Learners who are shy to speak

Monday 18 May 2009

by Scott Thornbury

A short while back the following question appeared on the Dogme list:


What do you do in the event that many of the learners in the classroom are shy to speak?


This struck me as being a question worth addressing in some detail, since it represents a common concern and one that goes to the heart of the Dogme approach. If the basic Dogme lesson (or any good lesson, for that matter) depends for its success on the content that the learners themselves supply, then it’s important that the learners are not inhibited in any way. But we all know that there are some learners who are more forthcoming than others – just as there are some people, in “real” life, who talk more than others, and start conversations more easily.


In my reply I identified at least two key sources of inhibition: the social-cultural one and the linguistic one. Feeling free to speak assumes that the learner accepts the validity of free speaking in class. But this may seem strange to some learners who come from educational backgrounds where the teacher does all the talking. As I wrote in my reply, “If you come from an educational culture where there is no precedent for the kinds of informal discussions that are the stock-in-trade of most coursebooks … you are not likely to take the initiative in pairs/group work, or even to respond the initiatives of others.  So there is a fair amount of training and demystification needed, as to the purposes and systems of such classroom talk. You need the learners’ consent, and this might have to be negotiated.”  At the same time, “this assumes a common denominator of shared community, a community of practice in which the learners all feel themselves to be members, with the rights and duties that such membership entails. This means the teacher needs to work, initially, on creating – and then sustaining – a productive classroom dynamic. There will always be some learners who – for whatever reasons – are reluctant to join, or, worse, are made to feel excluded. Understanding the workings of groups is probably one of the teacher’s most essential functions.”


With regard to the linguistic constraint, the teacher’s role in preparing learners for speaking activities (rather than simply plunging them into them) and of supporting them during speaking activities (what’s popularly called “scaffolding” their interactions) is obviously extremely important. Allowing learners to script and rehearse their own dialogues in pairs or small groups before publicly “performing” them is one way of reducing some of the anxiety associated with speaking an L2 in public. Another is providing the words and phrases they might need in advance, and having these available on the board during the activity. You can always erase these progressively as the learners become more proficient at using them.


Finally, I suggested that there might be a case – in monolingual classes – for allowing the learners to conduct some speaking activities, initially at least, in their mother tongue: “Allowing learners to use their L1 in the interests of promoting talk and a sense of community may well be a necessary stage in the transition from a monolingual (L1) through a bilingual (L1 and L2) to finally a monolingual (L2) culture again. Certainly, if students are not used to having conversations in the classroom (in whatever language), they may become more disposed to the idea if there is an initial, transition period of “L1 permissiveness”, or if tasks are first performed in the L1 (as a kind of  rehearsal) before moving into the L2.”


After this posting appeared, my good friend Jane Arnold had the great idea of using it in her methodology class at the University of Seville: the students read and discussed the text, and they responded to it by each writing me a letter. Here is a selection of their comments:


“I would like to emphasize an interesting idea that appears in your article: ‘scaffolding’. It is very important because if teachers support students in a similar way to which parents do when children are acquiring language, teachers’ work will be more efficient as students will have a better motivation” (Manuel)


(I agree, Manuel: there’s a lot to be learned from studying how parents and peers support L1 language development)


“I have observed that all the reasons by which learners feel uncomfortable speaking go to the same base: fear of mistakes” (Luis)


(Yes, I agree, fear of making mistakes is perhaps the biggest block to fluency. So, in what kinds of activity do learners lose this fear?  One is when the need to communicate is so urgent that students focus on the message and not the medium, during competitive games, for example. Another is when they are working on communicative activities (like a ‘spot the difference’ task) in pairs or small groups, and so not exposed to the threat of error correction in public. Another is when they are given time to prepare and rehearse.)


“I believe that the lack of general encouragement to talk publicly –in either a L1 or L2 – and our insecurity when speaking in front of an audience has much to do with our Spanish culture… Our sense of the ridiculous is much stronger here, for instance” (Irene)


(This is an interesting point and one I hadn’t considered before. But I have noted that there doesn’t seem to be a strong tradition of public speaking in Spain as there is in some other cultures. I was surprised, for example, when I first went to a wedding in Spain, and there were no speeches. Is this normal?)


“As a student I have rarely experienced this sense of shared community you talk about. Most teachers I had mainly focused on text books which dealt with topics that in many cases had little to do with my life. How can students behave freely, in a natural way if they feel they are being tested most of the time and the teacher or a text book controls the topics they are going to talk about?” (Jessica)


(I totally agree – and, regrettably, this situation is not peculiar to Spain. The main aim of the Dogme ELT movement is to liberate classroom discourse from the constraints imposed by syllabuses and coursebooks).


“I completely disagree with you in respect with the use of the L1-L2. First of all, I am a great user of the Direct Method and, as far as I know, the use of the L2 as the only language in class is the most useful and dynamic method to teach that language” (Rosa)


(Generally speaking, I share your view, Rosa, but I think sometimes the direct method principle might usefully be sacrificed for the sake of the (equally important) principle of community building. But I am prepared to be persuaded otherwise!)


Thanks to Jane’s Metolología de la enseñanza del ingles class for their frank and insightful comments!







7 responses to Learners who are shy to speak

  1. Thank you Scott for another great blog entry. The issue of speaking in class is one of the number one concerns for teachers in my view. I am also of the opinion that understanding group dynamics is a major key in this puzzle, especially when it comes to students being shy to talk in front of each other.

    At the risk of having “Rosa” from your blog disagree with me even more than with you, I have tried using the mother tongue as a resource in class the way you suggest with some success. For example, with a group of intermediate teens, we had a role play activity. They were very surprised when I asked them to do the activity first in their own language but soon threw themselves into it quite willingly.

    After a short time I asked them to stop and to repeat the same activity but now in English. They did so, and were quicker to “get started” as a result.

    I think this kind of activity, used from time to time, can be very helpful in generating ideas and giving time to think. A further wrinkle to it with higher levels is to have two students do a speaking activity in their own language, while two others stand behind them and “dub” them into English. I’ve also used this activity with considerable success with my Spanish students.

  2. Candy says:

    Hi Scott

    Great post as usual. Fear in the speaking class and how to overcome it? Create a safe environment in which mistakes are secondary to the communication. Three critical elements in a “speaking” class – scaffolding, relevance and immersion – total. Learners speak about things that move them – themselves, their lives, their experiences; ask not if their language is correct, but if it is successful and effective. Correct during the correction time slot, not during the “speaking” slot and only correct once a beautiful scaffold has been put in place.

    Much of this is yours, for which I am eternally grateful!

  3. Rob says:

    One point, which will not be news to any of you, is that a ‘silent period’ of learning, and, I would say, participation, is perfectly acceptable as a way into a second language. It would be a mistake for a teacher to confuse this more passive (at least to the outside observer) route to language learning. Of course, such silent periods end naturally, and recognizing this important step is important, I think.

  4. Jason West says:

    Fear of making mistakes (lathophobic aphasia as Stevick called it or Krashan’s over-active Output Filter) is a big deal for many English learners, especially those, as mentioned above, that come from societies and educational systems that do not encourage discourse unless it is from an authoritative position.

    We’ve seen thousands of learners improve both fluency and confidence incredibly quickly by carefully preparing them to speak to complete strangers. It is as much a psychological process of support and encouragement as a linguistic one. The results can be amazing.

  5. small bird says:

    you see, when we speak English We often think of grammar which we will use to talk. But i think it is not necessary much, we can practice for us skills to speak English if we often talk English. when we talk and use English we will have many experiments and try to use or not use later. vocabularies play the important role. don’t worry if you know vocabularies not much, u can have many experiment when u say .so you should be not shy to speak English.you have to believe in yourself. you can attend some English clubs to improve your English.

  6. Hi everybody,
    I am djahida from Algeria ,and I am an English student “university level”.Rirst of all I wouls like to thank you for such interesting topic :)
    In fact, I totaly agree with Mr Scott, because to make the students share the lesson and give their opinions freely leads to unlock their ability of speaking and of course argueing well.
    I personally suffer from some situations where I can not share and speak my knowledge ,especially in front of those who i do not fell comfortable ,so this is my main reason of keeping silent,wheras being among my friends and my mental situation is hight I speak it fluently without any problem.
    Thanks a lot

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