Often times, teachers come to me frustrated because a new student will not communicate with classmates in English or the native language. They are frustrated that despite their efforts to teach simple phrases and engage the child in even minimal spoken conversation, the child will not speak. This does not mean that the child doesn't like you! He or she is just in their silent period, and they're not ready to speak yet.
Why is there a silent period?
If you've ever traveled to another country, even for a short period of time, then you understand how shocking a new culture and a new language can be. Add to that a new school environment and a different language, and it is no surprise that the child is hesitant to speak. The silent period is not without purpose, however. Krashen asserts that during the silent period, students are adjusting to their new environment and beginning to learn their second language through input.
A personal exmple
Here's a powerful example. Two years ago, a little Vietnamese girl, we'll call her "Tina", came into my middle school classroom. For the first few months, she almost never spoke other than during classroom activities. One day, there was a puddle on my floor from the leaky window, and my sweater was very close to falling off my chair and into the puddle. Tina gasped, pointed and said "Miss! Your jacket!" All of which was vocabulary that she had learned in class through input.
For the rest of the first year that she was with me, her production was still limited to situations where it was necessary, but I knew she was listening and learning. As we worked together the second year, she increased her production more and more, to the point where she would sometimes come to my classroom just to talk to me! She still didn't speak much in class, but all she needed was a trustworthy ear and a comfortable environment.
How does the student's background and class composition affect the silent period?
Another variable that can affect the silent period is the student's culture and the number of speakers of their native language that are in the classroom. In my experience, Asian students, because of their culture, are more precise and will often wait until they are sure that they can produce correct sentences before speaking. Latino students tend to be more gregarious and more focused on the message than on the correctness of the message, and will often come out of their silent period more quickly. Another factor to consider is that Latino students may come out of their silent period sooner due to the higher numbers of native Spanish speakers in the school population.
So what can I do to help my newcomers?
Continue to provide opportunities for the student to acquire necessary vocabulary and sentence structures through comprehensible input. At the early Newcomer stage, it is appropriate to focus on BICS, or basic interpersonal communication skills, as these skills are most immediate need for the student to navigate daily life. Provide plenty of modeling- I always greet my students at the door and say "Good morning _____! How are you today?" I teach the correct responses to my newcomers, and then allow them to learn by listening to me and their classmates. Repetition is also key- we repeat this ritual each morning. Within days, the students are able to provide standard responses, and then within weeks, they provide widely varied and personalized responses.
Also, provide a comfortable environment. Ensure that the students in your classroom are compassionate and helpful, and do not make fun of the Newcomer's attempts at English. According to Krashen's Affective Filter Hypothesis, the affective filter is a sort of emotional screen that can affect the student's language learning. If the student is uncomfortable or nervous, the affective filter is up and language learning is difficult. Pushing the student to produce language when he or she is not ready can also raise the affective filter. When the student is comfortable and feels free to make mistakes, then optimal language learning can occur.
Again, don't be discouraged if your Newcomer doesn't speak right away- respect the silent period and give your student time to learn through input. You'll be amazed at what our students can learn on their own, just through listening!