Teacher Silence: The Holy Grail of Student Centered Learning

Instagram N°1Student centered learning is all the rage these days, and we agree whole-heartedly. Silent elicitation is an amazingly (free!) useful technique for reducing “Teacher Talk Time” as well as keeping students at the center of the learning process. It’s most often used for foreign language instruction, but can be generalized to work with almost any type of lessons or classroom instructions.

Essentially, elicitation is the process of getting your students to say it instead of you. “It” can be anything, a vocab word, the answer to a question from another student, the next step in a project, anything at all. The smoothest elicitors don’t even have to ask, they simply look at their class or gesture towards a student who then knows to volunteer the information. The difficulty of elicitation for the teacher depends largely on the difficulty of the question, but almost anything can be elicited if at least one person knows even part of the answer.

Sometimes, you may have to “feed” the answer to the class, but once should be enough. From then on whenever the word, fact, or step is needed, you simply wait for another student to remember what you’ve said. Here are some examples:


You hope to teach a new English word to a group of non-native speakers. The word is paper. Most of your students have at least had one or two English classes before, and you know that most classes use basic classroom words (including stationary) at one point or another, so, you just hold up a piece of paper and wait with a questioning look.

If it’s your first time eliciting, you may have to gesture largely, or even ask aloud. If your students are used to it, simply presenting the object and waiting will be enough: You’ve trained them to take responsibility over presenting new words to the class.

A student offers the word, but with incorrect pronunciation. You gesture or ask for more. Another student gives it perfectly. “Good job” or thumbs up, and you ask her to say it again. You then move between her and the whole class, and then to other individual students using her as the correct example if there’s ever a mistake.

You never say the word “paper,” but they say it many times.

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You’re presenting an obscure, difficult, or completely new English word to the same class: Drawer. Maybe some have heard it before, but no one is confident enough to answer when you gesture questioningly. You then try to give them the first phoneme (sound) “Dr”.

No takers.

You go for the whole first syllable, slowly, “Drrrraaaaw”.

Absolute silence.

You give in, and provide them with the word, allowing the class to repeat it. You have them repeat it all together, then motion to individual students to repeat it. If a student freezes or messes up,  you go back to the whole class, then back to the student until they get it right. Masters of student centered learning who’ve taught the same class a few times can do this without saying a word other than “drawer.” Students will have learned to take cues entirely from gestures and you can motion the class through self-learning like a maestro conducting an orchestra.

If a student you’ve gestured to ever says the word incorrectly, you never correct them personally. You gesture to another student who you believe knows it, eliciting the word from them, and then returning to the student who made the mistake. If you can’t find a student to get it quite right, go back to the whole class, or, as a last resort, model it one more time.

Throughout the class, you encourage students to provide the word again and again, always enlisting other students to make corrections, and remain silent as they practice the word dozens of times.

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You give instructions to a class and want to ensure that they understand before proceeding. Rather than simply stating the instructions again, you ask the students to provide the steps one after another. You also elicit whether students are correct from other students (thus doubling the number of students you check for understanding).

Just as before, if a student is ever wrong, you get the correct answer from another student, returning to the original for confirmation before moving on.


Even grammar points or complex facts can be elicited, although it takes a bit more talking:


You present the class with a picture of a man dressed as a prisoner. You then show a picture of a jail.

Teacher: Does he live here?

Students: Yes

Teacher: When?

Students: Now

From those five words it’s possible to get experienced classes to produce “He lives there now” (present progressive) with gestures, or:

Teacher: How can I tell that to a friend, “He….”

Silence is sexy

Then, show a picture of a Mansion, if you’ve developed a gesture for past tense, use it, if not:

Teacher: This is his old house. Does he live here now?

Students: No.

Teacher: But he did, right?

Student: Yes

Teacher: How can I tell that to a friend, “He _____ __ live here?”

Gesturing for the two words, “used to.”

Then, you never talk again. You move through the rest of the lesson showing new pictures and having students make new sentences. “He eats bread now.” “He used to eat roast duck.” “He drinks water now.” “He used to drink wine.” Each time a new picture is presented, you put it under the mansion or the jail as appropriate.


Why is elicitation and student centered learning so great? In the above examples, you’re at least doubling the amount of times students not only hear the words, but practice saying them. You’re also doubling the amount of students you get to check for understanding. By saying nothing,  you become twice the teacher.

Creative Commons Love: sarihuella, Phillippe Moreau Chevrolet, Ko_An on Flickr.com

Written by Michael Jones
Michael JonesTeacher Silence: The Holy Grail of Student Centered Learning