Big teacher word time: Affective Filter.
If you’re like a lot of others who have been teaching for a while, the term probably evokes memories of teaching methods classes where you may or may not have gotten distracted by your phone during the lecture. Technical terms can be intimidating, but the affective filter, big word though it is, is really a fancy way of saying something quite basic – attitude.
What is the Affective Filter?
The affective filter actually has less to do with English itself and more about student attitudes. In simple terms, it refers to the way a students’ psychological state affects how well he or she is able to learn. A high affective filter hinders language learning. A low affective filter clears the way to learning English. Someone with a high affective filter may feel stressed, anxious, or bored or they may lack confidence in themselves and their ability to learn English. Someone with a low affective filter has fewer inhibitions to language learning. These students may be curious, willing to take risks, and be more confident in their ability to learn.
And while your students affective filters may not relate directly to your teaching, there are ways you can encourage a lower affective filter in your students and in so doing boost their language learning success. Here are some factors you can control that will affective how high your students’ filters are.
5 Things You Need to Know about the Affective Filter and ESL Students
Freedom to Fail
Have you ever seen Disney’s movie “Meet the Robinsons?” That family of the future has at least one thing that we teachers should emulate when it comes to lowering affective filters in our students – they celebrate failure. That’s not to say you WANT your students to fail, and that’s not the point of the Robinsons, either. What is the point is this: when you fail it means you were reaching for the limits of your abilities. You were striving for something great. Yes, you didn’t succeed, but you have created an opportunity to learn and approach a challenge from a different direction. You’ve opened up possibilities. The Robinsons celebrate when someone fails, and while you don’t want to encourage your students to fail, you do want to support them as they reach for greatness. Giving them the freedom to fail, and stating that as a class “rule” will take away the shame that failure often breeds in ESL students.
Keeping Students Engaged
If your students are bored the affective filter can start building until it becomes a wall keeping your students from success. That’s just one of many reasons it is so important to keep students interested and engaged in class. You probably have your own strategies for doing this, but it never hurts to have some fun in class, too. Playing games and keeping things lighthearted, making time for social interaction, all of these increase the fun level of class and as a result increase the engagement level of your students. Giving them ownership of class is important too and will keep them engaged in what you are doing. Simply taking suggestions about what they like and what they don’t like to do in class, by setting up a suggestions box in the classroom, can make a big difference. Also observe what interests your students – books, movies, music – and work on integrating those interests in class. When you are bringing their favorites into what you are doing rather than forcing your own on them all of the time, students will be more interested in what happens in class.
Keep Things Positive
Sometimes as ESL teachers we feel the need to correct every mistake our students make. In fact, I’ve had more than one student ask me to do just that. But correcting every error actually does more harm than good. Overcorrecting can discourage students and nudge them to disengage. Nobody likes to be told they are doing things wrong all the time. And overcorrection ties into another key to lowering the affective filter of your students – keep things in class positive. Part of that is not overcorrecting the members of your class. You want them to feel good about what they are accomplishing. But keeping things positive also includes having a good attitude yourself. I’ve been guilty more than once of walking into class with a sour look on my face because of things that have absolutely nothing to do with my students. But we have to keep that negativity in check because it can and will rub off on our students. We also have to think about the tone of voice we use in class as well as our body language. All of these can influence how a student feels in class, and we may not even be aware of them. So try to keep a positive face on things once you pass your classroom threshold, even if they aren’t going right, and you will be helping your students more than you know.
Catering to Different Learning Styles
If you want to keep your students interested and engaged in class, you need to think about learning styles. Of course, you already know that. You’re a great teacher. But even the best among us can slip into automatic pilot mode and get stuck in a certain type of learning style. In fact, when we plan we naturally gravitate toward activities that meet our own learning styles, so we have to be aware of what our preferences are and be sure we are tying in activities for all seven learning preferences: logical/mathematical, kinesthetic, visual, aural, social, solitary, and musical. Make a point of including activities that appeal to each of these different learning types at least once every class or two and you will have happy and engaged students, and those students will have a lower affective filter without a doubt.
Building Confidence in Students
How a student feels about him or herself has a lot to do with just how high their affective filter is. It’s not even about their actual potential. It’s about what they perceive their potential to be. That’s why boosting student confidence is important when it comes to keeping affective filters low. One way to do this is to make sure you aren’t putting too much of a challenge in front of students. Yes, you want your students to have freedom to fail, but you don’t to put expectations on them that they cannot possibly meet. It’s different when you decide on your own to reach for the stars and another thing all together when it’s an assignment. So keep your expectations at the right level. In teaching terms, it’s hitting that i+1 where i is what your students already know and the +1 is just a bit beyond that. Don’t let your curriculum drive what you cover in class. Pay attention to what your students know and what they need to know to achieve success in their language learning, and don’t require of them far more than they are currently able to achieve.
We don’t often talk about affective filters, but keeping them low is key to success for your ESL students.
Do what you can to make students feel comfortable in class and excited to learn and their affective filter will become an asset rather than a liability.