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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Two – How to reduce anxiety


Close-up of frightened man with dramatic lightingThis is the second article of a six-part series on boosting classroom participation. Last week, Zarina took us through using peer observation to reflect on your teaching style. In this article, she considers a different challenge: what do you do about the nerves that can interfere with your students’ performance? This article aims to look at the presence of anxiety in our classrooms and what we can do to reduce it.

When a student gives an answer in a foreign language in front of their peers, anxiety is a reality that cannot be ignored. It directly interferes with the task in hand. It appears, almost gremlin-like; to want to disrupt the very activity or question the student has been asked to deal with. So what can be done? Here are some ideas.

Minimise the threat of direct questions

Be very careful about directing questions at specific students in front of a group. Before doing so, it’s usually better to allow learners to discuss their thoughts in groups or pairs. Don’t always ask your questions orally. You could give written questions to groups of students seated at different tables and get them to discuss their answers before they write them down. If the groups have different questions, you can rotate the students round the tables, so there is some movement in the class. Then, at the very end, the questions can be covered orally. Now everyone has had the chance to think and discuss answers before writing them down, it is not nearly as stressful to direct questions at particular individuals.

Create an atmosphere where errors become unimportant

Creating an atmosphere where errors become insignificant, and almost an expected part of the class, helps to lessen students’ fear. But how can we achieve this? Usually, if you introduce a competitive element to an activity, anxiety begins to take a back seat as students tend to focus more on winning points than on the stress of making mistakes. Why not devise a competition where students win points for correct answers, and there are no penalties for mistakes? Or, you could give one point for a reasonable answer and two points for a completely correct answer. This encourages greater participation, creates the mindset that there is (literally) nothing to lose, and reinforces the notion that fluency is more important than accuracy.

As teachers, we can also help by highlighting our own mistakes and making fun of them, so that errors are not seen as a terrible mark on what should be perfect language. When students make errors we need to ensure that we praise the very act of trying to provide a response in English. We need to nurture the idea that there is courage in risking losing face, but no actual loss of face.

Draw up some ‘House Rules’

Why not draw up a very explicit set of ‘House Rules’, and negotiate them with the class? For example, you could include things such as “Respect the opinions of others”; “Listen to others”. At the same time there need to be one or two rules that cannot be negotiated. For example, “No name calling”; “No laughing at the ideas of others” or “No ridiculing”.

Celebrate your students’ work

Displaying students’ work is another way of getting them to feel proud of their contributions. Why not put up poster presentations, flipcharts, or visual reminders of discussions? I have even used this technique on short courses and it is amazing how people respond to seeing their own work, handwriting and creativity in a public place. I find it also helps bonding within groups, with students praising one another’s efforts.

But what about the teacher?

Now let’s not forget the teacher in all of this. We suffer from stress and anxiety too, probably never more so than when we teach under observation. As we saw in part one of this series, observations between peers are extremely useful forms of reflective practice. Therefore, we need to consider ways of reducing the stressful side of this process.

As discussed, having a meeting before the observation can allay fears and ensure that the observer is going to comment on the things that you wish to receive feedback on. In addition, if you plan exactly how you are going to greet your students and introduce the lesson, it will reduce your anxiety at the start. A confident beginning will make you feel at home and relaxed with your students. Also, don’t ignore the person observing – make sure your students are aware of who they are and why they are there. It’s important your students understand that the observer is there to see how you teach, and not to comment on the performance of the class. This will lessen the anxiety of a ‘stranger’ being in the room and may encourage them to be sympathetic towards how you might be feeling. This all-round recognition of the situation will put everyone concerned at ease and you can then get on with ‘business as usual’. Remember that peer observation is a choice to help you, therefore there is nothing to lose. This also illustrates to your students that you are not afraid of making mistakes in front of your peers. A perfect way of teaching by example, don’t you think?!

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here. Next week’s blog post will be exploring how you can get more out of your students by keeping different learning styles in mind.


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#EFLproblems – Facing your technology fears

Close-up of frightened man with dramatic lightingWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Stacey Hughes addresses a common fear: using technology in English language classes.

At the recent IATEFL conference in Harrogate, I spoke with many teachers who are still on the fence about using technology in their classes, and it is this EFL problem I would like to address in this blog.

For some experienced teachers, technology was seen as a gimmick. They couldn’t see any benefit technology could offer because the tried and tested activities they use had already proven successful. Other teachers I spoke with were nervous about the technology itself. Faced with the onslaught of apps, digital products and a host of crusading digital zealots, they retreated to the comfortable safety of books, pen and paper. For them, it was all too much too fast and they were overwhelmed.

I’d like to address the first of the two issues raised above before looking at ways teachers can ease into using technology.

Is technology a gimmick? It certainly can be, especially when it is used without thinking about how its use can enhance the pedagogical aim. There are many arguments for using technology: it is part of everyday life for many students, so it is natural to include it in lessons; it can make administrative tasks less time-consuming, freeing up class time or a teacher’s out-of-class work time; it renders some activities more motivating; it can put students in charge of their own learning; it provides access to information that wouldn’t be available otherwise; it allows students to practice and get feedback on language use… the list goes on. In essence, whether or not technology is a gimmick rests in the way it is used and for what purpose.

Here are some tips and things to think about when beginning your foray into using technology:

1. Start slow

You don’t have to use everything at once. Choose one device, tool or app to try this term or this year. It could be something as simple as asking students to email you their written paragraph or essay first drafts, writing comments on the papers in a different colour, using the highlighter to point out mistakes you want them to correct, then emailing the papers back to the students to correct for their final draft. For me, this method of feedback is preferable to handwriting comments because: I can write more; type-written comments are easier for my students to read (especially those whose L1 script is not Roman-based); I have a record of the feedback; students can’t lose their work (or if they do, I can simply email it to them again).

If you are feeling braver, try giving oral feedback on written work using Jing. My students responded positively to oral feedback because it gave them more listening practice. Have you always wanted to set up a class wiki, but baffled by the endless possibilities wikis provide? Start small: post up a text with questions you want students to read and answer for homework. Build the wiki over time.

2. Use the technology supplied with course books, workbooks and teacher’s books

If you are using CDs or DVDs, you are already using technology! Experiment with any online workbooks, student or teacher websites, learning games or mobile content. The benefit here is that everything is linked up, so teachers don’t have to think about how to relate the activity to the lesson aims. Don’t be afraid to let students take the lead with some of this – students are generally happy to help the teacher with the technology side of things. Course books also come with a degree of technological support from the publisher.

3. Use technology that is already in the room

Look at what you have available and then how you might use it. Be sure to include student cell phones and smartphones in your assessment. If you have a projector and internet access, for example, you can access interactive pronunciation charts for in-class pronunciation activities, or you can have an online dictionary at the ready for any vocabulary or collocations that come up in class. Keep these two open and running in the background (shrink them down) for easy access. Do quick image searches for vocabulary that comes up that can’t be explained easily – I once had the word badger in a text. I did a quick Google Images search, followed by a Wikipedia explanation projected on the wall – much more memorable than a simple explanation and I didn’t have to find a photo beforehand to bring to class.

4. Start with the learning aim

This is undoubtedly the most important thing to keep in mind. Put learning first and look for the best tool to use to aid that learning. Let’s imagine that you are teaching a Pre-Intermediate class and you want students to practice asking and answering questions. If students do this in pairs, it is hard to monitor everyone. Technology is beneficial here: students can video or audio record themselves (e.g. on their phones or tablets) and email you the recordings. You then have a record, can assess which students are able to ask and answer correctly, and can give directed feedback.

The added benefit of using technology in this way is that students are more likely to feel the task is purposeful and try to do it well. Creating a realistic context will add to the learning experience by showing students how the language they are learning in class relates to the real world: interviews ‘on the red carpet’, for example, provide a context and students can then do a blog write-up of the answers.

5. Ask yourself these questions:

What do I want my students to do or learn? Can technology help? If so, which technology? Is there something I can use that I already have or do I need to find something that I can use? Will using this technology benefit the students? If so, how? (If not, don’t use it!) How much time will it take me to learn this and is it time well invested? (i.e. Will students benefit proportionally? Once I have learned it, will I use it again and again?)

Invitation to share your ideas

What’s your technology story? Have you tried something out that you would like to share? Do you have any advice for those just beginning to take that first step into using technology? Please tell us about it by commenting on this blog.


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#EFLproblems – Revising, reflecting, adapting, improving

Teenage students in classWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Verissimo Toste responds to Juliana Mota’s Facebook comment about how to connect one lesson to the next.

Juliana wrote:

How should we review lessons learned and make a connection with the new class?”

The first obvious answer is, “It depends.” But that’s not very useful. So let me propose some ideas and activities which you can adapt to the age of your students, their learning preferences, and their different abilities.

It’s their responsibility

From the very beginning, I try to make any revision the students’ responsibility. Once we have finished work on a unit or a module, I give them time to go back through the work we have done and ask any questions. This, of course, is easier when the class is based on a course book. Students leaf through the pages and are reminded of the work done. I then ask them to assess how they feel about the work in grammar, vocabulary, and the different skills. This assessment differs from class to class depending on the age and level of the students.

