"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

Silent Classroom Syndrome, and Tricks to Fix it
March 25, 2015, 3:47 pm
Filed under: efl world, teaching | Tags:

You know what I’m talking about: that dreaded minute…or twenty minutes…or whole hour of staring at ten to fifty people who have absolutely nothing to say.

It’s frustrating, stressful and just downright uncomfortable when you get stuck with Silent Classroom Syndrome. You may think, “What’s wrong with these people? I can think of a million things to say!”

Well, of course you can. You’re a native speaker, after all.

Whatever you do, don’t take it personally! We’ve all been there, and luckily there are a few things you can do to cut down on the silence and up the energy. The following are a few “hacks” you can apply to your own classroom; nothing fancy, just quick tweaks that will make your lesson run smoother, all of which I learned in my CELTA course, and then tested/perfected through personal experience.

  • Focus on a target language for every lesson. That could range from past simple (a grammar target) to travel language (a vocabulary target) to talking about food (a fluency/oral production target). A lesson without a goal lacks purpose and may inspire your students to turn inward and philosophize: “What am I actually learning? Why am I here? When can I go?” Once your lesson has a goal, keep students on topic by assigning relevant tasks.
  • Always give students time to first talk or work in pairs for a few minutes, then return to the group to discuss what they did. Some students love to take the spotlight as soon as you ask a question, but most don’t. In China, people usually hesitate to volunteer in class out of the concern for losing face.  This is a cultural hurdle that you can easily jump over by having students first commiserate in pairs.  It forces everyone to speak, but also makes volunteering in class less daunting.  Plus, it gives you a little downtime. It’s insane to expect a person to communicate with other people for 4-5 hours straight without a break. Treat these moments as a rest for your voice and your brain, and a chance to learn from your students.
  • Avoid open-ended tasks; give very specific instructions.  Asking a question that begins, “What do you think about…” is asking for awkward silence. Abracadabra! And the Awkward Silence Genie appears. So ask specific questions and the genie will go crawling back into the magic lamp.  For example, let’s say you want to ask about the country vs. cities. Instead of asking “What do you think of the countryside and the city?” you could give them this task: “List three adjectives for the countryside and three adjectives for the city. How are they different? How are they the same? Are you more of a country person or a city person?” Then you can extend the activity by having students give specific examples (ie, “the city is exciting because there are so many people and so many activities, like public dancing and KTVs,” or “the countryside is dirty because there’s not a lot of money for public health”). And don’t have them answer on the spot – put them in pairs (see above). Questions like these encourage language skills and critical thinking without putting pressure on students.
  • Demo. Demo. Demo!!!! You should always model activities before assigning them. If it’s a worksheet, do number one together. If it’s a game, choose the strongest student in the class and perform an example with him/her. Failure to provide a demo will almost always cause confusion and waste precious time (and the students are often counting).
  • To add a little flair to your lesson, use a creative lead in. This is a 5-10 minute activity intended to generate interest in the lesson topic or target language.  Take a look at whiteboard down here, a snapshot of one of my lessonsF309Oot23y7oC5bfqy_tJ24LePr8SGkDGoQOk4UlvZ0 Now imagine the board is blank, except for that picture of the jumping girl. I show students the picture and ask, “What is she doing?” A student will say, “She’s jumping.” Then I’ll ask, “Why is she jumping?” “She’s happy.” “OK. What happened that made her so happy?” And if you have a fun group, they’ll invent all sorts of reasons why, ranging from “She got her dream job” to “She found a rich husband.” This is not the most exciting lead-in, but it’s simple, it’s direct and it’s a lot better than starting class with, “OK everyone, today we’re going to study present continuous. What is present continuous? Anyone?” Other possible lead ins include storytelling, short group discussions, or if you’ve got a theatrical streak, putting on a show and getting the students out of their chairs. (For a lesson on phrasal verbs, I post a bunch of pictures all around the classroom, announce that I’m curating a gallery in a museum, and invite students to walk around and “take in the art,” and of course they’re free to discuss the deeper meaning of the “art.”) By the way, this lesson is on present simple and present continuous, or more specifically, active versus stative verbs. I found that students were often unable to differentiate active and stative verbs, making their grasp over present continuous rather tenuous. After we established that “jump” is an active verb, we were able to make a list in both categories.
  • Test what students learn with worksheets. I believe language acquisition is solidified through writing exercises. Worksheets are doable for most students because they’re a question of plugging in the variables to solve for X. Plus, it means you get a little breather. Check out Azar’s and Macmillan for some solid worksheets; esl flow also has an eclectic, if at times haphazard, selection.
  • Jot down mistakes that you hear students make (especially common Chinglish) and then put them on the board. Most of these mistakes are performance-oriented, meaning students know how to correct them but make them out of habit, especially while speaking. Sometimes, though, they are parroting mistakes that their Chinese teachers erroneously taught them. Perk up your ears, get them down and correct them as a group. Amazingly, the corrections you make together will stick in their brains. It’s a nice way to end the class because the students walk away with a valuable little nugget.

However you decide to proceed, never seek revenge on your students. You may inadvertently begin to ask leading questions, edged with anger–resist. It’s not personal (usually). The students probably dread SCS just as much as you do–they just don’t know how to fix it. And if fifty people can’t respond to your lesson, then it’s most likely you, not them.

Then there are the times when SCS is just unavoidable, and alas, this is just one of the low points of teaching. Sometimes your students have nothing in common, or none of them want to be there, or everyone is locked in shyness . . . I find that these types of classes respond best to group work and less well to Teacher Talk Time, though it’s easy to go toward that direction. It’s important for these students to build rapport with each other.

Also, keep in mind that although silence is grating, even alarming, to new or untrained teachers, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Students aren’t machines–they need time to think and absorb information.  Don’t be afraid of it! Wield it.

Above all, remember that your job is important, and even if you’re not Teacher of the Year, even if teaching is not where your talent or passion lies, you can still make it a worthwhile experience, for both you and your students. Sharing your language and culture, learning about China from your students–it’s all part of the adventure of living abroad, and you deserve to get the most out of it!


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