How Bilingual SLPs Can Support Children During the Silent Period

  • September 9, 2020
  • Bilingual Therapies

Learning a second language is a complex process, especially for a child. Second language acquisition is also very individualized. Many factors can affect how a child learns another language, including his or her family experiences, culture and literacy level.

As the number of bilingual children grows, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) must learn to differentiate between a language disorder and typical second language development. There may be concerns when new English Language Learners (ELLs) are quiet or silent in the classroom.  SLPs play an important role in determining whether these students are in the “silent period” phase of second language acquisition and how to support them through the process.

The Silent Period During Second Language Acquisition 

Most children who learn a second language go through a silent period, which typically lasts one to six months. The silent period occurs when a child is in the beginning stages of acquiring a second language and is listening and observing. The younger the child, the longer this period tends to last.

During this phase, the child is concentrating on listening, so he or she may initially have better receptive versus expressive skills in their second language. Even as the child starts to understand what is being said, they may not be ready to verbalize the new words yet. The child focuses on observing others, which helps them build a new vocabulary and syntax. “Silent” can be a misnomer as students will start to quietly repeat new words and copy those around them until they are finally ready to “go public” with their second language.

Proactive Approaches to The Silent Period

There are many strategies SLPs can share with classroom teachers to help support children during the silent period. When students are able to “see” the new vocabulary words in action, it makes it more comprehensible.  Starting by supporting classroom routines can be a quick route to new vocabulary as these tasks are very visual and repetitive. Here are a few approaches that you can utilize to support students during the Silent Period:

Avoid excessive error correction

When children are in the earliest stages of language acquisition, it’s wise to use error correction intentionally and appropriately. During the silent period, children may be nervous about using their new language skills. Constant correction may cause students to feel embarrassed or defeated and cause them to withdraw. Instead, SLPs can encourage modeling the correct language usage when a child makes errors. Instead, reinforce the correct usage through modeling clear and correct examples.

Modify vocabulary instruction

Children are picking up vocabulary throughout the silent period. Explicit instruction can accelerate the learning process. When students are learning new vocabulary words, using visuals and acting out the word can help a student better understand it.  It can also be helpful to associate words with familiar vocabulary.  For example, when learning new vocabulary for weather like “rain”, you can associate it with “water,” “falling” and “sky.” SLPs can also improve comprehension by slowing down their speech and emphasizing key words.

Learn key words and phrases in their language

Learning key words and phrases in your student’s native language can help you to connect with them and their families. A child in the silent period may light up to hear their SLP say “hello” or “good morning” in their native language. This method can certainly assist in developing a sense of confidence and trust with the student, ultimately helping them to grow in this learning process.

Concentrate on cognates

Point out cognates the child can use. Cognates are words that look and mean the same thing in two languages. In other words, they have similar definitions, spellings and pronunciations. Second language learners can stretch their knowledge of words in one language to another, which helps them recognize words they don’t know. For example, up to 40 percent of all English words have a related word in Spanish, making cognates an easy bridge to help students emerge from the silent period.

Instructional Strategies To Try

Bilingual SLPs can support educators by recommending these specific instructional activities for ELLs in the silent period, including:

  • Using visual aids to describe the meanings of words
  • Asking students to respond by giving them choices, pointing or drawing pictures
  • Supporting verbal response in the child’s native language
  • Using single words or very short phrases when responding to the student, during the early part of the silent period. They can’t stay in the one word phase for too long.
  • Reading aloud from storybooks or focusing on incorporating movement/acting out stories so that the child doesn’t feel forced to talk
  • When age appropriate, utilizing music, art and physical movement to learn new routines and vocabulary
  • Teachers can ask close-ended questions that students can use a “yes” or “no” response
  • Teachers can observe facial expressions and gestures to understand what the student may be attempting to communicate
  • Using clear, direct vocabulary and avoid idioms like “raining cats and dogs”

Creating an environment that is context rich can help children develop new vocabulary during the silent period, as well as encouraging proactive approaches.

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