Muddling through the blogosphere

Taking a Chance on Words: Why are the Asian-American kids silent in class?


While teachers are concerned about this lack of participation in classroom talk, they are also often relatively accepting of these quiet students who don’t pose a discipline problem, who turn in homework on time, and in general, get passing grades.

I am pulling a few quotes from Carol Tateishi‘s article Taking a Chance with Words, which she has published with Rethinking Schools. Carol shares insights from her own background of growing up Asian (Japanese-American) in a post World War II era as she observes through recent visits to San Francisco Bay Area high school classrooms “the lack of participation by students of Asian descent in the oral language activities of the class.”cover_200.jpg

In interviewing Asian-American students, she found four shared qualities:

  • Oral Language tends to be used functionally
  • Speaking publicly about one’s problems is discouraged
  • That restraint in talking is valued
  • You don’t talk about feelings or personal experiences

Yet as teachers, we commonly share a very different set of beliefs:

  • Oral language can be used to negotiate meaning
  • Risk-taking in talk is valued
  • Speaking in class increases engagement
  • Classroom dialog deepens learning

Carol points out that there is more at stake than “better learning of the curriculum.” Her concern is how the lack of strong verbal skills impacts future career paths for many Asian-Americans. “It mattered in the 1940s and matters again today if Asian-Americans have the words and voice to speak up for themselves and their communities. It matters if we have lawyers, writers, activists, educators, business leaders, elected officials, and ordinary citizens who understand the power of language and use it”

I will be passing this article on to colleagues whose class rosters include Asian-Americans. As Carol Tateishi points out: it’s easy to overlook the needs of students who seemingly pose no problems.


  1. Obviously I can’t speak from the American situation as I’m based in Australia however I think these observations are too generalise. Japanese students are known for these traits; although not all are like this. And I wouldn’t say the same about most other Asian cultures.

  2. I’m still thinking about Asian- American students out of my past, who were the “silent kids in class” and consciously chose career paths in technical fields rather than fields where “linguistic and social skills are at a premium.” I’m also quite sure there have been times when I was “relatively accepting of these quiet students who don’t pose a discipline problem” and are seemingly doing just fine.

    Funny thing about technology, though, how its many forms can help silent students find a voice. I’m remembering about ten years ago to a brilliant student (Vietnamese-American) who never participated in class discussions, yet through email, we carried on amazing conversations. And over the last five years, I’ve seen students find a voice through blogging. But I know Carol Tetesihi.s concern is about the consequences of a school life devoid of oral language activities.

    In many of our schools (US), the day is all about preparing for high stakes testing – which, unfortunately does not include oral skills. In an educational climate that teaches to the test, I suspect that in many of our low-performing schools, our Asian-American students are not the only ones whose public speaking skills have been put on hold

    Thanks for your input, Sue.

  3. I don’t think not speaking is the same as not being able to communicate well. I believe that while American kids might talk a lot they don’t say that much. Even my own kids most of the time when they talk they are just talking to hear their own voice they are not adding anything, I know that sounds harsh but it is true. Communication is more than just talking for the sake of talking it is for actually getting a point across.

    I think if you look at the Asian kids most of them probably preform better in school then most American kids so I’m not sure why the concern about the amount of words that they speak comes into play. Also like blogwalker said a lot of Asian kids tend to gravitate towards jobs that don’t require the same amount of interaction as others.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar