OK, so it is your first day of class and you are all ready to start your students on their English speaking journey with you. You confidently look out over your brand new students and ask them a question, nothing hard, just a basic question like “Are you happy to be here?” or “Why do you want to learn English?” Your question is met with total silence and averted eyes. OK, you think, let’s try again and you ask your students to turn to their neighbor and share something about themselves. After a few uncomfortable moments, they grudgingly turn to each other and start to speak in their native languages.
Wow, you think, I thought they wanted to learn English and here they are fighting me already. This is going to be one long semester and you assign some reading. At least they are supposed to be silent while reading so you don’t feel so bad about it.
Speaking can be one of the most difficult things to teach in a foreign language and it is the one thing students want to be able to do most when they sign up for a language class. It is the rare student who wants to learn a language so they can read untranslated books; they exist, but they are rare. Most students want to be able to travel, work with and enjoy their face to face interactions with the international community. So, if most of them want to be able to speak, why won’t they do it?
I have been there, standing in front of a silent class, begging my students to speak and there is nothing worse than being left hanging there while everyone squirms uncomfortably in their seats, and I start to sweat. Over the years, through trial and error, I have learned how to make even the most reticent classes talk to each other.
First it is important to figure out the root causes that are keeping your students from talking. There could be many reasons or just one. They won’t tell you why they aren’t talking, after all, they aren’t talking, so it is up to you to figure it out. Here are some of the reasons.
1. Speaking in a new language makes them feel incredibly vulnerable and foolish.
Most of the time speaking in a language classroom is done in a quiet room in which, if you are the first one to speak, everyone can hear you. Therefore everyone stays quiet so as not to be that first person. In real life however, we rarely speak to each other in a quiet room, we are in a coffee shop with music in the background or in a crowded market place with all kinds of background noise to give us some kind of privacy when we are talking to someone. Have you ever noticed that when people get in an elevator, they mostly stop talking and stare at the door until it opens again. I suspect this is largely because any conversation we have on an elevator lacks privacy. So, why not turn on some background music when you are asking your students to speak. It doesn’t have to be loud distracting music, softish classical music should do the trick.
Put a time limit on how long you want them to stay in the target language and make sure they have the vocabulary, grammar and an interesting topic to talk about. In the beginning, you might want to make the time limit very short, just a minute or two and celebrate their achievement each and every time they succeed with a round of applause.
2. The situation feels silly because everyone speaks the same first language.
When you teach EFL, most of the time you are teaching a group of students who are all fluent in the same language and it is incredibly common for them to interact with each other in that language. This is especially true when you do a great job and find interesting things for them to talk about because suddenly the exchange of stories, information and ideas seems way more important than staying in the target language.
So, what can you do about this, you are working against human nature here! Well, if you are working with a group of students who are there voluntarily, it is much easier. If they signed up for you class on purpose, the chances are that they really want to learn English, they just slip into another language in the moment. It is kind of like when you really want to eat healthy food but that chocolate cake is right there in front of you so you just start eating it almost against your will. If that is what is happening in your class, make sure you consistently ask students to remember why they want to learn English and help them set reasonable and immediate goals for themselves.
Before you start any speaking activity take the following steps:
1. Ask your students to close their eyes for 10 seconds, remember why they want to learn English and imagine themselves reaching that goal.
2. Have each pair or small group come up with a percentage number for how much English they can speak in the next 5 minutes (or however long your activity is. I like to start short and work our way up.) Ask them to publicly announce their number.
3. Let them start speaking and listen to each group for a short time. Don’t interrupt them, just let them speak and nod encouragingly.
4. When the time is up, stop them and ask them publicly to report back if they reached their goal. If they did, congratulate them and encourage them to reach for more the next time. If they didn't, talk about what happened and encourage them to try again the next time they have a speaking activity.
I have found that if I do this before and after every single speaking activity for the first few weeks of class, a couple of things happen. First, they realize they can do more than they though they could, and second, they get in the habit of speaking English with each other in class. This means that after a few weeks I can pull back and stop asking them to set percentage goals so much and with some classes I can stop altogether.
