15 Ways of Dealing with Students Who Pause Before They Speak

By Alex Case
1. Shadow reading In this well-known activity students try to read aloud along with a recorded dialogue, keeping the same speed and rhythm as the people speaking on the CD. You can then try turning down the volume to zero while they are speaking and turn it back up towards the end of the dialogue […]

1. Shadow reading
In this well-known activity students try to read aloud along with a recorded dialogue, keeping the same speed and rhythm as the people speaking on the CD. You can then try turning down the volume to zero while they are speaking and turn it back up towards the end of the dialogue to see if the students are still speaking in time with the recording. Shy students (who are often but not always the same as students who pause a lot before speaking) will feel happier if they can start doing this activity with the rest of the class drowning their voice out, as a kind of choral drilling. As with many of the activities suggested here, shadow reading is obviously very different from asking them to interact in real time in a conversation in unexpected situations, but the experience of speaking at natural speed should boost their confidence and give them an idea what they are aiming at. As is also true with every suggestion here, the challenge is then to move towards real communication while retaining as much of that speed as possible. In this case, the further stages could include doing the dialogue as a shadow reading with the left half of the class as person A and the right side as person B, then doing the same shadow reading but with students paired person A/ person B with the people next to them. They can then read out the same dialogue in pairs at as natural speed as possible without the tape- maybe with a time limit, but anyway shy students tend to want to finish before other groups so that they can’t be heard by everyone waiting. They can then roleplay the same situation but without looking at the dialogue and/ or read out the dialogue but replacing some of the information and language, for example with their own real names and personal details. They should then be ready to do variations on the roleplay until they are eventually reacting in totally unexpected situations, hopefully retaining some of that natural fluency.

2. Sing along
You’d be surprised how many students who are shy about speaking are less shy about singing, including one quiet student who sang along to a Suzanne Vega song we did in class while everyone else was just silently checking their answers to the gapfill! It is difficult to predict in advance which classes and students will respond well to being invited to sing, and it is more challenging to have clear stages between starting with a song and ending up with real communication. Rewriting the lyrics and doing roleplays based on the situation of the people mentioned in the song are possible activities.

3. Speeches, performances, presentations and poetry recitals
If students are reading straight from the paper in front of them, they can use that situation to get used to speaking out in front of people in English and are unlikely to need to pause and so will have their confidence boosted. To move it towards the skills they will need in real communication, get them to mark the pauses and stressed words on the script they are going to read from and have a question and answer session at the end. You could also have a stage where they tell someone else about one of the presentations they listened to or, with presentations, move towards them speaking from notes rather than a script.

4. Check cultural influences
How long you can pause while thinking and if there should be a substantial gap between the other person finishing their turn and you starting yours can be culturally determined, with the two most famous nationalities where silence is tolerated or encouraged being Japanese and Finnish. If your students pause for cultural reasons and are unlikely to ever use English with nationalities like Italians and Spanish who have an opposite view of silence, and their silence doesn’t interfere with the others’ students ability to get through the content of the lesson, imposing a British or American concept of how long a pause is acceptable might not actually be appropriate. This is true even if their silence causes you subconscious culturally-determined irritation! If you do decide that cutting down on silence is a priority, knowing any cultural influences involved can help you justify the classroom time you spend on it and increase student motivation to work on it by helping explain how it could be a problem for them. It can also help students feel less negative about their own tendency to pause if they accept that it is something that is not unique to them and something that can be changed more than an individual personality trait.

5. Check pauses in L1
Another piece of analysis that is well worth doing is finding out if they speak the same way in L1 and English or whether the long pauses just occur in L2. If they also pause a long time in L1 (and so it is related to culture or personality) but you feel they will need to be more spontaneous in interacting in English in their future life, you will need to think about making them a more outgoing person with drama and confidence building warmers etc. If it only occurs in English, there might be a root cause like too much translation going on in their heads, an overemphasis on accuracy or not having anything to say about the unfamiliar topics that they don’t come across in their normal lives. Having a theory on what the cause is should help you come up with a strategy to deal with it.

6. Be realistic about what they can do
Common causes of pauses include being put into unexpected or unfamiliar situations in class during roleplays etc, or being asked to talk about a topic in English that you have rarely or never spoken about in your own language. If you look at the “can do” statements in the list of ALTE/ Council of Europe levels, these are things that only quite high level students are meant to be able to do in English and so might not be a priority for your students. If these factors are what they need to get up to next level, e.g. for a difficult exam like CAE, CPE or IELTS 6.0 or above, then at least analysing which of these things are difficult for them and whether it is a lack of language or other knowledge and experience that is stopping them should be a good start in working out how you can tackle it.

7. Take a step down in level when doing speaking
You can also aim this “being realistic” more towards specific classes or students by giving them speaking tasks you know they are capable of, even if these speaking activities are a different level to the reading, listening and language input of the rest of the lesson. An easy way of planning this is to take the speaking part of the lesson from a lower level book that deals with the same topic and/ or language point. They may eventually need to cope with more typical speaking activities at that level in order to cope with the test or be ready to move up to the next level, but by gradually moving onto these or alternating them with easier things you can boost students’ confidence, get them in the habit of speaking more fluently and/ or be able to concentrate specifically on cutting down on pauses. There is also the possibility of giving different speaking tasks to different students, either openly or by having Student A and Student B tasks and making sure the right people get the right ones.

