Silence as Learning

Recently, we have been looking at the role of silence in relation to students with academic reading difficulties. I’ve been sharing what I have learned about why some students chose to remain silent and limit their interactions with texts in class. See Part I and Part II.

It may come as no surprise to learn that choosing to remain silent compromised the extent to which Nicole, Alisa, and Sarah comprehended texts and learned content. However, silence was also a technique that seemed to allow at least some learning to occur. All the girls explained that through silence, they could find ways to learn content that they might otherwise not have learned from reading texts. Each girl said that, to some extent, they watched and listened to what other students and their teachers said about texts, assignments, and content.

For Sarah and Alisa, silence appeared to be a way to learn at least some of the content found in their texts but without the risk of suggesting to their teacher and peers that they were poor readers. As we saw in a previous post, Alisa typically used silence as a way to observe her peers and at least learn something about the content. As she said,  “I don’t bother to ask [questions] about them ‘cause I know it won’t really help me. I figure the best thing to do is pay attention when we [the group] do them. That usually helps.”

Additionally, Alisa did not consider failing grades to be a terrible thing. When she received a 60% on a lab assignment, she recognized that she had learned 60% of the material simply by watching and paying attention to her group! Of course, how well she really learned it remains open to question, but this is her perception of the situation. For her, the use of silence allowed her to learn more than if she had to work entirely on her own.


Sarah also explained that her use of silence was a way to learn the content that she could not understand in her textbook. Sarah looked at text when it was read aloud in class and appeared to be paying attention when her teacher and peers discussed what was read. Sarah confirmed that she normally paid attention during read alouds and discussion She stated, “That’s one way I might get it.”  Like Alisa, Sarah explained that through listening, she had a chance to at least learn something.

For Nicole, completing assignments at a rapid pace seemed to suggest that learning was taking place. Nicole explained that she was quiet, but she listened when her classmates read the text and asked questions, and that helped her complete her work in class. “But if I listen [in class] then I will probably know where the answers are [for the assignment]. Then I’ll get done faster.”

Although Nicole was quiet, I observed her raising her hand to ask or answer questions about text. Such instances were rare, but they stood out because Sarah and Alisa did not share in her behavior. Nicole’s answers to questions were not always correct, but her incorrect answers did not seem to deter her from continuing to participate. Asking questions in class about readings, she said, was a good way to learn the material and complete assignments. Nicole believed that sometimes she had to just be quiet and listen to figure out what a lesson meant. She said that if that tactic did not work, she would have to ask questions. “I have to say ‘Hey! I didn’t get it. Help!’ Otherwise how will I learn? And I won’t get done. And if I don’t get done [in class] then I must not have learned.”

Come back next week when we’ll wrap this all up and put a pretty bow on it!