3. They are paralyzed by the fear that their grammar and pronunciation will not be perfect.
This is a tough one, especially if they were punished or made to feel bad for making errors in the past. I remember when I was studying Spanish in high school, the teacher mocked me for pronouncing the word “flamenco” wrong. I still remember it, I remember the word, I remember turning red and getting really hot and turning my face to the floor in shame and that was 34 years ago! It didn’t help me pronounce the word flamenco better but it sure did stop me from wanting to say anything else, ever.
First and foremost, don’t be that teacher! No matter how funny a mistake is or how frustrated you are by your students making mistakes over and over again, don’t make fun of them. You, as the teacher are in a position of power, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. You set the example for students to follow and if you show them that it is OK to laugh at someone, even just a little, they will follow you and everyone will be afraid to talk. I digress however, you are not that teacher, you are the teacher that has those students next, so what should you do?
Realize that this fear is real and it will take a while to get over. When you evaluate students, focus on what they have done right, instead of trying to stamp out mistakes. When students make mistakes, thank them. Yes, I said thank them! Mistakes mean they are trying to do something outside of their comfort zone, they are reaching beyond what they can easily do and that means they are in the learning zone.
Mistakes also help you as a teacher to see where you need to review or start over again in a new way. As a teacher, student mistakes should help you. They show you what is and what is not working so you can reflect and adjust ineffective practices. For example, if you notice that in spite of correctly filling out countless grammar worksheets on the simple past/past continuous, students are still confusing them while they are speaking or writing, maybe they need something besides a grammar worksheet. This is your chance to get creative and grow as a professional. Thank you students!!
Don’t try to cover up your own mistakes, own them! I make mistakes all the time; sometimes I spell words wrong on the board, sometimes I call students by the wrong name (I always apologize when I do that), sometimes I even enter a grade wrong in the computer. Don’t get me wrong, I try not to make mistakes, I try not to be careless, but sometimes they just happen and that is OK. When I do make a mistake, if someone brings it to my attention, I thank them sincerely without getting all embarrassed about it. If I catch it myself, I call myself out on it to them. When they see me make a mistake and not get all stressed out about it, it helps them put their own mistakes into perspective. None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes and pretending we don’t is harmful to ourselves and everyone around us.
As you create an atmosphere in your class in which mistakes are appreciated, your students will start to open up and take risks again. Like turtles, slowly coming out of their shells, they will start to speak and stop being quite so scared. Give it time though, it takes a while to relax after being scared.
4. They have never been asked to speak in a language class before.
Unless you are teaching students who have never been to school before, your students come to you with a vast amount of experience. Even if their language level is fairly low, they are experts at being students. This means that, depending on what educational background they have had, they may have learned one or more of the following things:
When you show up with different expectations, misunderstandings ensue. I used to wonder why no one would answer when I asked a question. Everyone was shifting around uncomfortably and avoiding eye contact because I was not following standard classroom operating procedures. They were doing what they were supposed to be doing as students, I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing as a teacher.
In this situation, it is not that my students hate my teaching style or are being willfully stubborn, it is just that they suddenly find themselves in a strange, unfamiliar classroom environment and they are unsure how to behave. They feel insecure so they fall back even harder into what has worked for them as students in the past. This is natural and normal. What you need to do in this situation is familiarize your students with how you like to do things in your classroom. Train them in so they know what to do and don’t just expect them to know already. If you want them to ask you questions for example, show them how to do that and practice regularly. If you want them to talk freely in class, again, show them how to do that and don’t get discouraged if they don’t get it right away. These things take practice and often you are working against years of training in the opposite direction.
5. They lack the vocabulary and or grammar.
This one seems obvious but a lot of time it isn’t. A student can be very proficient talking about many subjects but then run up against a subject or situation that calls for them to use unfamiliar grammar and vocabulary. This isn’t a bad thing, it gives students an opportunity to expand what they can do, but it is important for the teacher to realize when students are silent because they need more support so he/she can provide it.