Students make a test

I ask students to make the test for the work we have done. Usually students leaf through the pages and suggest activities from the class book and the workbook. I ask each student to do this individually then compare their suggestions in pairs. Then, I ask them to work in groups of four. At this point, they compare their suggestions, but they must also agree on one test for the group. This generates a good discussion on the length of the test and what content is most important. More importantly, however, is that it creates a context for students to revise the work done, to prioritise that work, and to assess how they feel they are doing.

With the test based on their suggestions, students get a clearer idea of what they need to do in order to prepare. Giving them time to revise the work done generates more questions, leads to some revision exercises, and helps them notice their strengths and weaknesses. This is further reinforced when they get their test back.

Connect learning

When possible, connect new learning with language students have already learned. For example, you can base presenting the past simple on a daily routine. The daily routine gives the teacher an opportunity to revise the present simple, both the grammar and the vocabulary. Teaching adverbs can present opportunities to revise adjectives, as well as verbs. A text on the events of a very bad day can revise past forms and lead to teaching the conditional, “If they hadn’t …”

Skills lessons

Lessons with the aim of developing skills can, and should, focus on language learned. A listening or reading text will, most likely, use language students have learned. Once you have worked on the skill itself, guide your students to notice the language used in the text. Noticing language is an important learning tool that will help students improve their English.

Developing the productive skills of speaking and writing, will also provide students with an opportunity to revise language they have learned. Speaking activities are usually based on language students have just learned. Controlled practice activities will give them a chance to correct any mistakes. Writing tasks can give students an opportunity to use the language they have learned. Unlike speaking, students have more time to reflect on their mistakes and opportunities to correct through the writing process.

Project work        

I am a big fan of project work, whether the projects are small, taking little time, or larger projects spread over a greater length of time. Project work offers students the opportunity to use the language they have learned. As they share their work with others in the class, they will be exposed to the language in different contexts to communicate real information, usually about them and their experiences. The project will give them opportunities to reflect on the language they need. As the projects are meant to be shared, students are careful about mistakes, motivated to correct them before the project is presented to others.

The activities I mention here are based on making revision an integral part of the class and not necessarily based on any particular language point or skill in which students have difficulty and thus need more work. The activities give students the opportunity to revise what they have learned, reflect on their progress, adapt their learning based on the reflection, and finally, improve their English.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of revising language? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks.


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#EFLproblems – EAP and low-level students: will it work?

Teacher helping adult studentWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Stacey Hughes responds to Raef Sobh Azab’s blog comment about whether to focus on general English or EAP for low-level university students.

Raef wrote:

I teach English to university students at the English Department in a non-native English speaking country. My students lack the basic skills of the language. Their levels are beginner and/or elementary at best. My question is: what is the best and the most suitable choice for them? Is it general English because of its language input and real life context or EAP which is badly needed for their academic studies?”

Raef has posed a fundamental question, and I suspect that at the heart of it lies the distinction between General English (GE) and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). For one thing, where each is traditionally taught is different: EAP being taught primarily in university settings in pre-sessional or in-sessional courses. EAP is also different in its aims, which are to prepare students for not only the culture of academic study but also for the topics they will encounter and the types of tasks they will have to do. The GE or EAP question is similar to the GE or Business English (BE) question posed by BE teachers. Can and should students learn more specialist language before they have learned generic language?

The answer, I feel, lies in the purpose for learning English. If a student needs EAP, why would we spend time teaching them GE?

Though there are certainly important differences between GE and EAP, I wonder if, at lower levels at least, these differences are really that marked. Look at the words and phrases below. Where would you place each in the Venn Diagram below?

General English and EAP Venn Diagram

Did you find that the majority of the above could fit easily into either category? Did you find yourself saying, “It depends”?

I would hazard that, to some degree, all of the tasks, skills and activities listed above are features of both GE and EAP. What might differ is the degree to which each is taught. So, for example, a GE student might give a short presentation about cultural differences. The aims of the task might be to showcase the student’s fluency, accuracy and pronunciation. An EAP student might give a similar presentation on the differences in educational culture between his country and another. The aim may be slightly different, which would be reflected in the marking of the presentation. This student might be marked on body language, eye contact, clarity of visuals and how well the student was able to present ideas clearly, in addition to his fluency, accuracy and pronunciation.

Similarly, in writing tasks, both the GE and EAP student would be asked to write a paragraph or email and would be assessed on similar things – format, grammar, linking, topic sentences, vocabulary choice, etc. However, the EAP student might also be assessed on how well she links ideas together (text cohesion) and whether or not her ideas follow a logical progression (text coherence).

So, if we consider the aims of the activity or task, the focus changes slightly, but the task remains effectively the same. This suggests that EAP can be taught at a low level, and arguably should be in the scenario that Raef mentions above. If his students have little time to reach a certain level of proficiency, then keeping in mind the academic rationale for tasks and activities will help students build the skills they will need as their language level increases.

