Why are they so quiet? 

 by Liz Kotseas

“Why are they so quiet?” is a common question from teachers who want to encourage English Language Learners (ELLs) to collaborate with peers or participate during class discussions.  I, too, wondered why some of my students in ESL writing classes were quiet and why they waited until after class had ended to ask questions.  It wasn’t until they began to share details of their educational experiences that I fully understood the impact of how the elements of communicative competency were factoring into their verbal and written participation.  Known as sociolinguistic competence (Canale), this ability to understand social protocols in various settings is one element necessary for ELLs to achieve academic fluency.

When teaching my classes, I like to begin the writing process with a topic students can easily connect with and hope to eventually spark discussion and/or debate.  At the start of this semester, students in my ESL Advanced Composition course were asked to respond to “China: The Educated Giant” written by journalist Nicholas D. Kristof.  Students analyzed and evaluated the pedagogical differences between their home country and the US.  Please note, while both educational models have their flaws and benefits, I share the following student’s observation because it adds credence to the weight and need for understanding of sociolinguistic competence:

China’s education does not train students in critical thinking.  However, students of US often share their opinions about articles with no fear of right or wrong.  Therefore, there are no right or wrong answers. In the US, good answers are always correct.  In China, students are given answers and their opinions don’t matter.  When I was in China, my teacher explained a poem in her words.  When I shared my opinion by telling her this poem can be understood in another way, she was mad.  She said her answer is the only correct answer to the test.  After that, I never shared my opinion anymore.

As international freshmen are just beginning to adjust to their new academic environment here at Stony Brook University, they fear they may upset their peers and professor by saying “the wrong thing.”  Thus, they hesitate to respond to questions or speak up in class.  In contrast to the teacher centered instruction most ELLs have received, they quickly notice their professors at SBU respect and welcome their ideas, and they eventually do feel comfortable asking questions or voicing opinions.

Another element of communicative competency is strategic competence which reflects the ability to make meaning clear, for instance, using appropriate voice tone or volume when speaking or paraphrasing when writing (Canale).   When we ask ELLs to summarize a text in their own words, this is at first a foreign concept for them.  They are astonished by our intolerance for plagiarism, but they have been taught the opposite; in fact, copying is encouraged- as long as they turn in the right answer.  Another student from one of my ESL classes notes:

In America, if students copy others’ thinking, the students will be given serious punishment.  This forces every student on working independently; as a result, students will have more ways in making solutions.  On the contrary, it is an astonishingly widespread phenomenon that students copy others’ homework in China.  Therefore, a lot of Chinese students are lazy to think about questions…

This comment reflects this student’s awareness of his new sociolinguistic environment; however, it also illustrates the cognitive challenges ELLs face in starting to evaluate texts and producing questions.

A third element, discourse competence, requires students exchange information and ideas with their peers and professors by forming coherent phrases and sentences to engage in meaningful discussion on both paper and in speech (Canale); however, if students have only been here for one or two years, they are at an early stage of their Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) which involves five to seven years to attain (Cummins).  Thus, ELLs do not feel as equipped as their American peers to contribute ideas.

I am a fan of including listenings to supplement reading and writing assignments.  An interesting National Public Radio excerpt to connect with an assigned reading is always available, and the variety of audio texts are extensive.  Last semester, in my WRT 101 class, one of the best classroom moments with my students was when we had listened to an excerpt of “This American Life.”  Native speakers of English chuckled at some of the humorous audio moments, and ELLs were able to listen and follow the dialog by reading the transcript at the same time.  At the end of the semester, one international student reflected on how he enjoyed the audio stories and especially liked being able to relisten to the text at his convenience to clarify meaning.

By modeling the expected discourse in our classrooms and consistently requiring aural/oral, reading/oral or writing/oral exchanges, I believe students begin to feel more comfortable in their new environment.  Sometimes, there is even one outgoing ELL who can be a positive catalyst for the rest.  Jia Guo, an international student studying journalism at NYU suggests ELLs not be so shy and rather learn phrases such as “I think that…” or “It seems to me that…” to guide them in expressing their thoughts (see full story here).  Albeit simple, if need be, we can write these phrases (and others) on the board, so ELLs feel comfortable in learning the appropriate discourse to engage in classroom discussions.

We know English Language Learners want to engage in conversation, especially with their American peers.  Matthew Miranda’s students who initiated Foreign and Native Speakers (FANS) reflects their eagerness to do so.  Engaging in non-academic conversation is equally empowering for international students as with confidence, practice and time, they can also become vocal critical thinkers in the classroom.  I believe our intimate writing class of 15-20 students is the best place for such dialog to thrive.

This entry was posted in Supporting Students, Teaching Tips, Teaching Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why are they so quiet? 

  1. mem13 says:


    Thank you so much for sharing your insights on this important matter–and for sharing the words/thoughts of your students, as well. I love the specific challenges of teaching WRT 101, one of those being the biodiversity of cultural specifics that emerge with students who share a status as ELLs but who come from distinct cultural/educational backgrounds. Your idea about using audio sources that they can read along with is salient and something I intend to start incorporating in the future.
    It is conspicuous in both my 101 sections this year how quiet half the room is. They’ve opened up more, but students from South Korea and China in particular are resistant to ever risk offering a wrong answer. My preliminary notion of teaching writing is that you can only learn by making mistakes and being willing to be comfortable making mistakes, but this cultural difference, highlighted by you in your blog, encourages me to re-consider how I can translate whatever is essential in my pedagogy while ensuring it translates into something culturally transferable. Thank you for reminding me of the type of thinking I should be doing. Great blog!

  2. mem13 says:

    Reblogged this on mem13 and commented:
    A great blog by professor Liz Kotseas on the challenges, realities, and opportunities inherent to non-native English speaking students.

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