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Classroom speaking challenges: it’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in

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Solutions Speaking ChallengeErika Osvath, an experienced teacher and teacher-trainer, explores the third of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: ‘It’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in’. 

As I am sitting at my desk thinking over the issue of how to get weaker students to join in, my thoughts keep returning to the same questions:

Who are the weaker students?

What makes them ‘weaker’?

How do I want them to “join in”?

I can’t seem to escape them. I could just list various activities that may encourage students to participate more actively in speaking activities, but I feel have to go deeper this time. And as a result, I find myself wondering about my own preconceptions as a teacher.

I expect a “weaker student” to say less, come up with fewer ideas, make more mistakes, and be more insecure. As a result, when they join in – if they ever do – they will be like this. Does this sound familiar to you? This is known as the Pygmalion effect, a psychological principle asserting that expectations decisively influence performance.

So what can we do to adjust our expectations and thus create situations where “weaker students” feel more comfortable contributing?

First of all – and this seems quite obvious – we can create a warmer atmosphere for all the students. Research has shown that we tend to unconsciously build a more relaxed climate for students that we have more favourable expectations of – we tend to be nicer to them both in terms of what we say and how we express it. We need to consciously try to do this for all the students in the class, regardless of ability, by using accepting words, true smiles, and demonstrating understanding and openness towards them.

Secondly, we tend to teach more material to students we consider more able. The key here, then, is to expect more of the students we perceive as “weaker”. So, when setting up a speaking activity, make it clear what you expect from all students. Tell students that they must offer a minimum of three ideas during the activity and use the past perfect at least once. Students will be able to live up to these challenges if you elicit some examples and note them down on the board before they start preparing their own ideas. Then, as you are monitoring their work during the preparation time and the speaking activity, make it clear that you expect them to do the task you had set. Of course, it is important not to be pushy or unrealistic, but make your expectations clear in a gentle and supportive manner.

However, the following two factors are the most important ones in influencing the way our students perform in all activities, including speaking. Firstly, when giving students the opportunity to respond to a question in class, we tend to call on the students we think of as “stronger ones” more often. A simple way that we can encourage less able students to join in speaking activities is to increase the number of opportunities they are given to respond – and if they need more time and support, shape the answers with them and give them longer to formulate their response.

Do not give up on them thinking that “they cannot do better than this anyway”, something that can often occur unconsciously. Instead, offer small anchors in constructing ideas and sentences together in front of the class, this way encouraging them to speak and contribute in small group activities as well.

One way you can ensure equal speaking opportunities in pair or group activities is by giving every student say, three slips of paper – signs of their contribution to the task. The aim of the speaking activity is to get rid of the paper, and students can put one card down only if they contributed at least one idea or sentence.

The second important factor is the quality of the feedback we give. If more is expected of a student, they are praised more. If the teacher thinks less of a student, they are more willing to accept low quality answers with the undertone of “not worth the time or effort, because they won’t know it anyway”. Our task is to reverse this process, making sure that we do expect higher quality responses from students who might need more support too.

All these four factors will greatly influence the way less able students perform. They will start raising their own challenges and demonstrate a greater willingness to join in with speaking activities and other activities too!

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

4 thoughts on “Classroom speaking challenges: it’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in

  1. Very interesting post, and the issue of what “weaker students2 means is really important, I think. I also agree that making what we as teachers expect clear is crucial but it is also important to explore what the learners themselves want, what their fears are and how to encourage them to take responsibility for their own speaking practice. I recently wrote a blogpost on this very subject with some ideas from my learners. 🙂
    http://hartlelearning.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/do-learners-want-to-speak-english-or-not/

  2. I agree with all this article, but also I’d like to add that I think one of the most important things for an ESL teacher to remember is to ensure the students understand (e.g. in terms of speaking activities) that ‘what we are about to do now is a speaking activity’. Many students don’t contribute also because they are unaware that they have to. Just a reminder to teachers too…

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