Silence and control


July 10, 2011 by Willy Cardoso

London, 7 July 2011

EFL conversation lesson (B2 upper-intermediate)

in the room: 1 teacher and 8 adult learners

(after the initial chit-chat)

So… we’ve had interesting lessons this week, we talked about many things, and… you know, I chose all the topics. I was thinking that maybe for today and tomorrow you could choose the topic of our conversations, after all this is a conversation lesson and you must have things you’d like to talk about, and learn related vocabulary, practice some expressions used to talk about these specific things, maybe about your culture, jobs, I don’t know. What do you think?

(silence; some nodding; some indifference; some blank looks; some smiles)

What do you say if each one of you choose a topic? I’ll write them up on the board and we’ll see what common interests you have and build the lesson from that. So, what would you like to talk about?

(silence, 5 seconds)

(teacher feels uncomfortable and wants to keep talking though he manages not to and waits)

(silence, 10 seconds)

(teacher starts to feel itchy, nearly utters a slightly aggressive c’mon!!)

(silence, 15 seconds)

(teacher is now pissed off, but manages to look cool, he simply talks to himself If these guys come to a conversation lesson and there’s nothing they’d like to talk about we’ll be silent for 1h30, fine)

(silence, 20 seconds – a record breaker of teacher-students’ silence in classroom non-activity)

(he can take it no more…)

So… any ideas?? (he says with a big smile which hides itchy uneasiness)

Erm… I don’t know… I think it would be nice to talk about the government interfering in people’s lives. (says the blonde with an intonation of hopeless uncertainty and a look  of why do I always have to talk first in this group?)


Interestingly enough, a week before that I taught the same course, but with different people, and I barely had to open my mouth to initiate any kind of discussion, students would do it eagerly.

The thing is, it was supposed to be pretty easy because you know, by the time they come to my lesson they’d had 3 hours of coursebook-oriented lessons, they are upper-intermediate, they can talk, none of them have any mental disabilities, they don’t look starved, the lesson is after lunch, it’s EFL, it’s holidays for most of them, they’re all literate and seem to have had privileged education in their home countries, and more than anything they chose to be there because afternoon lessons are elective as far as I know. But it’s not easy! Because they won’t talk if they were not asked a direct question.

It must be difficult for them for some reason, reason which unfortunately we don’t have much time to uncover. And it’s also difficult for me to deal with it for reasons I understand very well.

But it’s okay, I know some people come with high expectations of having no control, of granting the teacher full responsibility for creating content that is enjoyable and conducive to learning, even though this content might have nothing to do with their lives. As a teacher who does his best to understand his students’ referential points, I do understand such expectations.

In spite of it, a good teacher in this circumstance would be able to (or at least try to) identify his learners’ needs and interests and plan accordingly anyway, even if most of them will be there for a week only? But why would he do it?


Realizing the difficulty of such approach her teacher tries hard to implement and also understanding that such approach has been beneficial to her in the previous week, the youngest (stated) and brightest (according to my judgement) person in the group suggested we chose the topics beforehand in order for them to have time to prepare “something to say”.

Most of them agreed that it was a good idea. Another student suggested it would be interesting to know more about each other’s culture since they come from different places. Deal. Their simple task was to think of questions they’d like to ask classmates the day after.


The day after:

A quarter of the group had thought about what they wanted to know about each other.

No-one volunteered to kick off. After the awkward silence the teacher couldn’t take all over again, he improvised a genuine question to the youngest student, the one who suggested the whole thing. Her answer was quite good and generated a lot of comments, it also prompted questions from some students who hadn’t thought about anything.

Conversation nearly died about 7 times at least. The teacher had to ask most follow-up questions to keep the ball rolling because students were unable or unwilling to do so.

Some students when addressed a question from a classmate answered them looking at the teacher instead of at the one who asked the question. Weird.

There were interesting questions and interesting answers, most of the group was focused, they were paying attention to each other, they asked about some vocab they didn’t know, took notes. The teacher reformulated some incorrect phrases, etc. It was not a bad lesson, but not one I’m proud of either.


