Is Silence Truly Golden?

I see it in the hallways every single day – students walking in lines, heads sometimes down, with “quiet fingers” up or “bubbles” in their mouths. And every day I see teachers, principals, counselors praising these lines. I hear comments like, “Wow! Look how quiet you all are!” or “Oh my goodness, is that Pre-K? You all are so quiet!” It is interesting to me how we praise the silence. I see the same thing in classrooms; the quieter the room, the higher the praise. It seems to make sense right? We want our students to be orderly and hard-working, and the quieter they are the more they’re learning. Right?

The problem with this praise is that it prioritizes silence from students rather than vocalization. And this is the opposite of what we should be doing.  At any age, but particularly in early childhood, giving students the opportunity to voice their thoughts and questions by conversing with others is an invaluable skill that can only be learned through practice. Many have asked me, “Is allowing students to practice conversing in places like walking in hallways that important?”

The location might be up for debate, but research shows that the need for practicing conversation is not.  On average a child from a low-income household enters Pre-K at age 4 having heard 30 million less words than a child from a middle to high-income household. 30 million less words (Hart & Risley 2004). Not to mention that by age 4, a child is at the tail end of the highest period of brain plasticity that they will experience in their lifetime. The Urban Child Institute’s research suggests that millions upon millions of neurons are formed during this time and that the potential for neural development is at its highest during our first four years. This means that a child will hear and eventually use the words they hear; the more words they hear as they are learning to speak, the more likely they are to use and understand those words later on. And the more words they use and understand, the easier time they will have reading for meaning, that is, reading and comprehending what they’ve read. It appears one of the most effective ways to overcome this gap is to enable our kids in the early years to not only hear words but to use them as well.

All else aside, everyone seems to agree on one thing: the development of a strong vocabulary through conversation imparts numerous benefits to young children. One of these benefits is highlighted in research conducted by Pelletier and Astington (2004) which found that “[i]n conversation, children develop the language needed to make sense of print, specifically decontextualized language – or the language of the “not here and not now.” The more words young children hear parents, teachers, and other influencers use, the more they begin to understand and use those words; this ability to hear and gain understanding of words can then translate to literacy.

As young children begin reading, many words are unfamiliar to them; however, knowing how to find the meaning of a word by how it is used in conversation applies directly to reading comprehension. It is much easier to define unknown words when you can use their context to define them and thus understand all of what is being read rather than pieces and parts, which can confuse and muddle comprehension. It is no surprise that other studies have shown that this skill termed “narrative comprehension and production” relates to academic performance in school, especially to learning to read and write (O’Neil, Pearce, & Pick 2004).

So how do we have rich, meaningful conversation in our classrooms?  There are two strategies needed to successfully develop vocabulary in the classroom.  The first is an understanding of “Tier II” vocabulary or high-frequency/multiple meaning words. Tier II words are described by Thaashida L. Hutton, M.S. as “words [that] occur often in mature language situations such as adult conversations and literature, and therefore strongly influence speaking and reading.” To most effectively teach Tier II words teachers should compile a list of about 5-10 for a week or two and commit to using these words in planned conversation, teaching time, and informal conversations with students. To facilitate this, teachers can post these words around the room, model how to use them in conversation and point out when students use these words in conversation.

The second element is a commitment to engaging students in conversation as much as possible.  This means engagement with both us and their peers. This is a difficult task to accomplish each day, especially when the expectation is that we have quiet lines and quiet classrooms. It requires determination and practice on the teacher and parent’s parts. For more specific tips on easy ways to create meaningful conversation with students see these articles by Janette Pelletier and Early Childhood Australia.

Conversation, not silence, is the most powerful tool we can use to help our students from low-income backgrounds overcome the word gaps they so often develop early in life.  I encourage administrators and other teachers to think about these facts the next time they are tempted to quiet students in moments where great conversation can be had. Our kids have so little time to develop these life-long skills that we cannot afford to always be silent.

