expand on and provide practical tips about each of these, beginning with two of our most deceptively simple tools.

 

The Slowness and the Silence

Slowness

Central to #1 above was my speaking and progressing as slowly as was necessary for students to understand, without sacrificing interest or the sense that we were going somewhere. Several students mentioned that the slowness was essential to their understanding, but, because of sheer interest value and because of my movement and voice, never made them feel like our interactions were stalling. I learned such slowness through training and practice in TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling / TPR Storytelling®, invented by Blaine Ray), where it is a core skill. Seven or eight years ago, on the suggestion of a TPRS trainer or blogger—I’m afraid I don’t remember which one—I hung a huge sign at the back of my classroom that said nothing but SLOW, in order to constantly remind myself to check the speed especially of the actual sentences coming out of my mouth, but also of the overall pacing of the class.

Silence

I achieve that pacing partly through pauses between sentences, phrases, and sometimes even words. I purposely make long trips between different parts of the classroom in order to talk with different students, point to words on the wall, or simply mix things up, because this gives students processing time and creates anticipation. (This is part of point #2 above about the use of my body.) I also have a hunch that strategic pauses help overcome novice learners’ difficulty recognizing word boundaries in a stream of speech in the target language.

I don’t know how long I held this pose.
(photo by Kelly Fletcher)

Sometimes I use reeeally long pauses, long enough that the salient feature of the class at that point is simply silence. I might stand completely frozen in whatever posture, I might stand still but look around the class meaningfully or expressively, I might pace, I might walk a circle around the entire room. Twice last week, I lay down on the floor and closed my eyes in the middle of class. (These were initially responses to things students had said, but I lay longer than strictly necessary.) When I do this, I’m accomplishing at least four things:

  1. providing students time for mental processing or rest
  2. creating contrast with my occasional boisterousness
  3. building anticipation of whatever may come next
  4. deciding what to do next
  5. * [see bottom of post for later edit]

I’ve already talked about providing processing time, and silence naturally builds anticipation when it occurs in the middle of what is clearly a progression of narrative or of our learning about something interesting (often a student in the class). The contrast with my boisterousness gives students a break and, I hope, makes my outbursts more effective because that’s not my only mode. But silence also allows me to play out some scenarios for what could happen next. Which of the lines of inquiry or narrative that we’ve begun is likely to be most fruitful to pursue in this moment? Before proceeding, should we recap what we’ve already learned about each other during the class, or a story we’ve already begun creating? Do we need to get up and move around a bit? If we’ve been talking about a particular student, should we keep doing so or is it time to focus on another, both for its own sake and to discover interesting comparisons?

If you’ve built up good rapport with students, if the class is engaged in interesting conversation or story-creation, and if your body and tone convey a sense of what we might call alert relaxation, you can get away with long silence, and students will appreciate it.

I don’t consider myself to have achieved full mastery of any particular teaching skill, but one of the bits of praise I most cherish came on this subject from Mike Coxon, a delightful and relaxed TPRS teacher and trainer. After I had done a demonstration at a local workshop to which Mike had invited me, he told me, “Justin, you are the master of silence.” I hadn’t consciously been using silence as a tool, just felt comfortable with it. Since Mike’s comment, I’m more conscious of its use, and students and workshop participants frequently comment on it.

Check out this summary of TPRS skills from Terry Waltz, which includes “Slow” and “Pausing and Pointing.”

 

Dabbling in Slowness and Silence

Especially if you feel overwhelmed by new tools and activities to try this year, why not work in these two skills that require neither meticulous planning nor the right words? Experiment with different paces of speech and spacing of pauses, with moving around the room methodically, and with postures and facial expressions that silently promote curiosity. The worst that can happen is you decide the pause or posture isn’t working and you just keep moving or talking. But I bet you’ll discover some power in slowness and silence.

 

*EDIT a few hours after original post:

Just after posting, I went to “run” through Nichols Arboretum and do what, with me, passes for gardening. This gave me–wait for it–the slowness and silence I needed to process a concept I wanted to get across originally, but wasn’t sure how. Also, I had thought this post was getting a bit long and adding this as an EDIT helps me get away with extending it.

Here we go: Extended silence also gives students time to make comments that are brewing, but may never come out unless there is a long gap in other people’s speech. During this gap a student may be thinking back to phrases she has heard, looking around at a word wall, trying to decide if the comment is worth making, or simply working up the courage to speak. I’m amazed at the comments that emerge after long pauses, when it seems like anyone who wanted to say something would have said something by now. Often these delayed contributions send the class conversation in just the right direction!

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10 Comments

  1. I was just thinking about this 10 hours ago.

    Resolved to repeat myself, go slower, and allow more time for students to process questions.

    Now, the “slow” sign will be worked into that mix.

  2. Thanks a lot Justin! Very interesting and especially your remark at the end. As you say: you yourself needed some silence & slow to get to it, becasue it was not yet fully clear and it needed some processing time.

    I’d like to add some words from Thomas Carlyle to it: “Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together” – “Speech is silvern, Silence is golden” – “Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity.” https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/345774-silence-is-the-element-in-which-great-things-fashion-themselves

  3. Justin, I apply your instruction at iFLT in Chattanooga of making the most of distractions and including them in class instruction/stories. What a blast it has become. Students with ripped jeans become poor students who need our help, and entire stories develop as we travel around the world looking for the perfect jeans. Anyone coming into the room now receives the “Welcome” song we created. Then, of course, we talk about the person after he or she leaves,pitying the fact that they don’t speak Spanish and imagine where they’re going. I so value that workshop. Thank you.

  4. Justin,

    As I just finished the second week of school, what you wrote is very timely for me. When I took Mandarin from Linda Li this past summer, I so valued her pace when speaking to us – which for her, I am sure was incredibly slow, but for us students in the class, it was just the right pace. This is something which I need to remember with my own students. I am forcing myself to count to 3 whenever I point and pause – personally I hate the silence, because it feels awkward to me, but it gives students time to process. Great post!

  5. This is really good advice – thanks! So what sort of comments would make you lie down on the floor and close your eyes? I think if I did that my students would be so distracted by the weirdness that the value of the silence would be lost. I can definitely see the value of incorporating some long pauses, silence, and body language though. Do you think it ever turns into awkward silence (pacing around the whole room?). Do you ever explicitly tell students that you might leave long pauses (and why), or do they just get used to it/not notice it?

    • I don’t remember what things have made me lie down in class =)
      It’s certainly possible for a long pause to turn awkward, but I’m okay with that. I don’t think I’ve thought about addressing it specifically with students, but now you’ve got me thinking about the possible value of doing that at some point!

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