Needless to say, this is a simplistic account of these classroom events, especially because I didn’t say what we did on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and because in each one of us (teacher and students) there are a whole bunch of cultural baggage, learning stories, expectations, frustrations and so on… but still, I’d like to figure out how to do better and get more from them. If you have any similar experience or advice, please comment.


16 thoughts on “Silence and control

  1. Yep.. I’ve had classes like these from time to time. Found it equally frustrating as well, though as you say, it can be hard to know what to do about it; especially if you’ve only got them for a short period of time.

    Sometimes I think it’s down to the learner mix and personalities of students in the group. If you are teaching a bunch of people who are mostly introverts, it can be difficult to get the ball rolling. Alternatively, maybe the way that they have been taught beforehand has set up expectations that don’t tally with the way you are teaching them, and they are struggling to get their heads around what you are asking them to do. Thinking back to my early encounters with teachers who encouraged critical thinking, I really didn’t get it at all at first. I was used to being spoon fed information rather than have to work things out for myself and it took me a while to get past that.

    Here’s a couple of activities which usually work well for me when the conversation dries up and can often provide a kick start to get it going again:

    1) Prepare a set of questions on interesting topics and stick them in a bag. Get students to take turns to pull one out at random, and put the question to the class. Hopefully one of the questions will spark enough interest to get a genuine conversation going.

    Get learners to write some of their own questions at the end of the lesson, to add to the bag for future sessions.

    2) Ask learners to tell a traditional story from their own culture to the class, and encourage the other students to chip in as they go along and ask questions about it.


    • Hi Sue,
      thanks for that!

      I had actually done your suggestion #2 before I asked them “what would you like to talk about”. It was an interesting and productive lesson. I started with a short video about the Gunpowder Plot, and its subsequent dedicated celebration day. Then I asked students to share holidays of festivities that are unique to their countries and all.

      I found that with this group in particular it’s always safer if I provide a model, but again this is also the reason why I was straight to the point and asked them to start the conversation by themselves, I was not comfortable with always “imposing” topics which I enjoy.

  2. It’s an interesting account of what happened and I can certainly identify with that experience for sure. I’ve felt the same frustrations as the teacher and spent time wondering what’s going on in students’ minds.

    My thinking on this kind of thing now is that you should always put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself how you would feel if a teacher was asking you to do the same thing. How many of our conversations in life start with another person saying to us, “What would you like to talk about?” If they did, we might draw a blank too. “Well, nothing in particular at the moment.” The fact that it’s a conversation class wouldn’t really make much difference I guess, strange though that seems.

    You might think of getting students in pairs first and drawing topics out of each other – there’s something about the teacher confronting the whole class which places everyone under the spotlight – students are thinking “Is what I’m going to say stupid?”, “Will people think I’m an idiot for suggesting this” and so on. The same feelings we have in that situation no doubt. Working first with another student reduces the glare of this spotlight considerably.

    There’s an exercise that a teacher called Phil Beadle uses in which he gets students to write anything that comes into their heads on a piece of paper for a minute or two. He encourages them not to structure what they write all – just write random words. Students reading out what they’ve written is a gentle easing into conversation perhaps. Dunno – just thinking aloud.

    • Hi Jonathan. Thanks for the valuable comment!

      I only asked them “What would you like to talk about?” because I put myself in their shoes. If I was a student in my own course (or in any language course) I would definitely want to choose some of the topics of conversation.

      I know where you come from when you say that in real life nobody starts conversations like that, the thing is (and as I said I didn’t tell the whole story, i.e. other lessons) that I ALWAYS start off as “natural” as possible (considering we’re in a classroom and not at the pub), so … yeah… I do try to engage in small talk and then develop to something more “serious” or whatever but it rarely pans out. The only sure-fire way is when I start giving them tips about where to go out in London; however, this cannot be the topic of every lesson.

      I’ll try your suggested activities. Thanks!

