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Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Silent Period Teaching Methods

by AJ Hoge

Krashen's input theory states that comprehensible input (not production practice) is the key to language acquisition. My own teaching experiences support this hypothesis. I have become increasingly frustrated with conventional methods which stress speaking. Clearly these methods were not effective, yet I have lacked a sound alternative.

The more I thought about Krashen's theory, the more I realized that taken to its logical conclusion, it implied a silent period-- speech practice was not important. I contemplated this conclusion, yet I had no idea how to put it into action in the classroom. All of my teaching techniques emphasized speech production, not input.

My interest in silent period methods was furthered by my practicum, which I did at American University Alumni School in Bangkok. Their Thai language program utilizes a long silent period (6-8 months). From a student’s perspective, I have found this method much more enjoyable and completely free of stress. Also, compared with conventional language classes (Spanish and Japanese) I have found that AUA’s methods produce greater long term retention of vocabulary.

While a silent period and comprehensible input-based methods made sense, and my experience as a student & observer at AUA implied strong benefits, I still had many questions:
"Is there research to support the anecdotal benefits of a silent period?"
"How long should the silent period be?"
"During the silent period, is there interaction between teacher and student or only receptive listening?"
I explored a number of sources, including books, websites, academic journals, direct observation (at AUA) and online forums to investigate these questions.

In his Masters thesis, Keith Challenger [1] echoes my initial sentiments about Krashen's Hypothesis and its implications. He states, "If Krashen’s Input Hypothesis (that language is acquired in only one way—by understanding comprehensible input) is correct, then most language education is fundamentally flawed by procreating the assumption that the best way to learn to speak is by speaking. This is the heart of the matter."

Dr. J. Marvin Brown [2] in an essay on his Listening Approach, addressed this issue specifically with adult learners in mind. He believed that the "critical period" is a false barrier and that the foreign accent that often occurs in adult language learners was the result of adults trying to speak much too early. He writes, "What we’re suggesting is this: The reason that children always end up as native speakers is because they learn to speak by listening. And the reason adults don’t is that they learn to speak by speaking."

Finally, David Long [3] relates his experience as Director of a program that utilizes a very long silent period. He believes, like Dr. Brown, that early speech practice is harmful: "All of the evidence we have gathered shows that those students who remain silent, refusing the temptation to ‘try to speak’, excel; whereas those students who ‘try to speak’ set limits on their ability to both learn and to use the language. We have never seen a single exception to this rule! The fact is, practicing to speak actually slows down the learning process! Much of the problem here is that we always want to gauge our progress by equating it with speaking ability. Speaking is one of the last parts that emerge in language acquisition. At our school, we recommend a silent period between 600 to 800 hours of instruction."

Our own Ashley Hastings [4] makes a similar argument (Hastings 2003). His Focal Skills Approach is a method which closely adheres to Krashen's Input Hypothesis. The method stresses comprehensible input and does not pressure students to speak. Dr. Hastings describes the system as follows, "We created a system of four sequential modules. Each module except the fourth focuses on a specific language skill. The modules, in order, are: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Advanced.

In the Listening Module, students spend all of their time improving listening comprehension. The teacher provides comprehensible input in the form of clear, unhurried English, always accompanied by visual or contextual aids to comprehension. Video movies are used extensively, the teacher narrates the action and paraphrases the dialogue, thus providing exceptionally well-illustrated and contextualized input.

We do not require students to perform when they are not ready and willing to do so. Speaking is always voluntary, hence it is genuine speaking in contrast to the embarrassed, strained output that passes for speaking in some methods.” Dr. Hastings presents research that shows that students in Focal Skills programs acquire English 30+% faster than students in conventional programs.

Dr. Asher [5], founder of the Total Physical Response, also advocates a silent period. His method stresses listening and physical responses from students. Typically, the teacher gives commands and students respond to the directions. Asher (Asher 1996) quotes a 1972 study of adults who had taken 32 hours of German using TPR: Although the experimental group had only 32 hours of training, it did significantly better in listening comprehension than a group of college students who had received 75 to 100 hours of audio-lingual/grammar-translation instruction in German.

Other studies of TPR have found that the method is superior in promoting long-term retention of vocabulary and language structures when compared to traditional methods. Asher believes that Total Physical Response may facilitate long-term recall for the same reason that the practice of any manual skill, such as bicycling, produces long term recall. Emphases on comprehensible input, and a short silent period of 10-12 hours, are hallmarks of the method.

Valerian Potovsky [6] (Potovsky 1974) did a study of military personnel between 18-24 years old. The results showed that overall proficiency in Russian was significantly better when oral practice was delayed at the beginning of language instruction until comprehension of spoken Russian was extensively internalized.

Stephen Krashen [7] advocates a silent period of 10-12 hours of instruction. He has expressed support for many of the methods mentioned in this essay, "Studies with adults show that students in comprehensible input-based methods are as accurate grammatically as students in grammatically-based methods and are often more accurate. In addition, students in comprehensible-input based methods are ALWAYS superior in tests involving communication. This theory implies that second language classes should be filled with comprehensible input in a low anxiety environment. This is precisely what newer and more successful methods do, such as Terrell’s Natural Approach, Asher’s Total Physical Response, and Lozanov’s Suggestodpedia". To this list Ray’s Total Physical Response Storytelling, Brown’s Listening Approach, Hastings’ Focal Skills, and Long’s Automatic Language Growth could also be added.