At English camp a few years back, I gave students raw eggs and tasked them with building a protection device and throwing them off the fifth floor of a building. After we collected and examined their efforts I asked everyone to sit in a circle and we discussed their successes and failures. Students excitedly began to explain what worked in the simple past, but when it came to what didn’t work and what they should have done differently, they suddenly came up on some unfamiliar grammar, “We should have ---” I knew they were on their way to that grammar structure and I let them struggle with it for a moment before giving it to them. Because we had just had a real, tangible, hands-on experience, everyone knew exactly what the meaning was, they just needed the “should have”. It took only a moment to give it to them and the conversation was off and running again.
As the teacher, it is important that I anticipate what vocabulary and grammar they will need in order to make sure students are able to communicate effectively. At that same English camp, I also gave pairs of students identical packets of small office supplies and asked one partner to arrange them on one side of a barrier while the other student asked his/her partner where they were so he/she could replicate the arrangement on the other side of the barrier. The first year I did this, I didn’t give them the vocabulary they needed and the exercise was impossible for most of the students. The second year I made sure each pair of students had a sheet with the vocabulary for paper clip, magnet, envelope and rubber band on it as well as the location words like between, on top of, underneath etc. The exercise went so much better!
6. Culturally students just don’t speak in class, the teacher is expected to do most of the talking.
This can be a tough one, by the time students get to your class they could have had up to 18 years of educational training telling them that their job as a student is to sit quietly and appear to be listening to you. When you ask them to start talking, you are asking them to do something that feels totally unnatural and uncomfortable, not to mention a lot more work than just sitting there.
It is tempting at this point to just give in and start talking yourself, after all, that is what everyone is expecting you to do. Then your Teacher Talking Time (TTT) skyrockets but hey, at least you are not all sitting in awkward silence right. Resist this temptation! You may console yourself by thinking that students are getting lots of listening practice because you are speaking English but if all your students are doing is listening to you, they are not learning very much. If you speak the students’ first language, you may just start to speak that and start explaining grammar structures to them. When you do this, you are simply teaching students about the language but you are not actually teaching them the language. There is an important difference here, I can tell you lots of things about the grammar structures of the Japanese language but I can’t actually read, write, speak or understand Japanese. Linguistically my knowledge about the Japanese language is interesting but it doesn’t help me at all when I actually need to communicate with a Japanese speaker. Don’t do this to your students! They need to learn English, not about English. In order to do this, they need to speak and you need to help them feel comfortable doing that.
7. They are just tired, the class is at 18:00 on a Friday afternoon and they have nothing left.
This can happen first thing on Monday morning, or the day before/after a vacation or after lunch, there are so many times your classes will not be at their best and even you may be feeling a bit wiped out after a long day/week/month/year.
The first thing to do here is recognize that either you, your students or everyone involved is tired/hungry/hot/cold and take steps to make things better. When everyone is tired it is especially important to keep things moving in your classroom. Make sure students are standing up and moving around the classroom regularly. Don’t spend too much time on any one activity especially if it involves students sitting quietly. Make sure students are able to eat or drink and go to the bathroom if they need to.
My most academically challenging class (Advanced Academic Writing) was held every Friday afternoon at 6:00. Students would drag themselves in and plop down in their chairs lethargically every single week after having spent hours that day sitting through lectures. I would always start that class off with some energetic music and a speaking warm up to get the blood and brain moving. Even though it was a writing class, we spent much of the time exploring the ideas they were going to write about.
Don't be afraid to schedule a "fun day". Actually every day in your class is fun right, but make days before a vacation extra fun. Students might bring in food or you could have a day of games. I don't usually recommend bringing in movies as that brings the energy level even lower and it is way to easy for students to check out completely.
Have you tried any of these techniques to get your students talking? How did they work? Do you have any other suggestions? Until the next post, happy teaching and happy learning!!
Hi, I'm Kia.
Teaching is my passion, I have been teaching for over 20 years in 4 different continents. One of the things I have learned over the years is that I am never done learning about teaching. Both teaching and learning should be fun and inspiring.
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