  3. Lao The Younger says:

    I’ve most certainly been there. And learned to lower my expectations considerably, depending on who is sat in front of me. I’ve also found that shy reticent students will talk for a good while if asked to do so in groups. An activity that I stole years ago from a genius in the British Council who compiled the Madrid Files (Neville) was the Propositions exercise. Neville should really have been nominated for some sort of ELT award (if not a knighthood because thousands upon thousands of hours were – and are- based around his material).

    Propositions works like this: you hand out a sheet of sentences with some outrageous statements on them (All foreign students should be given an electronic tag to wear so that they can be traced by the police at all times; all governments are a waste of time and only political illiterates see any point to them). You put the students in groups of four or so and invite them to approach the sentences in any order. The only rule is that they can only move from one to the next once they have reached full consensus about it. This means negotiating new sentences – and occasionally a very active imagination. Neville’s propositions were always theme based and followed by the instructions to early finishers, “Now write some propositions of your own.”

    Hope that’s of some use, Willy C.

  4. Willy C. says:

    Thanks, Diarmuid!
    I’ll try that in 30 minutes.

  5. I think this is a common issue teachers come across. The two biggest reasons are 1) The students aren’t confident enough in their English to get into the task/topic or 2) They aren’t interested in it.

    Choosing appropriate topics or building language first is one way to go. When I encountered classes like this I would often start with a reading and or listening lesson on the topic that was engaging or controversial. That’d give them necessary vocab. and ideas. For particularly complex topics I’d put up for and against or something on the board and build ideas as a class before breaking it down.

    Sometimes, it just takes students a bit to get used to the idea of having a say in the class. In that respect, guiding the students more at the beginning and slowly relinquishing more and more responsibility for the class usually works.

    The teacher needs to be interested in the subject as well. I’ve personally killed a class or two where I either didn’t have a personal interest in the topic or I didn’t really care what the students had to say on it. Students pick up on both. If you aren’t into it, they won’t be either. It’s always important to make sure you’re engaging the students as individuals and not just holding a discussion as a way of doing some language practice. The students can tell the difference between a teacher genuinely interested in what they have to say and a teacher just prompting them so they can assess/correct their language use.

    Other support helps as well. Drama is fantastic. Assign roles and let students move outside themselves. Sometimes students from certain cultures or backgrounds are uncomfortable discussing things or opening up. By doing more of a role-play, students have a direction and they can operate as someone else, which makes it much safer.

    • Thanks Nick!
      I tried some role-play. After students solved a mistery puzzle involving some unfaithful partners, I asked them to prepare snippets of a TV news coverage of the ‘murder’, it was quite enjoyable even though they were a bit reluctant at first to engage in ‘silly’ role-play, in the end this was what made everyone more relaxed, because there was laughter, and the last 20min of the lesson less boring (‘cos it’s usually in the last 20min that things go weary, they all want to go home, it’s the last lesson of the day!)

      Regarding the teacher being interested in the subject, you raise a very important point. One of the reasons I chose to ask them directly what they wanted was because I felt I was always choosing the topics I am interested, that happened because they didn’t say what THEY wanted, so what made the first lessons not that bad was the fact the at least I (the teacher) was really into the topic which in turn made students get more interested as well.

  6. Cat says:

    I’ve found that bringing objects into the classroom helps to get conversation going. It can be a few magazines, a menu, a brochure, a book, a map, some photos or pictures, or any object. You can tailor what you bring as much or as little as you like, depending on whether you want your students to have more or less freedom. Put the object(s) on the table before the class arrive, and hopefully this will generate some conversation naturally. You can also ask students to bring in things to class. Stress to them it doesn’t matter what it is, and just because they bring something doesn’t mean they have to initiate the conversation. It might sound a bit like primary school ‘Show and Tell’, but I’ve found this can help to get quiet classes talking.

