Unheard Voices

I’m writing this post in response to @kalinagoenglish challenge presented in her blog. You can read my answer to the previous challenge here.

Providing space for the learners’ voice means

accepting that the learners’





& desires

are valid content in the language learning classroom.

In the answers to this challenge we have heard the voices of  two teachers having a conversation , one teacher singing and we have talked and discussed thoroughly about the need to let our students take control of their learning, and the importance of listen to their voices and adapt our classes to cater for their interests, likes and dislikes. However, what should we do when our learners are reluctant to have such an active role in our classroom? What do we do with shy students? Shall we push them to take part or let them be?Apparently, as David R Hall says, students know what their own needs and interests are. So, if what they want is to have a passive role in our classes, why not let them?. I don’t have the answers to these questions, the only thing I can share with you are two examples of this situation that I have in my classes.

Case 1:

I have one student, who speaks very little in her every day life. In the past, she didn’t use to speak at all (obviously she has some kind of psychological problem). However, what really surprises me about her,  is that even though you may think that she is not at all present in class ( one hardly ever gets to hear  her voice), she does all the written activities perfectly well. She succeds at writing letters, doing grammar exercises, passing the written tests, etc. I sometimes wonder if she is happy in her silent world. Shall I leave her like that or shall I try to make her talk? I sometimes even feel sad, because I consider that I’m excluding her in some way, since I don’t ask her questions as I do with the rest of my students, because I believe she will feel unconfortable. Is it right? Or should I have continued addressing her till the moment she decides to interact with me and the rest of the class? Don’t really know.

Case 2:

This is the girl that has refused to take part in the activity I have discussed in my post “The importance of reflection” This is a totally different case from the previous one. She is an excellent student, very good at speaking, very fluent. However, she always place safe. She just answer whatever she is asked, but never enlarge on the topic. She wants to be as unpercievable as possible. For example, once the class had to be divided in different groups and for that reason, we were making a kind of raffle with their names to make the groups. Each student at a time had to take a piece of paper and read the name on it. When her turn came, she refused to take a paper. It was really unbeliavable, as she would not be compromised in any way by choosing one piece of paper. Her classmates tried to convince her, but she didn’t change her mind. If she refuses to “become active” even in the less demanding activities, how can I expect her to express her ideas and interests in front of the class? Or is it that she is being an autonomous learner and expressing the way in she wants to learn (with a more traditional approach, in which she is not required to take such an active role)? Difficult question to answer.

Well, as you can see I have too many questions and no answers at all. So I decided to conduct some research and stumbled upon a piece of advice that @thornburyscott was giving to an EFL teacher on the issue  at Onestopenglish. Scott gave some practical tips and finally concluded that:

If all else fails, you can take heart from a piece of classroom research conducted by Dick Allwright several years ago, in which he observed a class for a term and noted that, despite the highly interactive nature of the lessons, there was one student who hardly ever participated in group or class speaking activities. However, at the end of the course she scored as highly, if not more highly, than her peers on several measures of proficiency, including speaking! Allwright concluded that “for some students at least, learning a second language is a spectator sport”.

What do you think? I’m not totally convinced, but who knows… maybe those unheard voices are claiming us to let them be.


Posted on November 13, 2010, in Reflections on Tefl/tesl and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Nice post, Sabrina. There could be any number of factors behind student reticence- as you say, they may simply be ‘lurking’, they be naturally ‘shy’, or they may be afraid of making mistakes – without actually talking to them it might be hard to know which. It could also have something to do with the classroom dynamic and even the teacher’s own discourse style (not in your case, I’m sure!) – as I point out in my blog post R is for Reticence: http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/?s=reticence

    • Hi Scott! Thanks for passing by. Yeah, I have read your post as part of my research =) Apparently, you agree with Cecilia without knowing. She pointed out just like you the importance of talking to the students,es in order to try to find out what the problem is, if there is a problem at all. Each person encompasses a unique inner world, it is the teacher’s job to try to make each student’s voice heard in the best way for them.

  2. Hi Sabrina,

    This is a great post that raises an important point. Not everybody wants to say so much, particularly about themselves. I think it’s our job as teachers to discern when somebody is quiet through choice and when somebody is quiet through lack of understanding or feelings of insecurity. I was a ‘quiet’ student at school myself, and I remember my dad getting annoyed at one parents’ evening after hearing ‘he’s too quiet’ over and over. He pointed out that I had good grades, well-received projects and I’d made the school public speaking finals so what was the problem?

    As David Warr said on his Language Garden blog, we need to listen to the student’s ‘written voice’ as well. If a quiet student is expressing himself/herself well in writing, this is a positive step and should be encouraged. We should also be aware of how he/she interacts in small groups or pairs, or one on one with us away from lesson time. That way, their voives are still heard.

    • Hi Dave! Thanks for passing by! You are right our voices are also expressed through writing, body language, etc. It is the teacher’s job to start decoding those messages so that everybody’s voices can be heard in our classes. Difficult challenge we must admit.

  3. Hi Sabrina,

    I really enjoy seeing how each post in response to the challenges has a different take on the same challenge. Yours brings attention to something every ELTeacher has come across, those students who don’t like speaking in class.

    I have very mixed feelings on this issue. I believe that speaking in class, interacting orally, is undeniably helpful in improving the students’ oral fluency. On the other hand I have also seen many students develop that fluency without doing so. What should we do, you ask. I don’t have any answers, but I can share what I do, just as you did.

    I used to be pushy with those “shy” students, making an extra effort to “pull them out of their shells”, get them to speak in class. And then I considered I was pushing them to go against their nature. So now, I let the students choose if they want to speak or not. And when I come across the more reserved, quiet students I usually sit with them and ask about it, whether they don’t speak because they don’t feel comfortable in doing it or because they couldn’t (for lack of linguistic knowledge/confidence). I make sure to let them know I do anything they need to foster a non-threatening environment for everyone to speak. I assure them everyone in the class makes mistakes (including myself!) and that perfection doesn’t exist.

    But if they still chose to keep it to themselves, let them. (I loved Scott’s advice – thanks for the link BTW) Because yes, maybe some prefer to be more of spectators, and that doesn’t mean they don’t learn from it. 🙂

    • Hi Cecilia. Thank you very much for passing by. I have been thinking about the same recently: how we do totally different things in answer to Karenne’s challenges. I think that sometimes she might be totally surprised with the results. She might encounter an idea that she has never imagined could result from that challenge. Does it ring a bell? Yeah, just like in our classes. When we let our students take more control of the class very unpredictable things happen, and they may even end up discussing a topic that we have thought they would never be interested in. After all, we are all human beings totally unique and special, and that’s why we can learn a lot from each other.
      Well, I’m beating around the bushes here. Let’s go to the point. I really like the idea of talking to the students individually and try to find out what the reasons behind their behaviour are. We may not get a straight answer. However, they will know what we expect from them and maybe, they will start participating a bit more. Who knows…

  4. Re: case 1, is there an answer? If so, I’d like to know what it is. I do the same as you. Recently, in a class I taught as a one-off, one girl (out of 8 students) didn’t say a word. It made me think there might be issues, like you said, and I have no right to go there.

    • Dear David! Thanks for passing by. Yeah, it is a very difficult situation. I sometimes feel bad for not doing anything about it. However, I’m nobody to tell her that she should interact more with people. Maybe she is happy in her own way and she is enjoying the class. Who knows? I like to think that, however, it maybe the case that she just hates it LOL

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Unheard Voices « Sabrina’s Weblog -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: Showing Our Voices In a Real Conversation (Dogme Blog Challenge #5) « Box of Chocolates

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: