Getting ESL students to participate during group discussions can be one of the most difficult things an English teacher has to do.
For some students, nothing will give them the push they need to share in a group. For most others, though, small changes in your leadership style and your expectations can be just what they need to open up and contribute to the conversation. Here are just a few ideas to help you get those silent students starting to share in your next group discussion.
How to Encourage Student Participation
Sometimes during discussions, students may not understand what type of answer you are looking for. A simple way to encourage these students to speak is by giving a model answer. Answer your own question and show your students what type of answer they should give you. This gives them a grammatical structure on which to base their own ideas and removes some of the intimidation that they might otherwise feel.
Make sure you are not falling victim to a common mistake among teachers, especially inexperienced ones. Do not be afraid of silence. The next time you lead a class discussion and no one seems to have an answer to the question, time yourself and wait a full sixty seconds before breaking the silence. Sometimes an uncomfortable silence will be just what a hesitant student needs to speak up. For other students, that small amount of time can be enough for them to gather their thoughts and formulate what they would like to say before they open their mouths. If the teacher is filling in all the conversation spaces, your students are not likely to interrupt and it may appear that they do not want to participate in the discussion.
Be careful what and how much you are correcting. If you are correcting pronunciation and grammar and content all at the same time, it is not surprising that your students may feel too intimidated to open up! Focus your corrections on one issue so your students feel as though they can speak without being overwhelmed with their mistakes. Also, encourage your students that their opinions are welcome even if they are not in agreement with yours or their fellow students’.
Don’t put students on the spot. Calling on a student who is not ready to speak will only increase his or her anxiety and will often cause that person to retreat even further into his or her shell. By refraining from putting pressure on unready students, you take away that fear factor. Though this alone may not get a quiet student talking, it will help create an atmosphere conducive to speaking.
Make sure your students know they have freedom to fail during group discussions. This does not mean that you want your students to underperform. What it does mean is that you are not going to criticize your students for making a mistake. When students know that there is freedom to be imperfect, the intimidation level of group discussion will decrease and that in turn will free your not so perfect students to speak.
Let your students work together. Sometimes intimidation and a fear of speaking in front of one’s peers is enough to shut down students who are unsure of their speaking abilities. For those who might be more willing to talk when only one person is listening, designate one speaker for each group to share with the class and ask the remaining students to share with the designated speaker. Because you eliminate the fear of sharing in front of the entire class, your students may be more willing to participate in their discussion group.
Think about how you are grouping your students together during discussions. If you have some students who are more talkative than others and who also have a tendency to dominate a discussion, put them in a group together. Put all of your quietest students in a group of their own as well. By doing this, you force your more quiet students to engage in the discussion as no one else will be steering it for them.
Something as simple as where your students are sitting in a group can contribute to how much they share during discussions as well. If you are leading, make sure your most talkative students are sitting directly to your left and right if you are in a circle. Likewise, seat your quietest student directly in front of you. If you are not leading the discussion, designate a facilitator for each group and arrange your students’ seats in the same manner. The amount of eye contact that each person receives from you or the facilitator can have an influence on how much that person speaks during the discussion.
These ideas are not going to solve every student’s hesitancy to share in groups, but they will get you started moving in the right direction if you have students who struggle to participate in discussions.
The first step toward open discussion is to give your students the model they need and the time to formulate their own ideas for sharing. Then by creating an atmosphere that encourages discussion and not perfection, your students will be less intimidated to share in class. Finally, by strategically grouping and seating your students in their groups, you will create a physical environment in which your students will be willing to share. I hope these tips will help improve participation in your class discussions and encourage your students feel more comfortable when they do speak in class. Ultimately, each person’s participation comes down to him or her, and you cannot force an unwilling student to participate in class. Do what you can to make your class more open to discussion and then challenge your students to step up to the plate and use the language they are trying to hard to acquire!