It is commonplace in the ESL classroom for students to be more reluctant when it comes to speaking.
While they excel in the other skills, they find it difficult to speak, not because they do not know how to, but because they are afraid to do so. This is even more problematic when it comes to older learners and adults as there is the common fear of making a fool of themselves in front of their peers. There are, of course those more unique learners who will try to dominate the ESL classroom when it comes to speaking, however, more often than not this is not the case and when it does happen it also limits the less confident learners. What they need more than instruction is confidence and the motivation to speak out in class and not be afraid to do so.
As ESL teachers it not only our duty to teach, but it is also our duty to motivate our learners to speak out and participate. We need to help reduce their fears and provide a comfortable environment for them to learn and to make them feel more at ease. Speaking is by far the most important skill needed when it comes to ESL learning. Speaking is everywhere in real life and even though the learners may be able to avoid skills such as reading and writing English in real life, it is not the case with speaking. So how can we motivate our learners to really love speaking English? What can we do to help reduce fear and give them the confidence they really need? Those students who have more of a positive attitude when it comes to language learning will be less likely to suffer from performance and learning anxiety thus making them participate more. Here are a couple of useful tips and techniques that you as an ESL teacher could implement in the classroom to help those more reluctant to speak out.
Give Language Learners Enough Confidence to Speak
Reduce Levels of Difficulty
In most cases we want to challenge our learners – we want to push them to the next level and excel. We want to maintain their interest by making exercises more challenging so the learners do not grow complacent and bored. However, this should be the opposite for speaking, as students already have less confidence when it comes down to it. If the teacher reduces the levels slightly at the beginning, the students will feel less pressure and therefore they will be more motivated to speak.
Sometimes ESL course books are way off when it comes to being realistic. If the ESL student can realistically relate to what has been asked and has the knowledge to answer about it, they will have a lot more confidence, therefore, it is important for the teacher to tailor the lessons and adapt the course book material. Imagine an adult learner discussing their favorite subjects at school – it just does not work. Students will be more motivated when they see that the teacher has taken into consideration their needs and interests and have included them somehow in the lesson. Teachers are advised to collect information via needs analysis and surveys at the beginning of a session for a number of reasons, and other than finding out what they already know, finding out their interests and needs to base their lessons on comes in closely at second in terms of importance.
Tolerance of L1 Usage
Imagine going into a language class for the first time where the language is completely foreign to you such as Japanese or Arabic. Imagine in the first class having to introduce yourself in this language and having to communicate – impossible? You will naturally feel insecure, ill at ease and unhappy about the situation – the majority of participants would most likely clam up and be more reluctant to speak. In lower levels of any language the learners do not have enough of the language to communicate and express their ideas or opinions. Although this goes against the main idea of ESL teaching, it does hold some truth – let them speak some of their L1. There have been some teachers who have demanded absolutely no other language other than in English in the classroom – the result? A very quiet classroom. Teachers need to try and be a little bit more compassionate and tolerant when learners use their L1, especially if they are trying to understand through another student. If we make the learners feel humiliated or ashamed of using their L1 to help their L2 the chances are they are likely to say nothing. However, there are of course some times when learners take advantage of the situation and use their L1 when it is not necessary – in this case, it is the task of the teacher to guide the students back to communicating in English.
Students, when speaking their L2 get distracted easily, they lose their train of thought and not to mention their confidence is knocked if the teacher is constantly interrupting them. Imagine having every second word corrected for pronunciation, grammar, usage and so on – it would be more than frustrating. Instead let your learners speak freely without interruptions and if they make mistakes, note them down and address them in class later. When addressing the class with regards to spoken errors, collate the most common and important ones (not every tiny detail needs to be addressed) and give a mini workshop to the entire class and not just one student. If one student makes a mistake in speaking, the chances are that others will make the same mistakes too. At the end of the day if the students are allowed to continue speaking without being interrupted, they will not associate speaking with a negative experience.
It is a common thing for the teacher to split their class into small groups for speaking and communicative activities. However, teachers often make the mistake of not defining the roles and there will always be one or two students who are more vocal than the others thus the conversation or activity will be dominated by just a few people and as a result the other students will feel like they do not have a specific role, they will not feel motivated to participate - and why should they, when they have not been given a purpose? Make sure your groups are equally divided for speaking and communicative activities so everyone can participate.
Follow-up with More Questions
Students will often give a short or inadequate answer because they cannot think of anything to say. They feel under pressure and it is much easier to give up and appear lazy rather than admit they cannot do it. If your students give short answers it could actually be that they have nothing else to say on the issue or they do not have the language or confidence to express themselves for longer periods of time. Students hate it when teachers prompt them by giving one or two words at the beginning of the answer – it makes them feel like they are children. Instead help your learners by asking them relevant follow-up questions to what they have already said.
We need to take into consideration how long it takes to think of something in another language, process it and verbalize it – when learning new languages, the words will never just flow out of their mouths. Mistakes will be made and confidence will be low therefore it is absolutely essential for teachers to remember that learning a new language is a developmental process. There are so many different factors involved when it comes to acquiring a new language and things of course, need to be put into perspective. Sadly, the ESL teacher sometimes lacks patience. Do not just jump in and finish the sentence for them and do not immediately redirect the question to another student – through this you will just give them more inhibitions and insecurities when it comes to speaking English. Time is what they need and tell them this. Use the phrases “take your time” or “I’ll give you a moment to think about it.” Such phrases will take the pressure off and they will be able to think more clearly.
To conclude, speaking is the most difficult skill to master and many teachers are under false impressions when it comes to speaking in the ESL classroom.
They believe that simply by observing and listening to their teacher the students will be able to speak – this could not be further from the truth. Speaking takes more practice and it does require a lot more confidence as it involves real-time comprehension and reaction. A lot of time needs to be spent on speaking and when working with lower levels or shier students more patience is needed to give them that little positive push in the right direction.