A Hidden Light: How to Encourage Your Most Shy Students

A Hidden Light
How to Encourage Your Most Shy Students

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 7,209 views |

Let me begin with a guess: almost every class you’ve ever taught has included at least one student you’d characterize as ‘shy’.

Someone who spoke up very rarely, whose eyes tended to be downcast, and who was sent into a panic by the notion of being asked to speak in front of the class. As someone who has worked extensively with students from Asia, I’m very used to this phenomenon; many of my students were reluctant to answer for fear of making mistakes. But this is just one cause of shyness, and I’d like to suggest some other sources, as well as some techniques for helping these students to gain confidence.

3 Methods to Encourage Your Most Shy Students

  1. 1

    Examine the Problem

    Shyness presents teaching professionals with a real challenge, because we can’t know – at least, at first – the cause of the students’ reluctance to answer and/or participate. Possible origins include:

    • A lack of comprehension, so the student doesn’t know what they’re being asked to do
    • A lack of fluency, so the student can’t put together an answer, at least in a reasonable amount of time
    • A dislike of the topic, or even of the teacher themselves, which leads to recalcitrance and a refusal to participate (as opposed to being unable to do so)
    • What I tend to call ‘situational terror’, the fear of making a mistake, especially in front of classmates; this is more common in Asia than anywhere else in the world
    • Tiredness, emotional problems, distractibility, and other personal issues

    The problem is that every one of these possible origins for shyness results in exactly the same sound: silence. How can we possibly know which is responsible?

    1. Body Language. Is the student staring at you, waiting for clarification? Is there a questioning look in their eye? Are they glancing at their classmates for help? These gestures tend to result from incomprehension, while staring down or away could mean poor fluency or fearfulness. If a student is really hating the class (or, just as troublingly, hating the teacher personally) then this tends to be obvious in their facial expression; there’s also often a slouched posture. Boredom and disinterest have their own signals – staring out of the window, fidgeting, bothering neighbors, using cellphones or working on material for another class.

    2. Culture. Many a perfectly competent teacher has stood in front of a group of Chinese students, asked a question of just the right level, and received a wall of silence in reply. I generalize here, almost to the point of being irresponsible, but long-standing Chinese (and more generally, Asian) cultural traits include fear of being mistaken, and an unwillingness to step outside of the group. There is an old Chinese adage, used in a different context by former leader Deng Xiaoping: If a bird leaves the flock, we shoot it.

      These trends are changing, and their influence is becoming easier to overstate, year on year, but I urge you not to underestimate the power of traditions which have many centuries’ pedigree.

      To overcome this kind of stonewalling, ask for answers from individual students (which is how things work in most classrooms in Asia, anyway) but ensure that you don’t (as also happens often) always choose the same people. Distribute your questions evenly through the class, from front to back, left to right, etc. Ask both male and female students, the confident and the shy, those of a higher level and a lower level, etc.
    3. Ask For Advice. Try to discover whether the shy student behaves this way in every class, or just your own. Speak with their other teachers, and if you have access to past grades and reports, examine them for clues. Is this a shy person, or just a shy language learner?

      You might also speak with their classmates, but be careful here. Be light-hearted and curious, rather than interrogatory and invasive; no one likes to feel singled out. Make it clear that you’re trying to understand all of your students’ learning styles and mindsets.
  2. 2

    Connect With Your Students

    I hope you don’t mind if I tell you a true story.

    I was teaching an intermediate class at a language school in Boston, and we were in our fourth day together. By this point, I’d carried out my usual ‘needs analysis’, and had some thoughts on how I might tailor the course to suit the students’ levels and aptitudes. But there was one young lady from Chengdu (a huge city in western China) who had barely spoken a word. Her written answers were fine, but she was painfully shy when speaking. I gave her one more chance, calling on her to answer a pretty straightforward comprehension question, but all I heard was some indistinct muttering, followed by a shake of the head.

    Break time came, and I chose to act. My classes are highly inclusive, engaging environments where everyone takes part, so silence and shyness are real problems for me. I was fortunate to have a shortcut to better understanding this issue – I speak conversational Mandarin, though it’s not something I advertise, lest students try to take advantage. So, I approached the shy student during the break and, to her amazement, chatted with her in Chinese.

