Learner confidence can be slow to change and is deeply rooted. It is based on experiences in all areas of learners’ lives – some beyond our reach. However, it is easier to change if we focus on language learning and strengthen their confidence specifically in that domain, rather than aiming for their overall sense of self. When learners feel confident, they are more willing to try out new aspects of language and are less afraid of getting things wrong. If we want learners to actively use the language, helping them to feel confident is one key way to facilitate this.
In language learning, there are a number of things teachers can do to authentically boost learners’ confidence. Simply telling them to be confident or giving false praise will not work – learners have to feel they have earned their successes in order to take ownership of it and feel empowered by it.
Help learners see progress.
Language learning is gradual and takes time. Sometimes it can be hard for learners to see their progress so making their growth visible is helpful for boosting their sense of achievement. For example, learners can respond to can-do statements, keep portfolios, or make a list of all the things they can already do in a language. It is also important to discourage social comparisons. All learners are individuals and make progress at their own pace. Ideally, we want learners to focus on their own progress and ensure they keep moving forward without comparing their own gains to those of others. Teachers need to avoid presenting a public comparison of grades or progress.
Ensure learners experience success.
To gain confidence, they need to experience success. However, it is important that learners recognise this as a genuine earned success – if something is too easy, learners will not feel a sense of pride or a boost to their confidence. One way to ensure moments of success is for teachers to use scaffolding. This is when teachers break down bigger tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks which build up in gradual degrees of difficulty. For example, if practising a specific language structure such as questioning, the teacher may begin with an easier task which just requires more limited responses such as filling in sentences. They may make the next task a little more difficult where they have to add questions to a dialogue. Finally, if they feel learners have had sufficient practice and support, they could then move on to a more challenging task such as interviewing a partner where there is less structure and support. There are many ways to scaffold depending on aims and tasks, but the idea is to build up difficulty and take away support as learners gain confidence and mastery.
Empower learners with strategies.
Confidence also comes from having a sense of direction and knowing what to do. This means it helps if teachers explicitly teach learners strategies for how to learn and use a language. For example, we can show learners how to carry on a conversation even when they don’t know certain words, how to read a text without knowing every single word, how to learn new vocabulary, how to plan and structure an oral presentation, where to find resources for practising writing blogs, who to approach for feedback or extra practice opportunities etc. Learners can be encouraged to try out different strategies and report back on how useful they found them. It is empowering to have a pathway of action to try out and ideas for how to overcome obstacles as well as believing one can improve one’s own ability. This is where having a growth mindset is also critically important for confidence and a willingness to even try out strategies.
Foster learner autonomy.
A related feeling of control and empowerment can come from learners being given opportunities to make decisions about their learning. Learners can be given choices in (1) what they work on (e.g., between different tasks) or (2) how they work on it (e.g., offered the choice of who to work with or choosing between different forms of output such as a video or podcast). Any degree of choice can help learners feel they have control over their learning and helps them also make choices they feel comfortable with. This sense of control and empowerment can boost their confidence and willingness to become active participants in class.
Tackle unrealistic expectations and perfectionism.
A threat to learner confidence can stem from them having unrealistic expectations of what they should be able to do or tending towards perfectionism. It is beneficial for teachers to explicitly discuss the nature of language learning with learners stressing how normal it is for progress to be slow and how mistakes are typical for every learner. In addition, teachers can use tasks (in writing and speaking) where they deliberately encourage learners to focus on communicating their main message and not worry about mistakes. Learners can be prompted try out new language and be creative in using a diverse array of communication strategies such as, reformulating complex expressions, using mime or gesture, or drawing on their other languages if need be. Language use can be extremely rewarding when they can get their message across to a partner successfully using whatever communication strategies they may know! It is communication that counts, not perfection!
Here are some questions to help you think in concrete terms about your own learners and what areas you might wish to explore in more depth. As you read the series of blog posts on each of these issues, think about a specific group of learners you work with. Consider how the issues raised concern your group of learners as individuals and/or as a group and which of the suggestions you would feel comfortable working with in your setting.
- Can you think of a learner who needs a boost to their confidence? Would any of these strategies help them to see what they are positively capable of?
- Looking at upcoming tasks you have planned, can you see any which would benefit from the addition of other steps to scaffold it for weaker learners?
- In feedback, how often do you focus on highlighting the positive things learners can do and did well?
Let us know what you think in the comments, do you have any advice for other teachers who have students facing the same issues?
This blog is the start of a mini-series exploring the key issues which impact learners willingness to use language. Explore the other parts here:
Help second language learners overcome their fear of speaking
Creating a positive group dynamic
Understanding the impact of task design on learners’ willingness to speak
Enhancing learner self-confidence
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 auhor of this paper.