In his question, Raef mentions “real-life context” as a difference between GE and EAP, and it is in this topical aspect that we might find a split. Traditionally, EAP topics have tended to centre around academic subjects and be more “weighty” or serious, while GE topics have tended to be more generic and “lighter”. Choice of topic has dictated which vocabulary students learn, with EAP vocabulary being more formal and ‘academic’. However, at lower levels, this distinction is not as great as at higher levels.

Looking through a couple of low level EAP course books, I see vocabulary being taught that would happily sit in a GE course book – apartment, big, friendly, library, mathematics, parents, teach, weather – as well as some vocabulary that is possibly more EAP specific – brain, gestures, poetry, organisation, research, survey. None of these ‘EAP’ words are greatly more difficult to learn than the ‘GE’ words.

The topics in these course books are not that different either, in that they are common topics that are accessible to lower-level students. Even so, there is one distinct difference: they have a more academic context – listening activities may be a short lecture, podcast or talk show involving an “expert”, and readings similarly present an authoritative “voice”. This sows the seeds for students thinking about source credibility and the need to question information while still studying the vocabulary for describing personality or communicating their reasons for their choice of holiday destination.

What about grammar? Grammar can be taught as usual, but within an academic context. Compare: Caroline studies hard at the university versus Robert plays tennis at the sports club. Each sentence shows good use of the present tense, though sentence A is possibly more “EAP”.

My feeling is that EAP is a suitable choice for Raef’s low-level academic students and may be a more efficient choice given their ultimate need for academic English.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of whether teaching EAP to low-level students is appropriate? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks.


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#EFLproblems – Motivating Intermediate Students

College student smiling holding booksWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Verissimo Toste responds to Ageliki Asteri’s Facebook comment about motivating Intermediate students.

Ageliki wrote:

How can I motivate a teen advanced level student to do better as this level is demanding to achieve a certificate and the students is ok with his intermediate plateau?”

This is probably a situation familiar to many teachers and my first consideration is to question why the student is satisfied with their intermediate level. If a student is in a class at upper-intermediate to advanced level, it is because that student has goals he or she wants to achieve. Tapping into these goals, and into that motivation, will enable teachers to help these students.

Set goals

I would suggest that first we need to make such students aware of what they still need to achieve. This could be in the form of informal quizzes or simple self-awareness. From this awareness, students should be encouraged to set goals for both language and skills development. Depending on the age of the students, I would make the goals short term so that students can feel they are progressing. This should give them confidence to set new goals and work to achieve them.

Focus on using the language

Students may feel they know the language, even about the language, but can they use it to communicate real information about themselves and their world? While expanding their knowledge of language, including revision of what they have already learned, encourage them to use it. It is one thing to be able to understand the present perfect, even to manipulate the different forms, but it is quite another to be able to use it to talk about life experiences and achievements.

Whenever I ask my students to talk about what they feel they have achieved in their lives, even those who are able to communicate this, do so without using the present perfect tense. They are usually surprised when I tell them and make an added effort to use it next time. Writing tasks in which they share their work, or freer speaking activities – like discussions, simulations, or debates – challenge students to use the language they have learned. Encourage students to be both more fluent and more accurate when using the language.

Challenge them to be better

I set up a class library in a class of about 25 Intermediate students with the aim of providing them with more contact with English through extensive reading. I did not test their reading, but often discussed how they were enjoying their books. They seemed very satisfied. I could have left it at that but I knew the readers series I was using was accompanied by a series of quizzes to test reading level. I told my students about this and asked if they wanted to take the quiz to see what their reading level was. They all agreed. I gave them the quiz, but before returning their scores, I asked each to write in their notebooks what mark they would be satisfied with as a percentage.

19 students out of the 25 received marks below what they expected. They were all high marks and, in general, they were very good readers. However, the quizzes showed them they were not really understanding (and enjoying) as much as they could. Equally important, they were not taking advantage of their reading to learn more.

This simple activity was enough for those students to come out of their intermediate complacency and work to improve.

Encourage independent learning

Many times students simply rely on the opinion of the teacher for how well they are doing. Too many times this attitude also includes passing the responsibility to the teacher for the whole class. However, it is important to encourage students to become independent learners.

Develop in your students the capacity to monitor their own language. Did they say what they wanted to say? Or did they avoid certain topics because they didn’t have the language? Encourage them to notice the kinds of mistakes they may be making. Are they mistakes they could correct themselves, but have left it for the teacher to do so?

As I have mentioned before, challenge them to be accurate, as well as fluent. Help them notice the difference between the English they use and the English of more advanced learners. At times, give them work that is well above their level. If students are studying for an exam, give them a mock exam at the beginning of the year. Let them see what they will be working towards in their English classes.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of motivating Intermediate students? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks.