Student engagement should be paramount in any lesson plan, but for all the effort we put in as English language teachers, there are those shy students who will avoid eye contact, are reluctant to raise their hand, and respond in a soft, shaky tone.
In the ESL classroom, helping these students overcome a fear of participating is essential in terms of their success in learning a language. Practice makes perfect, and if they don’t feel comfortable practising aloud in class, they’re potentially at a disadvantage. Here are a few ideas I’ve used in the past to help shy students feel more at ease.
Introduce pair work
Shy students will often avoid the spotlight, and so the thought of having the entire class’ attention on them will likely be too much to bear! Assigning partners and having students work in pairs can alleviate the pressure of speaking in front of a room of people, while helping the more timid students develop confidence in their answers.
Tasks in an interview format work particularly well in pairs, as do role plays or debates. Have students practice these language concepts with a partner, then ask them share their ideas in a class presentation. This gives shy students the opportunity to first verify their answers with their partner, and encourage them to feel more relaxed when speaking in front of the class.
Encourage random participation
In many classroom settings, it’s customary for teachers to encourage students to answer questions and therefore participate. For the shy ESL student, this practice often means they are afforded the opportunity to keep quiet while more confident students to raise their hands and provide answers.
Some teachers operate a one-buy-one method, and while this means all students may speak out in class, this can also be intimidating for the more timid as they become overwhelmed with the anticipation of their looming turn. If they too consumed with nerves about being next, they are unlikely to be absorbing the lesson, and so fundamental language input and learning opportunities are lost.
A more productive way of engaging contribution from an entire ESL class could be to call upon them at random. This technique works to remove some (but perhaps not all) of the anxiety that’s harnessed in class participation as students are unable to predict who you’ll address next.
Keep it short and simple
In group brainstorming activities, allow a shy student hold back in the first instance and call upon a more gregarious learner instead. When the time comes to address your shy student, be mindful of the type of question you are asking – anything too taxing and they may become fearful of getting the answer wrong. Easier questions may encourage a more confident response, but be careful not to compromise their learning by making the questions too easy. It’s a fine balance!
When they’ve answered, be sure to carefully listen, allow them to completely finish and then swiftly move on to the next ESL learner. Hopefully, this method will help the shy student become accustomed to short bursts of time in the spotlight, which will work to build their confidence in group settings. If they become overwhelmed and do not want to participate, it’s best to move your focus onto another student as honing in on a nervous individual can be detrimental to their language progression.
Don’t go off on a tangent
You should never expect your students to produce perfect language structures for topics which you haven’t thoroughly covered in class yet. For example, if you’re working on past tense grammar and a shy learner offers a sentence such as “England was more cold than Italy in the winter” then disregard the lack of a superlative adjective, praise them and move on.
If a topic has been covered, however, then a gentle correction must be offered, providing it is relevant to the current lesson plan. As an example, if you were to ask a student to provide an example of a small animal and they respond correctly but with a fragmented sentence, such as “It’s a mouse.”, save denting their confidence and accept the structure. Rather than ‘over-correcting, offer a positive reply that includes the correct sentence structure before moving on.
Don’t complicate things
Open ended questions such as “What did you like about the film?” can alienate a shy student, so opt for a question which asks for a correct, concrete answer instead: “What items did the man buy at the supermarket?”
When there is only one correct answer to a question, speakers are able able to focus on the task at hand instead of becoming bewildered by grammatical structure, making it an ideal method for challenging a shy student in the ESL classroom.
Above all, make sure all of your ESL students understand they can approach you with any classroom concerns. Promoting a trusted professional relationship between teacher and learner is key to a successful ESL environment and progression in language learning.