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How to Avoid Awkward Silences

How to Avoid Awkward Silences

Sometimes it can be challenging to work out when to respond to a student or when to interject when teaching online. Waiting for the right moment can pose all kinds of issues, especially if there is a delay or lag.  

Here are five reminders to help you when you find yourself in a class dealing with a potentially awkward silence. 

  1. Silent moments support learning

In our fast-paced global society, we often feel we need to fill in all the gaps. Silence is not encouraged. In fact, it is discouraged, and we are encouraged to think of silence as an uncomfortable and unnatural situation. Sometimes, a moment’s pause can be a time for both teacher and student to collect their thoughts. It is important that we debunk the idea of silence being awkward to avoid filling the void with teacher talk that may not be suitable. Remember to breathe and enjoy the silence rather than always trying to fill it. 

  1. Turn-taking varies between cultures

In the UK, responding as soon as the other person finishes what they are saying in a conversation is common practice. For example, a couple of seconds of silence may be acceptable but any longer and most people start to feel the pressure of finding something to say as quickly as possible. On the other hand, in some cultures, it is customary to wait in silence for much longer before you respond. Teachers should be careful when responding to ensure they don’t speak over students and interrupt their train of thought. The teacher may risk seeming impatient or ingenuine if they speak too soon. Considering the students’ backgrounds and cultures is extremely important in this case.

  1. Quality is more important than quantity

It is essential to pay attention to the quality of our teacher talk. Instead of simply reducing your teacher talk, think about how you can make instructions and language presentations clearer and more concise. In addition, you can support and check students’ understanding by asking instruction-checking questions (ICQs) when setting up a task or by asking concept-checking questions (CCQs) when introducing or reviewing target language. Another way of checking for understanding is by encouraging peer-to-peer interaction and getting students to share task explanations and examples. 

  1. Internet delays are inevitable but manageable

When teaching online, there may inevitably be a lag of a few seconds from when your voice reaches the student’s audio and vice versa. This is perfectly normal and does not necessarily mean that either you or the student are experiencing technical issues. However, it’s helpful to use the time at the start of the lesson to take note of any delays so that you can factor this into your lesson delivery. This will help to prevent you from speaking over the student by accident. You can also encourage the student at the start of the lesson to wait a moment before responding after you have finished your instructions. 

  1. There’s a solution for every issue 

Technical issues happen and can be expected from time to time in an online class. Even the fastest internet connection does not make teachers or students immune to tech issues. Offer tech support to students by sharing tips with them at the start of a lesson or a course. For example, introducing the following phrases in the early stages can help students troubleshoot issues: 

  • Refresh your page 
  • Switch your device 
  • Remove any additional tabs 
  • Turn your phone to flight mode 

Teaching and reviewing these tips can help build students’ digital literacy skills and their confidence – this is especially important if they are new to the online classroom. Also, removing cookies and cache routinely alongside closing unnecessary applications and Internet tabs helps avoid a slow connection. Finally, if tech issues are common, reaching out to others for support, whether it is the Internet provider or the IT team in the school, usually resolves the matter. 


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