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Be the Advocate for the Silent

Itzil Welch offers simple strategies to help English learners get beyond the silent stage when they are often misclassified

English learners tend to become another silent statistic. Teachers can be advocates for these students, who tend to be obedient and agreeable because of the “respeto” they have for their teachers, as described by Tafoya (2018). In the classroom, ELs’ behavior is described as obedient and agreeable. In addition to many of their cultural characteristics, these students tend to also display common behaviors of students who are learning a foreign language. One stage as described by Stephen Krashen is called the preproduction stage or silent period.

The US Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) reported that ELs with disabilities were more likely to be classified with a learning disability or speech or language impairment, based on the IDEA Part B Child Count and Educational Environments for School Year 2014–2015 (see Figure 1). This study highlights the challenges educators face in determining if a student is demonstrating a natural process of acquiring a language that can mirror a disability at times. As displayed in Figure 2, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) recently posted their Fast Facts with the most recent data count for ELs with disabilities for the 2020–2021 school year. No progress has been made.

Figure 1
ELs with Disabilities More Likely to Be Classified with a Learning Disability or Language Impairment

From the US Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition website

Figure 2
Percentage of Students with Disabilities who are ELs

From the US Department of Education’s ED Facts Data Warehouse (EDW)

According to the Global Teacher Status Index, many foreign countries regard the profession of education to be of the highest status (Dolton, 2018). China and Malaysia are examples of countries where teachers are treated with the highest level of respect. Keep this in mind when you see an EL looking intently at the teacher, in silence, even though they may be screaming for help internally. This is a common interpersonal learning strategy ELs use when in the “silent state,” engaging in private speech (Saville-Troike, 1988). More likely than not, they are attempting to repeat keywords the teacher is using during instruction as a strategy to comprehend what is being said.

The great news is that there is an abundance of strategies teachers can use to help students transition out of the silent stage. When ELs are in the preproduction stage, teachers can provide extra support to overcome the foreign language barrier. During the first 30 days of school, teachers can provide students with some of the instructional strategies listed below.

Instructional Strategies during the Preproduction Stage
1. Speak slowly and use shorter words or keywords
2. Have students repeat new key vocabulary
3. Teach vocabulary with gestures that match the meanings of the words
4. Have students use gestures and point to vocabulary
5. Use simple prompts like “point to…” or “show me…”
6. Teacher and students provide visuals, drawings, illustrations
7. Teacher and students use realia (real objects or physical representations)
8. Model and provide multiple practice opportunities
9. Have students practice classroom routines
10. Limit student use of technology (students are using all their senses to learn, such as reading facial expressions and gestures)
11. Know students’ cultures and social norms (gestures, school norms, etc.)
12. Use music to improve comprehension (slow down and repeat music lyrics)
13. Create a list of “survival” phrases (i.e., “can you repeat that?,” “slow down,” “open the book”)
14. When appropriate, use real-life examples (videos)
15. Use a cooperative learning approach during independent work (pair, triad, small group)
16. For every initial lesson, provide at least one to three sentence starters (for students to express academic understanding)
17. Have a signal or picture for students to express “I don’t understand,” “I need help,” “more practice or examples,” and “I get it”
18. Be aware the students are going through a culture shock
19. Remember to smile
20. At the end of the day, provide quiet time for the students (allow for their minds to ease and rest from over-processing information)

Teachers can begin to provide English learners with a means to communicate. Students will learn how to have a voice as they break down the barriers of their new language. English learners tienen un gran respeto—they have great respect for teachers. Do not let your English learners become more statistics. Be the advocate for the silent majority by giving them a voice and a way to learn and communicate.

Dolton, P. J., Marcenaro, O. D., Vries, R. D., and She, P. (2018). Global Teacher Status Index. Downloaded May 2022 from,role%20of%20teacher%20status%20has%20been%20studied%20in-depth
Krashen, S. D., and Terrell, T. (1983). Natural Approach (pp. 20–20). New York: Pergamon. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University Report New Data on Language Learning (Statistical Regularities Affect the Perception of Second Language Speech: Evidence from Adult Classroom Learners of Mandarin Chinese) (2019). Science Letter, 1598.
Saville-Troike, M. (1988). “Private Speech: Evidence for second language learning strategies during the ‘silent’ period.” Journal of Child Language, 15(3), 567–590. DOI:10.1017/S0305000900012575
Tafoya, M. (2016). “Socialization of Respeto in Immigrant Mexican Families.” Dissertation, Utah State University.
US Department of Education (n.d.). “Academic Performance and Outcomes for English Learners,” 2017–18. Downloaded March 2021 from
US Department of Education, ED Facts Data Warehouse (EDW) (n.d.). “IDEA Part B Child Count and Educational Environments Collection, 2020–21.”

Itzil Welch is the director of multilingual programs for Splendora ISD in Texas. Her professional affiliations include co-chair of the Advocacy Committee of the National Association of English Learner Program Administrators (NAELPA). Since becoming an alumna of Brigham Young University, she is pursuing her doctorate from the University of Houston.

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