Silence isn’t always golden

We’ve all been there. It’s your first day of teaching and you’re starry-eyed. You’re nervous, but you know better than to let that show in class. You muster up your energy and bellow out an inspiring “good morning”, only to be greeted with blank stares and eternal silence. *Shudder*

By Chris Williams

No, there isn’t a simple solution when you have a student who is reluctant to speak. But here are a few tricks to get them to open up:

Use obvious speaking cues

Between the reticence of meeting a foreigner for the first time and the ingrained societal pressure to avoid mistakes, young Chinese students will only respond to overly obvious speaking cues. Adding a harder or softer inflection will let your student know that you’re asking a question. Utilizing gestures will liven up the class and even create physical association to specific words. You can eventually use the gesture-intonation combo to go from mere parroting to constructing full sentences. Besides, it simply makes speaking more fun.

Read your student AND read how they read you

Most students will pick up on your scowls and disappointed looks. Sure, there is a time for your serious face, but smiles and encouragements go much further. Taking advantage of your facial expressions and make your students feel at ease. I personally enjoy going with theatrics. Older kids may sometimes feel this is below them and won’t appreciate your falsetto. But funny classes will help the younger ones open up. Watch the students and adapt to their responses. Try to be their friend and actually have fun! If you have fun, they will too.

Take Advantage of the Reward System

Each lesson comes with its own Reward System, so use it! But note the difference between a reward system and a bribe system. You don’t want to turn your students’ into Pavlov’s dogs and destroy their internal motivation to learn. You also don’t want to use it as a punishment system because constantly threatening to take away a star will quickly lose its effect. The reward system helps to build confidence and lets the student know that it is good to speak. It is also a great way to stretch vocabulary and pick up incidental language.

Understand Chinese Culture

We take many Western practices for granted, which can be confusing or overwhelming to a Chinese student. While we are supposed to teach our students Western culture, it is also important to understand the students’ perspectives and be relatable. Read up on the Chinese education environment. Learn how to count from 1 to 10 using Chinese hand gestures. Avoid mannerisms that have double meaning (ex. waving a student over) and use culturally relevant examples. All this will create a better atmosphere for communication.

There is no secret formula to get a student to speak. The best you can do is to keep yourself open, engaged, and aware. Remember, the students are young and developing. Be patient and show how much you care before anything else. After that, just have fun! If you are enjoying yourself, it will be hard for the kids not to. Yes, it will take time, but when your students finally speak up loudly and confidently, it will feel incredible.


Chris has been teaching with VIPKID since December 2014.

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