Have you ever asked a question of your ESL class only to be rewarded with unwavering stares and the sound of crickets in the background? I know I have, and for teachers it can be very frustrating when students just don’t respond.
Of course there are times when no one knows the answer to a question you or I pose, but other times students understand the question, know the answer, can produce the answer and still stay silent. What is a teacher to do when her class just isn’t in the mood to speak? Here are some tips you can use today to get your quiet class speaking up.
How to Encourage a Quiet Class to Speak
Lay Down the Rules
Sometimes students have different expectations for class participation than you do. In some cultures it is inappropriate for students to speak up in class, even in language classes. To combat this cultural clash, take a few moments to explain the rules for speaking in class to your students. Give your students a short paragraph that explains your expectations for their participation. Your paragraph should state that in English speaking countries and English classes, students should speak during class. Answering the teacher’s questions is good, and it’s also good to interrupt with questions they have during lessons. Make sure your students know that talking in class shows they are interested and paying attention and it is not a sign of disrespect. Once you give your class the paragraph with the rules, put your students in groups to read the paragraph, talk about any difficult words and share their own experiences and expectations about talking in class. Come together as a class and talk about any surprises students may have found in their group discussion.
When you have reluctant speakers in your class, throwing a question out to the group as a whole may get you nothing more than blank stares. No one may feel the need or the confidence to speak up. But by looking at or addressing specific students or groups of students when you ask your questions, they are more likely to give you an answer. This isn’t to say you should put your class members on the spot. Pressuring individuals to answer when they are not ready will only increase their stress and make them even more quiet. When you ask questions, though, make eye contact and wait for a student to speak before moving on to another person and making eye contact with them. Taking just one minute to stop talking and wait for an answer can make a big difference in how often and how willingly your students respond to questions!
Keep It Specific
“Do you understand?” How many times have I caught myself using this question in class? And even though my intention in asking is to make sure my class is tracking with me, this type of general comprehension check often does less than nothing toward helping students. This is true for two big reasons. First, if your students do not understand what you are saying, it may be just as wrong to assume they understand your question checking their comprehension. Secondly, students who do not understand are not always willing to admit their confusion in front of the entire class. Shyness or shame can keep their mouths closed even when speaking up would be a help to them. Combat this reluctance by being more intentional in your comprehension checks. Rather than asking general comprehension questions, help your class by asking specific questions about the material you have covered. With specific questions come specific answers, and these answers will give you a better read on how much your students really understand.
Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective means for encouraging your students to speak in class. When students offer answers to your questions, show them that you value and appreciate their participation. Praise your students when they speak and let them know that the best students participate in class. If you can, make class participation part of their grades, and make sure they know it counts. Give your students periodic updates on how their participation meets your expectations, and always be positive in your attempts to get your students to speak in class.
If you find yourself in front of a quiet ESL class, just remember this. You job is to teach them language, but it is also to teach them culture, and that includes speaking up in class.
Make a point of teaching your students how to participate in English class successfully. Be patient with your quiet students, but don’t settle for a quiet class for long. If you encourage your students, give specific opportunities for them to respond and let them know it’s more than okay to talk, you will see these same students start to open up and speak up in class more each day.
What advice would you give ESL teachers for helping students speak up in class?