By Meagan Fowler

Meagan Fowler is a Pre-K teacher at Aspire Hanley Elementary Charter School in Orange Mound, part of the ASD schools. She has been a classroom teacher for one year with Americorps. Before teaching she studied Political Science/International Studies and Education at Rhodes College. In her spare time, she teaches Sunday school for 2-3 year olds at the Life Church Malco Paradiso campus and attends workshops for early childhood learning and Pre-K advocacy. 

Follow Bluff City Education on Twitter @bluffcityed and look for the hashtag #iteachiam and #TNedu to find more of our stories.  Please also like our page on facebook. The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent those of any affiliated organizations.

“Silence” picture credited to 

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8 comments for “Is Silence Truly Golden?

  1. May 19, 2014 at 9:54 am

    I am so happy that someone else realizes the totally absurd practice of making kids be quiet at school. I was a sub at one time for shelby county schools and kids could not even talk at lunch!!!
    I would actually have lunch with my students so that I could talk to them…everyone else would flee to the teachers lounge….
    It is unnatural for kids to be quiet…all day long…
    The benefit??? Teachers get a good grade I guess….

  2. May 21, 2014 at 9:12 am

    While I acknowledge that vocalization is an essential facet of early education, I disagree with the premise here, at least how it’s first presented. Having quiet lines has more to do with 1) not disrupting the classes along the hallway, and 2) teaching students that different events require different forms of behavior. It’s more than okay for younger kids to run and jump and play on the playground, or even inside the classroom during free play time (I let my kids do this!) I draw the line, however, when my group of students is disruptive and/or inconsiderate of the educational environment. I will concede that the whole quiet-during-lunch is going too far.

  3. europeannaturalmedicine
    May 21, 2014 at 11:49 am

    Not only do we silence our children – we also make them “sit still”. That lays the ground for lifelong physical ineptness.

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

  4. Memphis Teacher
    May 22, 2014 at 9:16 am

    I agree with Ms. Fowler’s argument that developing conversational skills and increasing exposure to vocabulary is of critical importance to early childhood education and, indeed, to all age groups of at-risk students. The research she cites is well-known and accepted in academic circles. However, as a teacher at her school, I have never been praised for having a quiet classroom. In fact, many of the competencies on our rubric for teacher evaluation include opportunities for students to engage in academic discourse and to facilitate their own discussions. A teacher with a silent classroom would not score very well on the teacher evaluation rubric at our school. I agree with Reyna Dave’s comment above — it is also important to teach students how to behave in different settings, even from a young age.

    • May 22, 2014 at 9:30 am

      I think Ms. Fowler was simply using the example of walking in lines in the hallway at her school to point out the fact that often times we do praise silence across schools and districts. All too often we view silence as “good” and noise, regardless of the purpose, as “bad.” I’m glad to hear that your school does prioritize conversation, here’s to hoping that more schools do so!

      I think she was also pointing out that while at times we do need silence, praising it can make it seem more desirable than the alternative. She never spoke negatively about the school (she’s told me its a wonderful place to teach) and was simply offering an observation.

    • May 22, 2014 at 9:34 am

      I think she was also pointing out that while at times we do need silence, praising it can make it seem more desirable than the alternative

  5. May 23, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    This is a great article. It highlights the importance of talk for both language and intellectual development. While I agree that there must be times for quiet as well as for talk, (how else do we make time for reflection?) the introduction startles the reader into considering the reasons for insisting on quiet e.g. to avoid disturbing others, and the opportunities for language development that may be overlooked further diminishing learning potential.

  6. May 23, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    Reblogged this on Norah Colvin and commented:
    Opportunities for talk, as explained in this article, are essential for both the language and intellectual development of young children. Without the richness of talk in the classroom, how can we expect students to develop the language skills necessary to enable them to respond with confidence to any assessment task, especially writing?

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