8. Reduce the intellectual challenge
As well reducing the language level of speaking tasks, try to take away other interfering factors such as being asked for opinions about difficult subjects, having to work out what is going on or solve a puzzle, or difficult or unfamiliar instructions for roleplays or games. Again, you might still want to introduce these factors into the class when you feel students are ready.

9. Planning time
Giving students time to think about what they are going to say and maybe even make notes before they have to speak is perhaps the best way of cutting down on pauses. This could be as simple of telling their partners when they are ready to take their turn in a speaking board game or as involved as planning a presentation for homework. While they will eventually need to be able to respond without thinking time, this planning time is similar to many real life situations such as rehearsing in your head what you are going to say before making a telephone call or only sticking your hand up in a classroom debate when you are sure what you have to say. A way of combining practice of reacting spontaneously and speaking when you have had time to plan is to do the roleplay etc with no planning time and perhaps an unexpected factor, give some input and feedback, and then do the same speaking activity again. This approach is similar to Test Teach Test or the Task-Based Approach.

10. Make it more important for them
For example, get them taking a test such as FCE where 50/ 50 interactions with another student is important to score well, or exams like BULATS and IELTS where presentations have to be given within a set time. Another good way of convincing them that it is a priority is to show or tell them about how people could end up speaking over them or get irritated if they pause all the time.

11. Give them opinions
If students genuinely don’t have any opinion on what you are asking them to speak about, this is much more difficult to cope with than just concentrating too much on accuracy. As you are usually working more on their pronunciation etc than their ability to say something interesting, you can solve this by telling what opinion they should express. You can do this by giving them a roleplay card where the opinion is written (e.g. “You think the bypass is a bad idea”), a roleplay card where they are given vaguer information about what their opinion should be (e.g. “You are an environmentalist”), or being told to take the same or opposite point of view to their partner or the text they have read or listened to. Please note that if they will be asked to explain why they have that opinion, you might have to give them some help with that too.

12. Pausing/ thinking language
If most questions are met by complete silence, getting them to at least say “Well”, “Let me see”, “Interesting question”, “I’ve never thought about that before” or just “Hmmm” can help fill the uncomfortable silence and even prompt them to say something because at least their mouths are  already moving.

13. Give them sentence stems/ fixed social phrases / starting the conversation tactics
In the same way as pausing language, telling to start straight away with “My opinion is…”, “I don’t agree with you because…”, “I’ve don’t think we’ve met”, “You must be Mr Jones” or “Thanks for coming everyone” straight off the page is much less likely to be followed by complete silence than just being told to “start speaking”. They can then use these same phrases for the same purpose in real communication later.

14. Timing/ time limits
This has to be used sensitively as any more pressure can make some students freeze up even more. Methods looking at time include telling them how long they paused and setting a target for improvement next time they do the task, next week or the end of the term; having a time limit for the first word but allowing hums and hahs; doing timed speaking tasks where only the ending is set but pausing too much will cut down on the amount of language they can produce; and getting students to take away an estimate of the amount of silence during any timed activities such as the well-known “Talk about the topic in this square” speaking board games.

15. Ways of sending it back to their partner
If students know that they can send the conversation back someone else’s way after just a sentence or two by saying “What do you think?” etc, this takes the pressure off and means the amount of language they are trying to plan in their heads before speaking is reduced. It also cuts down on the silence when they have actually finished their turn but others are giving them space to speak again because they are used to them needing lots of thinking time.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET October 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Tefl.NET


  • JAMIE says:

    First, I would like to say: I love this site! Thanks a million to all involved in the creation! Also, to comment on the above discussion of vocabulary…. I love to spend time in other countries (this is my hobby) for a year or two each, working where I can… (my love of this stems from my love of learning new languages) and I have found that VOCABULARY is not always as important as fluency, that is to say, the ability to express your thoughts in the right format (this usually includes the correct tenses) to get around the word that you want to say (if you are trying to conduct a conversation!!! ). One will ALWAYS be lacking in vocab. when learning a new language that is not your mother tongue, therefore, you have to learn how to DESCRIBE with FLUENCY what you want to express!! Besos! Ciao!

  • NAIMA says:

    Thanks a lot.
    7-8-9-14 : are the methods I have applied till now, but sometimes, even with a big effort , i can’t continue. So, I tried method:15 yesterday and today , I realized that the lesson turned into an interesting conversation that i direct, of course. Thank you because I have tried your methods and follow your instructions with success and always felt that i had made a big progress.

  • serap kakan says:

    i just wanted to thank you because you have been pretty much assisting me while teaching

  • Alex Case says:

    I agree that vocabulary is more important than you would think from many English courses, but actually I don’t find a big vocabulary is particularly connected to fluency in myself or my students. More than learning new words, if you want to speak fluently you need to make sure that the words you know are ones you know very well

  • milind says:

    I have gone through the entire 15 ways. I feel that the points discussed are true and correct. The important aspect of entire 15 ways is, You have focused on vocabulary. It is to say true that without the vocabulary you cannot express rerly but if you know the meanings of the words you can deliver the things in a proper way even though your grammar is not so good. If you have vocabulary you can express properly or with out shy. You do not have fear of subject knowledge. In short If you have huge vocabulary then only you can effectively win the person who is talking to you.

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