Silence is Golden

I love my aunts dearly, but they ask a lot of questions…tough questions…very fast. They visited Rome last weekend to surprise me for my 29th birthday, and, fuelled by prosecco, they were in fine form.

“What will you do before you’re 30?”

(1 second pause)

“Are you going to settle in Rome long-term?”

(1 second pause)

“When will you start a family?”

Dismantled and disorientated, I needed a lot more time than we had available on their weekend trip to give decent responses. This got me thinking about the anxiety we can cause learners by simply not giving them time to think things through.

Lessons from Science

At the IH Italy Dare to Differ conference, Antonia Clare suggested that we should give students more time and space to be creative with the language and its ideas, using a great metaphor to get her point across: It’s the space between the logs that let the fire burn.”

Writing about the universe (lest we forget our place in the grand scheme of things!), Neil deGrasse Tyson provided another great metaphor showing that the space between objects (words in our case) is where the most interesting content develops: ‘Aided by modern detectors, and modern theories, we have probed our cosmic countryside and revealed all manner of hard-to-detect things: dwarf galaxies, runaway stars, runaway stars that explode, million-degree X-ray-emitting gas, dark matter, faint blue galaxies, ubiquitous gas clouds, super-duper high energy charged particles, and the mysterious quantum vacuum energy. With a list like that, one could argue that all the fun in the universe happens between the galaxies rather than within them.’

Adrian Underhill’s ‘Inner Workbench’

At the Bell English teacher training course I attended in July 2017, Adrian Underhill gave a talk about being conscious of learners’ ‘inner workbench’ i.e. the time they need to process information and retrieve the appropriate vocab/grammar tools to summon up a response.

Anyone who has ever learned a second language as a teen or adult can empathise with this, but as teachers, it’s much more common to wait all of half a second and pepper the student with another question (à la my aunts). Or if the learners are very lucky, the first question would have just been processed for meaning before a rephrased version of the same question comes flying in!


You can usually see if someone is engaged and wrestling through language versus when they are clueless, and if the learner is engaged the best thing is to do is…absolutely nothing: count 5 elephants in your head and give them a chance! In silence!

Give learners (and colleagues and loved ones!) time to lay your words down on their inner workbench and construct a reaction.



deGrasse Tyson, N., 2017. The Universe for People in a Hurry, New York: W.W. Norton and Co.


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