“Maria sits in the ESL classroom and understands most of what her teacher and classmates say. In fact, she knows most of the answers to her teacher’s questions. But she never raises her hand. Just the thought of speaking out loud in front the class fills her with anxiety and fear.”
Maria sounds just like some of the teen and adult students you may have had over the years, if you are an experienced teacher. But even the most seasoned teachers may have a hard time drawing out shy students and getting them to do what they signed up to do: SPEAK English.
Whether it’s just first day jitters, occasional shyness, or more of a chronic problem, here are some ways in which you can help your shy students overcome their fear of speaking in class:
Help Your Students Overcome The Fear Of Speaking
Structured speaking tasks with clear directions
Some students are not exactly shy by nature but simply have no idea what to say or where to start. While their classmates use trial and error, they prefer to stay quiet and not risk embarrassment. One great way to help them overcome this fear of embarrassment is to provide speaking tasks with a structure and defined guidelines. When assigning role plays, for example:
- Don’t leave the roles wide open: Student A is checking in at a hotel. Student B is the hotel desk clerk.
Some students may not know how to begin or what exactly is expected of them.
- Do provide clear guidelines: Student A is checking in at a hotel. You have reserved a double room for 7 nights and you specifically requested a room with an ocean view. Student B is the hotel desk clerk. You can't find a reservation under Student A's name. You give your guest another room, but one that has no external view
The more specific your instructions are, the easier it will be for shy students to participate, as they will have the structure they need to feel more confident.
Use their interests to draw them out
It happens again and again. You have a shy teen in class, but as soon as you mention their favorite book series, like the Harry Potter or Twilight books or movies, or popular TV shows, pop stars, anything that teens are really into these days, their eyes light up. You see they want to participate in the discussion, and it's hard at first, but then they open up. Why? Because it's a topic they are passionate about. The same happens with adults. Adult learners are often self-conscious and insecure about their speaking skills or pronunciation. But as soon as you ask them to talk about something they are passionate or feel confident about, there's no holding them back.
Some topics that usually spark more enthusiasm in students are:
- Trips, exotic destinations, travel experiences, etc.
- Special skills or abilities (flying planes, painting, sculpting, playing a musical instrument, etc…)
Be silly and have fun!
If the entire class is doing something silly, shy students have no reason to be self-conscious. Some great ways to introduce silliness into the ESL classroom (and practice English speaking skills at the same time) is with tongue twisters. These work great with adults, too! Pick a tongue twister based on a consonant or vowel sound you want to practice. Then you say it as fast as you can. Students will see that you’re being silly and don’t care what they think. Students will follow suit, even shy ones.
Never, ever, acknowledge their shyness
You know they’re shy. They know it. Their classmates certainly notice it. But never, under any circumstances acknowledge their shyness, or that they are different in any way. Every student in your class is there for a reason, and this reason is to learn English. Period. If you set shy students apart in some way, you’ll be doing them a disservice. They won’t accomplish their language learning goals. Create a friendly, open environment, one in which a shy student feels that it’s ok to make mistakes, that it’s all right if you don't have the perfect pronunciation. The important thing is to simply speak.
So, it all boils down to one thing. Self-confidence.
Which is something shy students often lack. Allow them to talk about things they know a great deal about and don’t put them on the spot by making them talk about something they know nothing about. Give them speaking tasks with guidelines they can follow. But above all, give them an environment where they can express themselves freely, with no pressure.
If you have successfully used any strategies to draw out shy students, please share them below! We’d love to hear them!
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