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Managing learner anxiety and stress

Emotions are a natural part of life and learning. Emotional ups and downs are a normal part of language learning and use. While some emotions can be supportive and facilitative for language learning, others can cause problems leading to inhibitions and a reluctance to use the language. As such, it can be helpful If a learner is feeling especially stressed or anxious, it will be difficult for them to concentrate and they may be reluctant to engage in classroom tasks or communication.  


Emotional regulation refers to the ability to manage emotions in a healthy way, not suppressing or ignoring them, but finding ways to understand them and cope with them effectively. Generally, learners can develop their emotional literacy by keeping an emotions journal in the target language noting down what emotions they felt, when, where, and what triggered the emotion. This raises their awareness of their emotions, their impact, and their causes. Learners can discuss things they notice from their journals with other learners to inspire each other. However, how comfortable people are talking about emotions can vary across cultures and individually, so every teacher will need to reflect how best to approach this in their setting. While the focus of this blog is on how to cope with the negative emotions that can inhibit learner engagement, it can be especially worthwhile exploring positive emotions with learners and thinking how to bring more of these into their daily lives – for example, joy, awe, pride, happiness, gratitude, and contentment among others. When learners are feeling more positive, they tend to be more open to trying new things and willing to engage in classroom life and tasks.  


Two particular emotions can be especially problematic for learners: Anxiety and stress.  

Language anxiety refers to the fears, nervousness, and worry that students have about learning or especially using the language. If they have excessive anxiety, this can stop them processing the language making it difficult to comprehend input but also limiting their ability to produce the language. While a little anxiety may be a normal part of communicating in another language, when it tips over into a level that is preventing learners from taking part in tasks and speaking up, then it is important to know what steps to take to combat this.  


Obviously, the more confidence learners have and the safer they feel in class, the lower their levels of anxiety are likely to be. However, it is perhaps still worth discussing the nature and role of anxiety explicitly with learners. There are three aspects the group could discuss together. (1) Firstly, get learners to consider what anxiety before a speaking task or test physically feels like so they can identify the symptoms in themselves (e.g., raised heartbeat, fast breathing, feeling hot or nauseous, or being restless or jittery). (2) Next, learners can discuss times when they might feel nervous or anxious also beyond the context of language learning – it can also be a good idea for teachers to share things which make them anxious too. In this way, learners see everyone can feel anxious about something and it is nothing to be embarrassed about. Discussing anxiety and nervousness needs to be normalised. (3) The final stage would be to get learners to brainstorm ideas for managing their anxiety when speaking such as doing breathing exercises, focusing on a positive face in the room, thinking of a favourite memory just beforehand, having a polished stone in your hand to soothingly rub etc. After some time, learners can try out different anxiety-regulation strategies and report back to others how effective they found them or any other ideas they have had.  


Stress refers to the feelings of tension and possibly also anxiety that stem from perceived pressure or when facing a difficult situation. It can arise in specific moments (e.g., having to do a presentation in class) or emerge over a period of time (e.g., having to cope with excessive workload for longer periods of time or coping with difficult living situations at home). Stress is also often cumulative meaning that learners may be experiencing stress in other parts of their lives which can add to their tension or anxiety in the language classroom. Nobody can isolate one aspect of their lives from other things they experience. Ideally, teachers will have open channels of communication with learners and good rapport so that learners can feel able to share when they are struggling to cope or feeling overwhelmed. It is useful for teachers to know professionals in school or the community to recommend to students for those instances which go beyond what can be meaningfully addressed by teachers in class.  


All students may benefit from a group discussion about stress, what can cause it, how best to manage it, and when to seek professional support. It is important to break down taboos about talking about stress and mental health so that learners are able to recognise when they are not coping well and feel confident to approach others for help. In terms of coping strategies, students can discuss effective time management strategies – not so that they can do more work for school but so they can ensure they have enough time to do hobbies and sport – things which take them physically and mentally away from school life. Students can maybe do some research about the importance of sleep and a healthy diet for lowering stress. They can share ideas with each other of how they help themselves to relax such as by taking a walk with their dog, listening to their favourite music, playing chess, or perhaps dancing or doing yoga. Social support is also important for managing stress. Learners need to think of who they could share their feelings with or just hang out with to have a break – support can come from friends, family, neighbours, sports clubs, a music group, or even pets who make great non-judgemental friends and listeners! Learners need to be able to identify things that give them pleasure and recharge their batteries, and find ways to ensure they make time for them.  


Reflection questions 

  • Emotional literacy is a key life skill and learners can pick up from how teachers demonstrate this too. How aware are you of your emotions? How well do you manage your own stress? 
  • Are there ways to bring more positive emotions into classroom life?  
  • In what ways could we use teaching activities in the target language to talk about issues such as stress, wellbeing, work/life balance with learners? 


Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author, and co-editor of several books in this area including, Exploring Psychology for Language Teachers (2015, with Marion Williams and Stephen Ryan), Teacher Wellbeing (2020, with Tammy Gregersen), and Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms (2020, with Zoltán Dörnyei). She has published over 150 book chapters and journal articles and has served as Principal Investigator on several funded research projects. In 2018, she was awarded the Robert C. Gardner Award for excellence in second language research by the International Association of Language and Social Psychology (IALSP). Sarah is the author of this paper.

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Episode 12: High-Flex Adult English Language Classes with Joy Lehman and Kristi Weisenburger

In this episode, Jayme is joined by Joy Lehman and Kristi Weisenburger, English language teachers at the Milwaukee Area Technical College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They discuss the benefits and challenges of teaching high-flex adult English language classes.

This series has been developed specifically for Adult ESL teachers in the US and refers to course titles that may not be available in every country. Please check with your local Oxford University Press office about title availability.

Oxford Adult ESL podcastVisit oup.com/elt/LoveAdultESL for more useful resources.


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This series has been developed specifically for Adult ESL teachers in the US and refers to course titles that may not be available in every country. Please check with your local Oxford University Press office about title availability.

Oxford Adult ESL podcastVisit oup.com/elt/LoveAdultESL for more useful resources.


How To Turn Reading Into A Habit

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My best student ever was called Anne. I taught her for about three years. She was a very enthusiastic student, though she rarely did what I set as homework. She did read books though. A lot of them. About two books a week in fact. Anna took her Cambridge Proficiency exams at the age of 14. She got an ‘A’. Anna is now an English Language teacher herself. Make no mistake – extensive reading works. Continue reading