ESL students have lots of reasons to be shy. They don’t speak the language. They are in culture shock. They don’t know anyone in class. Someone else is always ready to speak for them. These are just a few of the many possibilities. And while these shy students might be perfectly happy to never speak up in class, we know it’s our job to get them out of their shell and using English to communicate. But how? Trying to get a shy guy or girl to speak up in class can be challenging, but here are some tips to help you invite your shy students to speak up more.
7 Tips for Helping Shy Guys and Girls Speak More in Class
One way you can help shyer students feel more comfortable talking is to put them all in the same group. Sometimes students refrain from speaking because there is always another ready to take the conversation floor. When you put all of your shy students into the same group, someone will have to speak up. Since all your quieter students will be all together, everyone might feel more comfortable opening up to speak. There will be no big talkers in the group to take over or steer the conversation.
Give your students permission to fail. Sometimes it’s enough just to hear the words out loud. You are going to make mistakes. There is no doubt about it. Speak anyway. When you prepare your students for potential failures, you allay some of their fear. Sometimes even saying the wrong thing out loud is enough to break the ice for your shy students and get them vocalizing in class. Help your students understand that you do not expect perfection from them. Rather, you want them to communicate however that can happen. They can be creative with the language they know rather than worrying about getting syntax perfect every time. If they can communicate their ideas, no matter how flawed the English used to do so, they have been successful speakers of English.
Away from Podium
Take the spotlight off shy students. If the whole class is going to be looking at them while they speak, it might freeze their voice right then and there. By putting your class into pairs, you take thirty sets of eyes off your shy student and leave them with only one set of eyes of them. This will take away the intimidation that comes from speaking to the entire class. What about those students who can’t even handle one set of eyes on them while they speak? Try activities in which students sit back to back while they work with their partner, activities such as a simulated phone call or one in which partners give each other drawing directions. When no eyes at all are on them, shy students will surprise you by stepping up to the plate and hitting that homerun.
Stepping up Gradually
When it comes to comprehension questions, you can set your students up for success by starting slow and easy. Rather than just reading the questions in the book, try coming up with a few questions to start your comprehension activity that are embarrassingly easy to answer. I find it helpful to start with observation questions – what does the passage say? This works for videos, too. What happened? What did you see? Then move on to more complicated questions that ask students to interpret what they read, saw, or herd, questions that get to the meaning behind the words. Finally, ask students to apply the information to their own lives, to make connections with experiences they have had or with their own ideas and opinions. When you start slow and work your students up to the tougher questions, your shy students are more likely to speak up when they know they can’t be wrong.
You may hesitate to call on shyer students when brainstorming or asking questions in class. After all, there are so many other students who are eager to give answers. But it’s important to call on all of your students, even the shy ones. When you do, however, move on quickly. If they don’t know the answer, that’s okay. The shorter they are the center of attention, the better it is for their shy nature. If they know the answer, even better. Still move on and don’t make a big deal of them talking or being unable to do so.
Don’t correct every mistake. Nothing is more daunting than the feeling that everything you say or write is wrong. Discouragement sets in quickly, and it’s difficult to bring students back to a place whether they are willing to take a chance by speaking up. If your students make errors, let them go. Sometimes. Make sure you are only correcting skills you have taught in class or mistakes that students make repeatedly. You can’t expect a beginning student to talk like a native speaker, and make sure they don’t expect it of themselves either. Being selective in the mistakes you correct can make all the difference in a student’s confidence and their willingness to speak up in class.
Accepting Nonverbal Answers
Don’t make every response language based. If you want to encourage students who are afraid to speak in English, bypass language. Sometimes. Have students respond in a picture or acting something out. Sometimes if you take language out of the equation, it’s enough to bring your shy student out of her shell. Once she’s out the language based participation is easier to do, and your shy student may not be so shy for long.
It’s tough for teachers to have shy students.
We want everyone in our class to participate and learn, but we don’t want to make students uncomfortable by forcing them to speak in class. If you are careful about how and when you call on your shy students and you create a classroom environment where they know perfection is not expected, you will see your shy students start to participate more. And once they start, all you have to do is encourage them and give positive feedback. Before long, they will be participating just as much as anyone in class.
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