Selective Mutisum

Many questions arise about young learners who are acquiring English along with academic content.  As educators, we are anxious to make sure we are attending to all our students needs.  Considering the process of how second language learners acquire language is critical in identifying what those needs may be.

Consider this typical pattern for a young language learner:

  • The child will continue to use their first language for a short time period.
  • The child will realize the first language is ineffective and begin a “silent period” sometimes lasting as long as six months.
  • Third, the child’s receptive language abilities will continue to grow and the child will being to test out the new language by using one or two-word phrases.
  • Finally, the child will be conversing with others in the second language.

The “silent period” is what often gives us trouble.  We sometimes have trouble distinguishing it from selective mutism.  Consider pursuing more assessment and intervention for selective mutism if the following is true:

  • The child will not speak in either first or second language when presented with the opportunity to do so in a particular setting (with another student who shares the same first language or a bilingual liaison).
  • The “silent period” has lasted for more than six months.
  • The student is exhibiting selective mutism in both languages in several unfamiliar settings, and for significant periods of time.

If you have concerns about one of your students and selective mutism, start asking more questions about what their language is like at home and present opportunities for the student to use their first language within your classroom.  And call us anytime!  We’re happy to help!



Mayworm, A., Dowdy, E., Knights, K., Rebelez, J.  (2014).  Assessment and Treatment of Selective Mutism with English Language Learners.  Contemporary School Psychology.

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Holly Tracy

About Holly Tracy

Holly Tracy is an ELL Instructional Coach for Lincoln Public Schools. She works with the staff and administration at Adams, Arnold, Calvert, Cavett, Clinton, Hill, Humann, Kloefkorn, Maxey, Roper, Rousseau, and Zeman. Holly has had the chance to develop valuable partnerships with many teachers across these buildings as they support their ELL students and looks forward to continuing this work.

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