Avoiding Silence when Entering a Breakout Room

John Campbell-Larsen, Kyoto Women’s University

 Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Breakout rooms, participation
  • Learner English level: Intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Activity time: 20 minutes
  • Materials: Handout (see Appendix)

One noticeable aspect of Zoom breakout rooms is the tendency of students to fall silent when the teacher enters the room. The teacher is usually expected to initiate some talk or action and the students usually remain silent until this happens. To integrate the teacher’s arrival with minimal disruption, students can be encouraged to provide a previous action formulation (PAF) (Pillet-Shore, 2010) that accommodates an incoming person into the ongoing interaction. Note that although an enquiry by the incomer (“What are you talking about?”) is not wrong per se, it is more desirable for students to be proactive in accommodating new entrants.



Step 1: Prepare the handout from the appendix.



Step 1: Elicit from the students what happens when a teacher enters a breakout room (i.e., students fall silent). Ask students how they feel if this happens when they join a conversation.

Step 2: Role play an example with three volunteers. Ask two students to keep their cameras on, while the rest of the class switch theirs off. Ask one other volunteer to switch their camera on and join the conversation after a minute or so. Converse about any topic with the camera on students, and when the nominated entrant student joins, provide a PAF (e.g., “Hi, we were just talking about work and Tomomi said she works in a café”). Get feedback about what you did to accommodate the incomer.

Step 3: Explain that when someone enters a breakout room when conversation is already underway, one of the students should self-select to provide a previous action formulation (PAF). This is the students’ responsibility and needs to be done without discussion or selection games like rock, paper, scissors. Speed and automaticity are key.

Step 4: Distribute handout. Ensure students understand all components of a PAF: (1) A greeting, possibly with an address term (“Hi, John”); (2) An account of the topic using the reported speech form speak/talk + about (“We were just talking about work . . .”) Be sure to include the word just as this serves the pragmatic function of bringing the listener up to date; (3) A more detailed report using say + that to report the content of the previous talk (“. . . and Yuki was saying that she works in a café.”) Make sure that students understand the need to report both topic and content. A report of topic only (“Hi John. We were just talking about work.”) is incomplete.

Step 5: Tell students to work in pairs to write PAFs for the example conversations in the handout.

Step 5: Ask pairs to share their answers with the whole class. Note that answers will vary.

Step 6:  Assign the students to breakout rooms. After a short while visit each room to ensure that a PAF is forthcoming. Resist the urge to fill silence when you enter a breakout room.

Step 7: Reconvene the whole class for feedback and establish that PAF will be expected in breakout room activities in all subsequent classes.



The ability to produce a PAF is a key resource for students in online interactions and should become automatic with practice. It shifts the accountability for maintaining conversational flow from teacher to students and establishes a pragmatic skill that can also be applied in off-line contexts.



Pillet-Shore, D. (2010). Making way and making sense: Including newcomers in interaction. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73(2), 152-175. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0190272510369668



The appendix is available below.