7 Ways to Help Your ESL Students Speak with Confidence, Even if they Feel like Crawling Under a Chair
Shy students can have it tough in conversational language classes. Everyone is there to achieve the same goal (to increase their fluency in a second language) but some people just seem to have an easier job than others when it comes to feeling comfortable sharing their ideas verbally. There are so many things in a language classroom that can make a shy person squirm, from being asked to find a partner to being asked to do a formal presentation in front of a live audience of classmates. How can we teachers help shy people feel more confident in classes that require a lot of speaking?
1. Preview the Vocabulary and Topics the Day/Week Before
Make sure students know the vocabulary and topics before they come to class. It is much easier to participate in conversations if they know the words and are not stopping to search for vocabulary. If they do forget the vocabulary because they get nervous, encourage them to create a little list of words they can refer to. Taking a few minutes at the end of each class to preview the next class and maybe even provide a short list of essential words can make the difference between feeling ready to speak and feeling unprepared.
2. Encourage Students to Prepare Discussion Questions before they Come to Class
Encourage students to prepare lots of questions about the class material before they come to class. If students ask the questions, they can control the conversation and they can keep it on topics that they feel comfortable talking about. This will work in both small and large group discussions. You can also encourage students to think about how they would answer their own questions. Students often think of similar questions so, if they can answer their own questions, the chances are they will be better prepared to answer their classmates questions as well.
3. Teach Students About the Power of Body Language
Simply by changing their body language, students can change how confident they feel. People who don’t feel confident tend to cross their legs, cross their arms, lower their eyes and generally try to make themselves smaller physically. Making an effort to take up more space, uncrossing the legs, throwing the shoulders back, sitting up straight, and raising the head can all increase confidence levels and make students feel more powerful. This works especially well if they are nervous about giving a speech in front of class. Except for the first speaker, students will have to wait for several other students to present before it is their turn. If students are conscious of how they are sitting while they are waiting and are making an effort to take deeper breaths, they will feel calmer when their turn comes. Amy Cuddy gave a great TED talk on this topic that you might want to share with your students. You could even do a class experiment in which students test out her ideas and report back on how nervous or confident they felt.
4. Teach Students to Regulate their Stress Levels with Breath
Changing how much stress students feel can be as simple as taking deeper breaths. When we get nervous, we tend to breath very shallowly and rapidly. Breathing in for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 4 seconds and then breathing out for 4 seconds can bring down stress levels. Do this several times and your heart will begin to beat slower, your blood pressure will fall and you will begin to feel better. For 6 different ways to use breathing to control stress, check out this Time article by Jordan Shakeshaft. Controlled breathing can also be a good way relax before bed for those who have trouble falling asleep.
5. Encourage Students to Pretend to be Someone Else
In spite of having been a teacher for many years, I am basically shy or I used to be anyway. My last job as an English Language Fellow required me to present at conferences a lot and go to parties, some of them at the U.S. embassy. I had to get comfortable speaking in front of a lot of people I didn't know and I had to be comfortable in social settings. My husband thrives both at parties and in front of an audience so when I had to be comfortable speaking, I just pretended to be him. It wasn't hard since I had spent so many years observing him and it was even fun.
Pretending to be someone else can help students overcome self-conciousness. Encourage them to observe someone who is very social and is always starting conversations with people.
After observing for a while, pretend they are that person and have them do what they would do. They can pretend that they are actors and this is their part, or they are on a mission and must talk to a certain number of people to complete it.
6. Encourage Students to Make Speaking into a Game
Speaking is less scary if it is a game. For example, ask students come to class each day with 3 or 4 words they are going to try to use in a conversation that day. They can give themselves a point for each word they use and when they get enough points, encourage them to reward themselves. This way they can view conversation as something fun.
7. Provide Lots and Lots of Opportunities to Speak
Ask students to practice speaking as often as they can. Whenever possible, encourage conversations, from the warm up activities to the wrap up. Require students to ask questions. If there is a speech contest or any other opportunity to speak publicly, let your students know, and show them how to sign up. In the beginning it is terrifying but the more students practice, the better it will feel. It may take a long time but eventually they may even start to enjoy it and discover that people appreciate what they have to say. Remember back to the first few months you were a teacher. If you were anything like me, your palms were sweating, you were shaking a bit and your heart was pounding. Luckily, after years of standing up in front of classrooms, that no longer happens. What happens instead is, I get pumped up and standing up in front of a class actually energizes me.
How do you help your students feel more confident speaking? Do you have any favorite conversation games? Please share them below in the comments!
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