Breaking The Silence: Talking to Kids who Won’t Talk Back

By: Tutor Anna Ruth

I have to say that sometimes I get along better with children than adults. 

Their curiosity about the world and fearlessness in asking questions helps me see the world in better, and often more exciting, ways. 

Plus, to be honest, it’s tough being an adult sometimes. 

Okay, maybe the majority of the time. Like having to make three meals for myself a day, do my laundry, clean my house, keep my plants alive, and write my thesis (?!), I’m not prepared for all this! 

So, the opportunity to escape into a child’s world and witness their curiosity is often a welcome distraction from my stressful life. 

I started teaching on Cambly Kids a few months ago, and for the most part, it’s been a wonderful experience! 

Most of the kids are good at English, and for beginners, Cambly has done an excellent job of putting together pre-made lessons for a wide variety of ages and abilities. 

I was feeling pretty good about myself…

And then, I got a shy girl. 

The Shy Kids 

I’ll call her Ellie. She was four, with the most adorable pigtails streaming in long curls from the sides of her head. She sat as far back in the chair as it would allow, wide-eyed and scared looking. 

“Hello!” I said, showing my kindest smile. “What’s your name?”


Ellie looked like she would rather be anywhere else in the world rather than sitting at a laptop and speaking a foreign language.  

I quickly looked at where she was from and said hello in her native language, hoping it would help her open up a bit or offer a smile.

Still, nothing.

 I was beginning to worry that this would be a very long thirty minutes, so I began to think quickly. 

What would I want if I was a girl, nervous about talking to a stranger?

To my left sat an enormous stuffed bear. Maybe if Ellie were nervous about talking with me, she’d feel better about talking to the stuffed animal.

‘Beary’ quickly entered the scene, introducing himself in a deep voice.

Thankfully Beary knew the answers to a lot of the questions

As he answered for Ellie, I could sense her beginning to relax and open up, not having to worry about the pressure of speaking or answering the questions.

The next thing Beary and I did was sing together! I noticed Ellie perk up straight away, especially when I added some dance moves to go along with the words. 

While my dance moves were out there, and my neighbours were probably thinking I was trying to imitate a windmill, I noticed that she was beginning to move her fingers after a few rounds!  

The actions were small, but ‘Beary’ made sure to give out an exciting star! 

By the end of the lesson, Ellie had said a total of three words, but her face had relaxed, she’d joined in on some of the movements, and her big smile was lighting up the screen. 

What started as a quiet, shy, and scared girl turned into a girl excited for the lesson, even though she was not speaking much. 

Takeaway Tips

Tip #1. Non-Verbal Answers are Sometimes Just as Important as Verbal Answers

Even though Ellie barely spoke that first lesson, I was able to help break down her fear through hand movements, actions, and stars! 

And because she had a great first experience, she is more likely to return to Cambly for more lessons after telling her parents what a great time she had. 

Ellie will eventually open up when she feels ready.

Tip #2. Use a Furry Friend! 

Beary definitely helped keep the conversation going, and helped Ellie feel more comfortable.

You can use any sort of stuffed toy (or drawing!) to get the kids attention. It’s guaranteed to catch their eye, and their attention!

Tip #3. Discover Their Interests 

Ellie liked singing and became much more interested when the Itsy-Bitsy Spider entered the scene, but that would not work for another of my students. 

For example, one of my boy students loves tic-tac-toe! He was having trouble differentiating between the English pronunciation of the vowels versus the Turkish ones. Instead of playing tic-tac-toe with X’s and O’s, we began playing English-A and English-E, which helped him learn while also doing something he loves!

This not only works with kids, but the adult students too! Finding a students interests truly keeps the conversation going.

Tip #4. Include The Parents

Sometimes it can be challenging to figure out what kids like. The easiest thing to do in this case is to send the parents a message on the Cambly messenger. 

Sending a quick, thoughtful message can be beneficial in many ways!

First, it builds trust between you and the parents, showing them that you really care about their kids, which will help them keep coming back to you. 

Second, it will help you figure out what the kids like! One of my parents told me their children love superheroes. This knowledge, paired with a free drawing program online and the share screen tool, helped me teach them their colours and body parts while drawing Hulk!

Exhibit A of why I’m an English tutor and not giving out art classes!

Tip #5. Be Generous With Stars! ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

When Ellie learned that speaking even the smallest words would earn her a star, she became more confident and started to open up! 

Especially with the first lessons, using stars often was a great way to help encourage shy speakers. 

I found that Ellie perked up when I excitedly rewarded her with a star, and now she instantly brightens whenever she receives one!

Remember: You Can Do It!

It can be a bit intimidating to talk to a shy child. (It sounds hilarious—I never thought I’d be anxious talking to a four-year-old, but Ellie certainly made me feel shy!)

But finding out what they like and the things they are excited about will soon make them forget their shyness and help both you and your young student have a great learning experience.

About the Writer
Anna is currently living in Berlin, financing her graduate studies by teaching on Cambly! She is studying international social work and loves talking with people about their past experiences, passions and dreams. One of her favourite things about teaching on Cambly is when people learn new words or phrases. She can usually be found in a park, studying, lying in the sun or practising tightrope.

7 thoughts on “Breaking The Silence: Talking to Kids who Won’t Talk Back

  1. Thank you for these ideas. I will take on board the drawing idea especially. I have a student with special educational needs and has trouble communicating but loves to interact with the screen.

  2. I rarely teach children, but every once in a while, a young boy or girl appears. This article was helpful and I think I am going to get me at least a hand puppet to have on hand (I just couldn’t resist that one, sorry)! Thank you!

  3. Great article! I found the same thing with the “furry friend”. I keep a box of my children’s old stuffed animals beside me- along with a bucket of “Matchbox” cars. It is amazing that the children will talk to a stuffed pink giraffe when they won’t speak to me!

  4. I use Mr. Owl. Mr. Owl always gives silly or the wrong answers because he needs his glasses. Usually Mr. Owl can’t find his glasses so he has to borrow mine and then he gives the right answer. I think many children know how grown ups are who can’t find their glasses or see without their glasses.

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