Among adherents to Krashen's Input Hypothesis there seems to be general agreement on the use of a silent period. However, there is disagreement about its parameters. These controversies fall into two broad categories. One, just how long should the silent period be? Two, is it better to encourage interaction during the silent period or to encourage receptive listening only?

Dr. J. Marvin Brown’s [2] Listening Approach stresses a very long silent period and receptive listening. A key technique of his approach is the "talk show": Two teachers have a discussion (or tell a story) while students listen and observe. This same technique is also used in the Focal Skills Approach.

On the issue of length, Dr. Brown wrote, "Krashen underestimated the importance of the silent period- which may account for the fossilization that sometimes occurs with adult learners. If we try to speak before the new phoneme and grammar traces are ready we are forced to use the old ones and short circuit the building of new ones. The priority of concern for the Listening Approach is whether adults are prepared to refrain from speaking for at least 6 months. It is clear they are able to speak, that they want to speak, and everyone expects them to speak. The need then is for a learning environment where the desire to speak is removed.

Experience at AUA shows that a long silent period will help students avoid the fossilization of inaccurate grammar as well as a foreign accent. If you want to become like a native speaker of another language you don’t have to do it as a child but LIKE a child."

On the issue of interactivity, Taeko Tomioka [8] stresses that passive, receptive listening is not enough. "It is often proposed by some teachers that listening comprehension is so important that it is useful to let students watch TV programs. This activity is not enough by itself…..there is no active response on the part of the students. The language acquiring process is always an interaction of stimulus-response on both sides. Children acquiring a language in natural settings are not passive at all. Even in a silent period there is no such thing as one-way communication. Children always respond to verbal stimuli in some way. Through such interactions children rapidly internalize a language."

Garcia [9] outlines specific ways, using TPR, that teachers can produce ‘non-verbal responses’ while maintaining the silent period. He uses Asher's term "language-body dialogues" to describe this interaction process... "We know that language-body dialogues play to the right hemisphere of the brain-the uncritical side, which may explain why input in the TPR manner has high believability for students. This is what Asher calls the silent period which is directly analogous to the silent period from infancy to about 18 months when the baby first begins putting words together. During the silent period of infancy, there are thousands of language-body dialogues when adults direct infants with commands such as “Don’t spit out your food” or “Smile at Auntie””. TPR aims to emulate this phase of language development by giving students commands to which they physically respond.

On the other end of the interaction scale, Lucy Tse and Jeff McQuillan [10] advocate the use of a "Narrative Approach" that stresses receptive listening by students. This approach uses storytelling and a silent period to facilitate language acquisition. “All individuals, regardless of language or culture, use stories to communicate, organize, and make sense of experiences. Storytelling helps the ESL students hear and use the target language in a powerful way.” Vocabulary is not pre-taught, it is learned through context. Speaking emerges when students are ready.

Finally, Blaine Ray [11] has developed a method which bridges the gap between interactive methods (TPR) and receptive methods (Narrative Approach). He calls this method "TPR Storytelling”. The teacher tells ‘mini-stories’ while directing students to take the roles of characters in the story. The teacher tells the story while students perform the actions. Next, the teacher re-tells the story while acting out the action him/herself. One important distinction of this method is that important vocabulary is pre-taught using classic TPR methods. Blaine advocates a short silent period of 10-12 hours, though this method is easily adaptable to a silent period of any length.

After reviewing the issues and reflecting on my experiences at AUA, I find that I clearly favor a long silent period. Compared to the 18+ month silent period of infants, Krashen and Asher’s suggested length of 10-12 hours seems inadequate. I believe that Dr. Brown and David Long are on the right track by advocating 6-8 months of silence for foreign language learners, though this amount could probably be cut by 50-60% in my opinion. If interesting methods are used, and the input is comprehensible, there is no need for students to start speaking earlier.

On the issue of interactivity, I favor Asher, Blaine, and Tomioka’s approach. This has been my main frustration as a student at AUA. At the beginning level, the receptive-narrative approach was far too overwhelming. Most of the input was hard to comprehend. I think that classic TPR, which is highly interactive and which mimics the language learning process of infants, is an ideal method for beginning level classes that employ a silent period. At higher levels, TPRS, Focal Skills, the Listening Approach and the Narrative Approach are all excellent ways to provide comprehensible input while maintaining a silent period.


Challenger, Keith. 1998. Silent Listening Attributes. Macquarie University. Sydney.

Brown, J. Marvin. 1988. ALG World. http://www.algworld.com

Long, David. 2003. Just Let Me Try To Say It! ALG World. http://www.algworld.com

Hastings, Ashley. 2003. International Center for Focal Skills. http://www.su.edu/icfs

Asher, James. 1996. Learning Another Language Through Actions. Sky Oaks Productions (http://www.tpr-world.org). Los Gatos, CA

Potovsky, Valerian. 1974. Effect of Delay in Oral Practice at the Beginning of Second Language Learning. Modern Language Journal, 58 (1974): 229-239.

Krashen, Stephen. 1985. The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. Longman. Also in Ray (2003), pg 4-5.

Tomioka, Taeko. 2003. The Silent Period. http://www.homepage3.nifty.com/park/silent.htm

Garcia, Ramiro. 2001. Instructor's Notebook: How to Apply TPR for Best Results. Sky Oaks Productions, Inc. Los Gatos, CA.

McQuillan, J. & Tse, Lucy. 1998. What is Story?: Using the Narrative Approach in Beginning Language Classrooms. TESOL Journal, vol. 7, no.4, Summer 1998.

Ray, Blaine & Seely, Contee. 2003. Fluency Through TPR Storytelling. Command Performance Language Institute. Berkely, CA.