Guest Post for Cambridge Conversations (Cambridge University Press ELT)

How to help your students to stop struggling and start speaking

Our first post of 2015 is from Anna Ostrovsky, winner of our Unlock competition, in which we asked teachers to tell us how learning English had unlocked their potential. Today, Anna shares some ideas on how to get students speaking in class.

For me, as a language teacher, getting students to speak up in class and motivating them to participate in discussions is a challenging task. But, as a language learner I know that speaking a foreign language can be a vulnerable, scary and stressful experience. Whether in a class setting or in real-life situations with native speakers, under the pressure of “having to say something”, a lot of language learners start feeling self-conscious and insecure.

As someone who has spent her entire life as an expatriate in multilingual environments, I still feel this way in certain situations, and I believe that there are certain underlying issues that need to be addressed, in order to encourage language learners to speak up, and to engage them in conversations.

Figure out the reason behind their speaking barrier

The first step towards encouraging learners, without leaving them feeling pressured and inadequate, is for language teachers to understand the different types of communication profiles their students represent, as well as the challenges they might be experiencing.

Since not all students experience these insecurities to the same extent, it is crucial to understand the root of the speaking barrier for the quieter ones: Why are they quiet? Do they lack the necessary language skills they need to express themselves? Or are they lacking confidence, and if so, where does that stem from? There is also a difference between people being shy and people being quiet. The first group are insecure by nature, no matter what language they’re speaking. The latter group are observers by nature: they accumulate and absorb information during their silent period, before going out into the world and starting speaking. As a language learner myself, I am definitely the observant type of learner: I’d rather wait and keep quiet until I have acquired all the information I need and feel comfortable enough to express myself correctly.

Honouring that initial silent period, and the degree of readiness that a certain type of quiet language learners might experience as a natural part of the learning process, is an essential strategy that I’d recommend to any language teacher.

Stimulate their desire for self-expression

When I first started teaching oral expression in German to undergraduate students in France, I was asked to choose topics centered around the German news. As you can imagine, motivating a group of people to talk about topics that aren’t part of their world was quite challenging and felt tedious. However, once we got sidetracked and stumbled upon other topics, my students started to speak and engage in discussions. Those engaging topics had nothing to do with German politics, culture and economics. Instead they had entirely to do with funny stories my students wanted to share with me. It could be a comment that would make them think of a funny experience they once had in Germany or a similarity between our everyday lives that came up during our discussion. Those were all topics they could relate to and, most importantly, they wanted to share them with me. And that is key: their desire to share has to be bigger than the fear of embarrassment. The more they can relate to the subject, the more they are willing to express themselves.

This approach certainly requires a lot of empathy, flexibility and experimentation from the teacher, but I believe our students deserve a gentle and empathetic guidance towards fluency.