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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

How to build speaking confidence with quiet ESOL classes

In first-language education, a common problem for teachers is how to deal with noisy or disruptive students. However, in the second-language ESOL classroom, we often have the opposite issue. At certain levels of study, and particularly in certain regions of the world, speaking skills are often underdeveloped in students. With groups of students who lack confidence in their speaking skills, it can feel like you are speaking to an empty room, so how can we break this lack of confidence and get students participating openly and freely in our classes?

The ‘wall of silence’ comes from several places. Firstly, there may be a fear of making mistakes. In cultures of education where language accuracy is the aim (usually to pass tests or score highly on high-stakes exams), wrong answers can be punishable by the teacher, and fluency in a language may not be valued in the education system as a whole. In Confucian Heritage Cultures such as China, Japan and Korea, there may also be the issue of ‘face’: a shame in getting something wrong in front of others and the teacher. Whatever the issue is, a lack of confidence to speak out even simple responses in class leads to silence and can have a long-term impact on students’ fluency.

These student anxieties about language accuracy over fluency can also come from the perceived difficulty of English - until an intermediate level, English can be a confusing mass of grammar irregularities, synonyms and rules which do not exist in students’ first language. It’s hardly surprising that at lower levels of study, many learners prefer to stay silent and learn passively from the teacher before trying out new language themselves. To break this pattern, we need to separate the personal anxieties from the linguistic anxieties and the social anxieties which combine to keep learner confidence down.

A simple way of doing this is as follows:

First, explain that in the following activity, you are going to ask some stupid, easy questions that any of the group can answer. You are not going to focus on new language, and however learners want to respond, it’s OK, but they must answer the question when called on (calling on students by name is important for this task).

Secondly, call on students one by one to quickly respond to simple, personal questions. Ask these questions so students one by one in a quick, high-energy way for quick responses, using their names first and then asking the questions:

‘Leo, what’s your name?’

‘Alice, where are you from?’

‘Jim, what’s your name?'

‘Yuki, what did you eat for lunch?’ etc.

Repeat the same 4-5 questions so that students can also go by what others in the group say if they need to, It doesn’t matter; the important thing is that every learner says something, and is praised for doing so. Start with the stronger students in the group to ensure that something comes back in response to each question, then move on to the quieter students later on.

This first stage removes the language processing anxiety, as they know the answer easily, and have probably answered this question a hundred times before. It also reduces the social anxiety about speaking, as everyone is playing along and answering the same easy questions in a safe environment. The only anxiety left is the linguistic anxiety of answering more complex, or longer answers. This takes a little longer, but can be built up in the same way:

Once everyone has given you a simple answer, move on to slightly more difficult questions using ‘how’ and ‘w and ‘where’ hen’ rather than ‘what’, to raise the cognitive load slightly, and to prompt for slightly more complex grammar in the responses. Keep the same quick-fire style and calling on students by name each time. After all, they answered you in this way before, so why can’t they do the same now?

Some more challenging questions to fire at them:

‘Ahmed, how did you come to school today?’

‘Emi, when did you arrive at school this morning?’

‘Ako, Where did you eat dinner last night?’, etc.

Don’t correct any grammar or pronunciation issues, but praise any decent answer that students produce.

Finally, Increase the cognitive load to include ‘why’ questions, which take a little more thinking about, and give the class a strategy to use if they are not sure of how to respond: this time, they can say ‘I don’t know’ as an answer. The ability to admit when they don’t know something is really important to break the cultural anxiety about being expected to know the correct answer to teacher questions. An answer of ‘I don’t know’ should be praised even more than an information answer in this stage.

Keep going around the room, asking students ‘why’ questions by name, until everyone has answered a question, or said that they don’t know. You can use any questions you like for this, for example:

‘Rafael, why do you love football?’

‘Tatiana, why is the sky blue?’

‘Eun-Hae, why are trees green?’, etc.

Clearly, questions should be graded top the level of the class, so not all of these examples will work at every level of study, but the three stages outlined above, moving from ‘what’ to ‘where/when’ and into ‘how/why’ questions will raise the level of challenge and help students to build confidence with a range of different types of question and answer, as well as helping them to speak out if they don’t know something in class.

Once this quick-fire questioning routine has been established, you can return to it in future classes for simple quizzes, short answers in language tasks, and vocabulary review work. After a few experiences of this quick-response confrontation of learners’ anxieties, confidence levels should rise in other areas of their speaking, and you will slowly build a more participatory environment in your classroom.

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If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.

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