As any teacher will tell you, sometimes students are very reluctant to participate in class. This is especially true in the ESL classroom. It can feel awkward or embarrassing to speak in a new second language. In addition, in many students' home cultures, "student talk" is uncommon and may even be thought of as rude.
Today, I'll give you a few tips on how to get your students to loosen up and open up in English class.
Tip # 1: Address Cultural Differences Openly
No one likes to have their culture ignored, even if they’re in a class that teaches a different culture and language. On the first day of any class you teach, it’s a good idea to discuss classroom culture very openly. Ask your students if “student talk” is a common part of classroom learning in their culture. They’ll likely be glad for a chance to talk about their culture and about any cultural inhibitions they may have when it comes to talking in class.
For some students, active participation in class will probably be culturally foreign. Let all of your students know that participation in English class is expected, not just because “student talk” is common in the English-speaking world, but also because active language use is very important in language learning. But also make a promise to be culturally sensitive; make it clear that you understand the ways in which “student talk” may be unnatural to some learners.
Tip # 2: Get the Students Talking to Each Other
Using a second language with a native speaker is intimidating. If that native speaker is your teacher, using a second language can be doubly intimidating. But ESL students are a lot less self-conscious if they’re talking to each other. Make sure you design class activities that facilitate pair and group discussions. Also make sure that at times you are lightly guiding the discussion, supervising it rather than actively participating in it. As a bonus for you, letting your students talk to each other allows you to really focus on listening to them and gauging their abilities.
Tip # 3: Play Games
Games are a great way to get students to forget their self-consciousness and cultural inhibitions and to just use English. While games are thought of as a “young learner” activity, they can work for adults as well. A fun speaking game like telephone, Apples to Apples, or Trivial Pursuit can lighten the mood in the class. Games give students the chance to all share English speaking mistakes and successes as they work toward common, game-oriented goals.
And speaking of working toward goals…
Tip # 4: Use Task-Based Language Teaching
Task-based language teaching is a specific ESL teaching method. In task-based learning, students work to accomplish a specific practical task…in English. Some of these tasks could be role plays, such as a mock job interview or an activity where students pretend to ask for directions. But some tasks can be quite practical. You could, for example, have your students talk in English as they plan and coordinate a class trip or group presentation.
The best part about task-oriented participation in English class is that it tends to transcend cultural boundaries. Some cultures discourage student talk, but regardless of culture, learners understand the concept of work-based teamwork and the need to talk to one’s teammates on the job.