    Your comment on students looking at the teacher, rather than at the person that asked them a question jumped out at me, as I experience this regularly in some classes. It is extremely weird, and I’m not sure how to go about discouraging it either. I have tried purposely looking away, at some other point in the room, but then I worry that I come across as uninterested, which is definitely not the impression I want to give. One way to approach this problem might be to place yourself so that most of the students in the class have their backs to you, or better still be constantly moving around during class discussions, purposely positioning yourself out of eye shot of the student talking at that moment.

    (I’ve recently added your blog to the list of blogs that I regularly read. You bring up some really interesting topics for discussion, so thank you!)

    • thanks Cat!

      I have a blog piece in the oven about students’ lack of eye-contact with each other, and this weird uni-directionality of their speech. What I often do is to ask others if they understand what this one student said, with the elementary/pre-int groups there’s often “no” as an answer, so I ask the student to say it again but to talk TO the other students and not to me. It works well.

      About bringing stuff to class, hmm, I don’t know, I’ve never been a big fan of realia with adult classes, but I can try and give it another shot.

      • Sandy Millin says:

        I’ve just read both of your “Silence and Control” blog posts, and they’re fascinating, covering a lot of the issues I’ve been having with my Elementary group recently. I’ve been teaching a roughly similar group for the last two weeks (with only one or two students changing each week) and one of the main problems has been the lack of eye contact. I found the best way to deal with it (and did today) was to ask the students if they’re talking to me or their partner. This direct confrontation made the students laugh and got them to turn to their partner, but we’ll see if they remember when I go back into class tomorrow!

  7. seburnt says:

    In these cases (which is usually the case depending on the cultural mix I have), I often have students write their suggestions on paper anonymously. This takes away the worry that their topic is boring to the rest and they’ll be blamed. Once chosen for the next day, I have students create one or two discussion questions about that topic for the next lesson and bring it to class. After some pair work with those questions, we rotate the questions around the room, not so everyone has had the chance to answer all, but enough variety. I stop everyone for a while and go through language that came up and other language that would be useful to use in the context that didn’t come up. I ask a few topically relate questions I’ve made (also for homework for me) and see how students respond as a group, aiming for them to integrate new or corrected language into their discussion. If whole class convo dies quickly, I divide them into larger groups (more than pairs) and rotate the questions they made around again, giving them the opportunity to incorporate the new or corrected language in a less spotlight-way.

    • good stuff! That’s the kind of thing I’ve been doing; however, it doesn’t last for 1h30; the main problem is that I feel they are not really interested in talking to each other. When there’s pair-work for example they finish it really fast, I mean, they talk only as much as what I asked them to “do” is done.

  8. David Warr says:

    Hi Willy, I’ve just read your post now, a few weeks late, because I was teaching at a summer school and experiencing exactly the same issues. I find that pair work doesn’t work for me at all. Rather, the more energy I put into it, the more they get going, but now that I’m getting on a bit, I don’t find it as much fun as I used to. It’s true what you say, they always answer to me, and I have to overtly get them to reply to the questioner.

  9. sv says:

    Hey Willy, nice read, great blog. Very refreshing to read about something that is not related to my field.

  10. Hi Willy, I’m coming to this conversation late, too, But I feel (having a written a book on the subject – gulp!) I ought to be able to suggest ways of maximising opportunities for conversaiton in the classroom. Actually, there are a whole host of great ideas in the preceding comments in this thread, but one that I think stands out is that of giving the students some responsibility for setting the agenda themselves. One way of doing this is making it a ‘rule’ that everyone comes to the lesson with a summary (can be written but best if it’s roughly memorised) of something they have read or seen in the news, heard on the subway, seen in the street, etc, and that the class always begins by having students share their ‘stories’ in small groups. Then, once the group conversations run dry, members of each group can be asked to report on the conversations they have just had, and a little deft questioning on the part of the teacher can turn this into an open class chat.

    Of course, there will always be students who won’t bring a story to class, but if every lesson begins this way, they will soon get the message, as they see their classmates doing it. And, anyway, so long as at least half the students come prepared, the activity has a reasonable chance of taking off.

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