    What I found was absolutely typical. She was, at root, a fairly confident person who had achieved a lot academically, but her English classes back home had been stressful and poorly run, so she’d never really spoken much English before. Her comprehension wasn’t bad at all, as I found when I switched to English mid-conversation, but her fluency needed a big boost.

    Right there and then, we agreed a strategy. When out in Boston or on the bus by herself, she would think and whisper to herself only in English. After a week of this, I involved her roommates, who agreed that they would have an English-only time from 7-8pm every night, and for two hours on weekends. This incremental approach, involving only herself and her closest friends, began to pay immediate dividends. I made sure that I questioned her increasingly often in class, helping each time with the beginning of the answer, or gesturing to useful vocab and structures on the board. Classmates helped and were warm and generous toward her as her shyness began to lift. Little by little, the words started to come.

    Engage with your students. Get some help to bridge the language barrier, if needed, so that you can truly understand what’s going on, because there’s always more than we expect. In my student’s case, she’d been let down by poor teaching – her aptitude and willingness were never in doubt – but I couldn’t have learned that without making the first move.

  3. 3

    Create a Fantastic Learning Environment

    Beyond addressing individual cases and discovering the roots of shyness, a good policy is always to run your classroom in a way likely to get good results from everyone, including the shy students. Most of this is common sense, but putting it all into practice can take years of thought, experiment and research. I’m sure you’re doing some of these things already. If so, well done.

    1. Smile, laugh and praise often. Create a warm and jovial atmosphere by being willing to smile, make jokes, poke a little fun at people, and occasionally be the butt of a joke yourself. Laughter demonstrates many things, but mostly that you’re a fellow human being who is sharing a learning journey with your students, rather than a robotic instructor who’s forgotten they’re teaching people.

      I trained middle-school teachers in China, and had an email recently from a young man who is now in his fourth year at a rural school. He gave me permission to quote him: “You showed us that teaching can be fun, and that made me want to do it, and do it really well.” Love your work, love the language, and don’t by shy of letting your students see it.

      If something goes fantastically, make a fuss about how pleased you are. Stop and praise students who are giving their best. Give high-fives, thumbs up, big smiles, gold stars, anything you can think of. You loved those things when you were a student, I’ll bet, and your own students will always respond positively.

    2. Consider Banning Silence. My students all know from the outset that silence is ‘illegal’ in my classroom. Those weird, quiet lulls in proceedings drive me crazy. Even when students are doing book work, they can still be consulting each other on answers, discussing better ways of expressing something, etc. For me, silence represents a lost opportunity – every silent moment is a moment not spent speaking the language. Obviously, there are limits to this – I’m not interested in cultivating chaos, either – but my students know that, when in doubt, they should just say it.

      For shy students, a vibrant and noisy classroom environment provides useful cover; they can try things out with a neighbor, or ask the teacher questions, without drawing too much attention.

    3. Establish Routines. Repeating patterns make classroom events easier to predict, and therefore less stressful. If you have an established habit of questioning your students in a circle, in alphabetical order, or through some other mechanism, they won’t freak out when they are chosen because, well, that was always going to happen! This is especially useful for check questions and post-reading comprehensions, and the like. Very much related to this is…

    4. Establish Equality. For me, it doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in the back row and hiding behind your notebook, or you’re in the front row with your hand perpetually in the air, you’re both going to be chosen to speak, asked for an opinion, required to contribute to feedback and generally nudged into taking part as frequently as possible. Not all teachers work this way, so be ready to throw questions at students who’ve never experienced this before; the results might not be great, initially, but they’ll soon improve. Accept short answers – even monosyllables – but quickly require more. I use an ‘expanding hands’ gesture to request full sentence answers, and it works wonders.

Shyness won’t be overcome in the first class, or even the first month.

It is something to be treated carefully, and with a constant sense that this is a human individual, with a perhaps complex back-story. Take it slow, do your homework and discover where the problem might originate from, and then develop a strategy in collaboration with the student and their friends. Oftentimes, you’ll find that beneath the shyness is a complex and able student, just waiting to make themselves heard.

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