The grammar of silence

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When you’re working with your learner/s, there’s often some pressure to share as much of your expertise as possible. (So much to learn! So little time!)

So if you say nothing, is that shirking your job?

On the contrary. Silence is one of your most valuable teaching strategies.


When it’s your learner’s turn to speak, wait at least 5 seconds before doing anything.

For a low level learner, challenge yourself to sit in calm silence for 8 or 10 seconds. Then consider repeating/giving a clue and so on.

Why?   Your learner needs time to process the English they heard, work out a response (maybe in their first language), turn this into English using the language they can remember, and say it.

Tip: First practice of ten-second wait time is best done alone, with a mirror to check one’s expression. Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean.


If wait time isn’t enough, you can try giving a bit more information or encouragement in silence:



Smile AND nod.

Raise your eyebrows in an enquiring manner.

Indicate with your fingers if there’s a word missing (count off 1,2,3, 5 and show that the 4th word is missing).

Move your hands further apart to suggest expanding a reply, or say “..and..?”  (That’s nearly silence!).

You can do any of these with written text too – point to a place where the meaning isn’t clear and raise your eyebrows.


Eyebrows again. And if necessary repeat the bit that needs correcting ( “ he go?” )

In a written text, point to the bit that needs correcting and look enquiring.

Tip:  I have found all these strategies successful but have now worn out my eyebrows. Luckily I have enough wrinkles on my forehead to look enquiring without them.  You might want to explore some eyebrow-conservation exercises if you do a lot of teaching.


  • Because if you aren’t speaking, your learner has “air time”.
  • Because your learner has time to reflect and to take responsibility for their English.
  • Because your learner has an opportunity to think about their English. All language learners understand more than they can say/write.  Correction is often just a reminder of something they already know but temporarily forgot.
  • And because the more control your learner has over their own learning, the more successful and confident they will be.


Becoming a volunteer ESOL home tutor with English Language Partners is an amazing experience. Although it can be a challenge at times, on the other side of that challenge is great reward! Both for you and your learner.

Interested? Find out more information on our volunteer page, or click here to find a centre near you!

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