Shh… Quit Telling Your Students to Be Quiet!

By Sarah Said

I was given the advice as a first year teacher not to smile until December.  Yes, don’t smile until December and also keep your desks in rows. And, when you realize who in your class is friends with whom, you create a seating chart to separate them all because… you don’t want them to make too much noise.  A quiet classroom is ideal. If your students are quietly working, it is better than having a classroom where so much conversation is happening that it is too chaotic. Per subject, you’re supposed to give 30-35 minutes of direct instruction and the rest of the time is reserved for silent work. That’s what we as educators have always been told. I don’t really know if this type of environment benefits or supports English Learners. Let’s pause and think about how our environment is so important for learning a new language.

Is this the best environment for learning a new language?  Will our students pick up on the content that we want them to learn?  Can our students really develop language this way? These are some questions we need to to start asking ourselves as educators. What type of environment should we create for our English Learners?  Shouldn’t we allow them time for academic conversations? How do we do this while continuing to manage a strong classroom climate and culture?

We have to understand that noise is okay in our classrooms and it may make us more productive in teaching and learning. In this article, we will learn how classroom conversations help English Learners develop language and continue to progress in their content learning. We will explore how “noise” can help learners build critical thinking skills. I will then explain how academic conversations can build social emotional learning skills. This blog will also give teachers tips and strategies on how to make their classroom a place where noise can happen. Instead of asking “what is all this noise?”, we need to ask ourselves how this noise helps our learners.

How does classroom noise help foster language learning?

Common sense tells us that when you are trying to learn a language, you need to actually use the language.  Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. But, it is important to understand that practicing usage of the language is going to help students out later as they leave your classroom to go out into the real world. Think of it this way, students are in the comfort of your classroom they are more willing to take risks then when they are outside.  Give them the opportunity to take those risks in your room because the more they speak and make mistakes, the more they will learn and own the language.

In addition to spoken language, allowing your students to have discussions with depth will help them build their reading, writing, and vocabulary skills. “The language that happens in a person’s head is the main set of tools for constructing meaning from texts and for writing. Conversations are opportunities to practice using such tools.” (Zwiers & Crawford 2011)  Students can cognitively find a lead in mastering reading and writing though talking to their peers. Why not allow them to discuss concepts in class?

Students learn language better through interacting with each other than they would with teachers.  This motivates them more. When you have a reluctant reader in your class, they might become more motivated to read when they hear their peers talking about a book. Their ability to read may increase from that need to want to be part of the conversation. Why not use a bandwagon approach to get students to want to read in class?

Let’s be real, students would rather talk to each other than talk to us.  Sorry to burst your bubble. However, if we are strategic in how we partner and place our students in class, they would be able to be strong language models for each other.  Through the “noise” in our classrooms, our students will learn better sentence structure, grammar, and increase their vocabulary. So, why not make some noise?

Thinking critically about noise…

Yes, our English Learners can think critically. Our students have the logic, they’re just working on the language proficiency.  Conversation is a good way to begin to open the door for critical thinking in a new language. When students are asked thought provoking questions, they will take the time to rack their brains to come up with an answer. They will also ask more higher order thinking questions as well. You have to find the right questions, have the right resources, scaffold and model.  Model. Model. Model. And oh yeah, Model. Please don’t forget that.

It is too difficult for students to have thought provoking conversations that have depth and involve critical thinking when teachers have not modeled it for them.  Here is how:

  • Explain the purpose of the conversation
  • Create conversation norms and expectations
  • Use anchor charts to teach students how to have the conversation
  • Model with a co-teacher, paraprofessional, or another student
  • Participate in the conversations-- whether you are a working with whole classroom conversations or you have small groups-- participate in the whole group or move from group to group. You can’t hang out and your desk and read an email at this time.

As a teacher and lesson designer, you need to put the work in to get the results that you want to get from a student discussion.  Within the conversations, students can solve complex problems, ask and answers deep questions, and become part of a creative scenario. You don’t want useless noise.  You want fruitful noise.

How can learners build social emotional learning skills through classroom “noise”?

Our English Learners who are newcomers can really benefit from conversations because they teach socio-cultural norms that our students may not be able to learn outside of school.  Simply instructing students to make eye contact when they are talking to each other, shake hands, and say “thank you” supports social emotional learning. These are soft skills that are going to benefit our students later in life.

Through conversation, students can learn conflict resolution, empathy, and negotiation.  Isn’t this what we want as we teach our children language as well? Sitting in a desk and completing worksheets all day long is not going to build society’s next generation of leaders. Students need to learn how to be a productive and civil member of a community.  The only way they will learn these soft skills is through experiences in the classroom that can foster students with the ability to build relationships with others.

Managing the noise, what does that mean for a teacher?

The biggest fear teachers have when they give up their classrooms to provide more student agency in conversations is managing the classroom.  Look, I don’t think your class of students is going to start hopping off of desks and having their own house party if you try to facilitate discussions.  Will the first time be easy? No. Is doing something for the first time ever easy? But, as you continue to work with your students on having conversations, it will get better.

Here are some tips for this:

  • Try to have groups of less than four students for small group work.
  • Group students in a way where they can approach each other with language.  See more in a recent blog I wrote.
  • Here I go again… model, model, model. I can’t stress this enough.
  • Have a structure for large group work.  I use fishbowl discussions. These are discussions where one small group is in the middle having a discussion, and a larger group of students is observing, taking notes, and creating questions to ask later.
  • Have flexible spaces where students can have conversations.  Not letting students move around in the classroom and keeping them too close to each other could harm your discussions.
  • Let your Newcomers observe before they are required to jump into a conversation.  Work with them on having the conversation one on one with you first.
  • Give students discussion stems to keep them going.
  • Use timers to assure that you are staying on task.
  • Reward students for productive conversations. I posted student quotes in the hallway of the great things students said.

Wow! Having a strong structured conversation is more than just letting kids talk.  Students can increase their language capacity, have opportunities for critical thinking, and build soft skills that will help them later in the future.  So, before you say Shhh… stop and reflect. Telling our students to be quiet will not always benefit them. Embrace organized chaos and have those discussions!


Zwiers, J., & Crawford, M. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portland, Me: Stenhouse Publishers.

To Further Your Learning:

from Confianza Going Beyond Turn and Talk: Academic Conversations for ELLs

from Cult of Pedagogy The Fisheye Syndrome: Is Every Student Really Participating?

from Teaching Channel/Confianza Classroom Real Estate Matters: A Language-Rich Environment

In Confianza's work with change agents in schools, we use our structured, inquiry-based Action Cycle process to Ask, Analyze, Act and Assess around a specific issue of concern.  Our Action Cycle Guide for Implementing Equity, Language & Literacy Practices is now available for purchase.  You can also participate in our facilitated Confianza Cafe with a Certified Confianza Coach.  See our set of professional learning offering options.

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