The reality educators face nowadays is that students have all sorts of concerns and passions that seem unrelated to the subjects taught at school. Teachers try to bring the school closer to their lives through innovative methods and educational projects that contribute to the formation of a generation of change. It is sometimes difficult to find a balance between the interests of young people and the information transmitted in the classroom. It’s not easy to speak their language and get their attention, to engage them in debates about current, realistic topics, to make them talk about what they are passionate about, to create contexts in which they interact with their classmates and exchange impressions and ideas.
All teachers dream of organizing activities in which all students talk, participate in the discussion. But it is no simple task to establish communication bridges even when communication takes place in the mother tongue. It is all the more difficult for a foreign language teacher to initiate and conduct a dialogue with students preoccupied with both the content of their ideas and the quality of expression, students who are more focused on grammar rules rather than on speech coherence and fluency.
There are many reasons why students show lack of confidence about speaking in class:
Shy students are perfectly happy to be ignored and to never speak up in class. They worry about making mistakes, about being laughed at by their peers. They know that there is always someone else eager and willing to seize the opportunity to answer the teacher’s questions, to share thoughts and fill the conversation gap.
The class atmosphere
When students do not perceive the teacher as a real communication partner, when they feel that that their points of view are not accepted with an open mind and considered valuable, that everything they say is subject to criticism, tension builds and the learning process becomes ineffective. Students do not feel motivated to communicate and they adopt the strategy of avoiding participating in the activities. They feel anxious, insecure and totally dependent on the teacher.
Lack of knowledge
Students do not have the necessary linguistic capabilities to match with the linguistic demands of the activities. Some have trouble organizing their thoughts whereas others rely on gestures rather than on words. Lack of knowledge often leads to lack of confidence and, as a result, students shut down, isolating themselves out of fear or embarrassment.
The topic of the lesson
Students do not feel stimulated to express ideas on topics they find outdated, boring, uninteresting. They don’t need to be entertained all day, but the teacher should work hard to develop engaging lessons with interesting, relevant activities. Students need to talk about things that challenge their intelligence and will not respond to those tasks they find either too difficult or too easy in relation to their level of knowledge. Whatever the reason students are reluctant to participate in class and contribute ideas to the conversation, it is the teacher’s job to get them out of their shell and using English to communicate.
Meetings and discussions on this subject with colleagues from other countries have led me to the conclusion that foreign language teachers all over the world continue to face the same hurdles. The problems we all have to deal with are not new nor are the coping strategies we use in order to overcome classroom problems.
Teachers are not perfect human beings, which doesn’t stop them from dreaming about the perfect classroom. I think the source of a teacher’s energy is his/ her ambition to create a safe and supportive learning environment where all students feel comfortable to open up and express their thoughts, a place where they develop the communication skills that will enable them to become increasingly more autonomous.
Over the years, I have improved my teaching skills working with generation after generation of students more or less passionate about learning English, so here are a few tips as to how to make the language classroom a truly learner-centred one:
1. Doing team activities is a good way to help students concentrate on working together to achieve the best results rather than competing with one another. Pair-work and team-work activities are meant to encourage communication, cooperation and collaboration, and they will make even shy students feel secure and confident enough to talk and share personal opinions.
2. Selecting interesting topics of conversation appropriate for the students’ ages and levels or interests is guaranteed to stir interest and increase motivation. It is a learning context which gives students the opportunity to ask questions that can lead to real discussions, rather than just ”yes” or ”no” answers. It is also a means of perfecting pronunciation and accent, improving confidence and enriching vocabulary.
3. Adopting a positive attitude towards students’ lack of knowledge has a profound influence on students’ personality as well as on their learning and performance in class. The use of paraphrase, synonyms, explanations of words whose meaning they are not familiar with, the use of non-linguistic devices, such as mime and gestures, are all good ways to facilitate language learning, to help students improve their communications skills and to achieve fluency.
4. Giving positive feedback is a necessary way of promoting effective communication in the classroom. Although negative feedback can create positive outcomes by helping students to improve, it is the positive feedback that boosts learners’ confidence and lets them know that they are valued, enables them to understand and develop their skills. It is no secret that students who receive praise are more likely to believe that the can accomplish tasks and be successful.
5. Using correction too often can threaten the confidence of the students. They should be allowed to make mistakes and taught not to be afraid of the occasional slips of the tongue. They are a natural part of the learning process. Learning from mistakes is an essential skill that will help students move forward and stay positive.
My personal belief is that the secret to successful teaching is accepting the daily challenges this job entails, meeting them head on. So, never give up, never stop trying to find a creative solution to make it easier for students to develop the skills they need to succeed!
Stănișoară, Codruța Mirela – Interactive English Language Training Course For Students And Not Only, Editura Aramis, 2003