Teaching through Language versus Teaching through Silence

Looking at the Role of Language and the Role of Silence in Education

Teaching in modern schools is predominantly didactic.  Many educators may consider verbal communication to be the only way to convey knowledge to students.  Educators are often big proponents of words –  and some may feel the more words the better!

In response to a blog post on Modeling that supported the idea of silent demonstration, one reader commented,  “I think modeling is a great useful tool when it is accompanied with language; it is more impactful and intellectually stimulating. Children need every opportunity to expand and develop their language and ability to communicate effectively.”

Language is, of course, critical.  A landmark study by child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995) gave rise to the concept of the 30 million word gap – the difference between the number of words heard by children of professional parents compared to children of parents living in poverty (by the age of 3), and a corresponding difference in the number of words in the children’s vocabulary.

Source: Hart & Risley Study 1995

The natural response to this study was for educators and parents to talk more to their children.  In their enthusiasm, some important elements from the study were missed.  One critical point was that it’s not so much the number of words that matters, but the quality of the language.  This includes the variety of words used, the depth and length of the conversations between parents and children, the quality of engagement, and the positive nature of the interactions.

Image result for preschool conversations
Source: Conversations with Preschoolers by Libby Anne

Too Much of a Good Thing

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing?  I would say yes!

When is language a problem?  Excess speaking can be problematic when children are trying to concentrate and process visual stimuli with simultaneous auditory distractions.  An example of this is likely to occur during parallel talk, a method where teachers provide a verbal background narrative of children’s actions when they are engaged in an activity.

Parallel and Self Talk

Parallel talk was initiated by teachers and parents in an effort to close the language gap. “You are placing the big cylinder block on top of the small triangle block,” comments the teacher using parallel talk while observing a child playing in the block center, “The big cylinder fell.  You are now trying another block to see if it will balance…” 

Similar to parallel talk is self talk, when an adult is describing his own actions in front of the child.

Image result for parallel talk
Source: halseyschools.com

An Auditory Distraction

However, when stimulation is primarily visual, the brain inhibits the auditory sensors (Gougoux, Zatorre, Lassonde, Voss, & Lepore, 2005).  Studies show that talking, particularly the excessive talking typical of didactic teaching and parallel talk, might easily distract children and prevent them from fully processing visual input (Taylor, Lindsay, & Forbes, 1967; Molloy, Griffiths, Chait, & Lavie, 2015; Olivers, Awh, & Van der Burg, 2016) – an important requirement to gain cognitive understanding. 

Image result for preschool child block building
Source: bayareadiscoverymuseum.org

This makes sense.  If children are trying to figure out the physics behind balancing different sized blocks, allowing them to do that in silence with full attention to the visual and tactile input will be a greater learning experience than providing voice-over narration.

Silent Modeling

Silent modeling can also be a powerful teaching tool.  This is when a teacher demonstrates a learning activity in silence.  For example, modeling block construction in front of children gives them a whole spectrum of possibilities they might not think of on their own. 

Related image
Source: fluentin3months.com

Subsequently, providing time for children to experiment with the blocks freely will give them a chance to explore both what they have seen and try new possibilities. This brings up two different views in teaching: Adult Modeling verses Discovery Learning (which you can read about here). 

When to Use Language

With both language and silence the key is to find a balance. Modeling language through rich conversations is essential.  Language modeling to guide children in resolving social conflicts helps them channel their upset into words.  Using literary language during storytelling and book reading exponentially increases children’s vocabulary. 

Related image
Source: childrensstorybookgarden.org

But when children need to focus on visual stimuli (or another sensory experience) or if they need to sink deeply into an activity to gain cognitive insight, then the language of silence is best.

Source: magnoliabox.com

A Historical View

Children imitate adults as they engage in their day-to-day activities, learning and absorbing the culture and knowledge of the community they live in.  This along with two other key ways of transmitting knowledge were part of the traditional modes of learning since ancient times.

For a brief overview of traditional education: 

Your Turn

What are your thoughts? Do you have any experiences with children learning through silence? Please share in the Comments box below!

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