How to Get your Shy Students to Talk? Change the Context.

Any teacher would love to have just the right activity or the perfect strategy to get every single student in the classroom to actively participate in class discussions. Foreign language teachers especially are always searching for the magic trick that will make their students talk non-stop.

It’s often the case that regardless of how engaging or interesting an oral task is, there always remain a few learners who feel uneasy talking in the target language in front of others.  Many times their reluctance is not a sign of disengagement, but rather the result of self-consciousness, anxiety, or the fact that they are intimidated by the abilities of more proficient learners.

Shy Student Hiding Behind Note Cards During Class Presentation --- Image by © Randy Faris/Corbis

So how do we get these hesitant learners to talk more and, consequently, develop their fluency in the target language? When eliminating the sources of speaking anxiety in the classroom is not possible or desirable (we can’t just ask the more proficient learners to stop talking), we can offer an alternative context for shy learners.

Changing the context of communication

I have been assigning oral tasks to complete as homework outside of the classroom and they are usually well-received by both the extroverts and the introverts. In my classes, oral homework consists of monologic tasks, that is, non-interactive activities, such as leaving voice mails for an imaginary interlocutor or answering phone surveys. There are a number of tools to do this. Extempore is one of them.

Asynchronous monologic speaking tasks are not a replacement, but an enhancement of classroom interaction. The idea is to add such tasks and diversify our repertoire of tools for oral development, so that our instructional methods can also address the learning style of shier students. By alternating the context for fluency building activities between classroom-based interactive tasks and homework assignments, we’re offering different paths to learning.

Among the learning objectives that we list in our syllabi most of us don’t have a goal to turn introverts into extroverts by making them talk in situations that make them uncomfortable. Almost every foreign language instructor, however, has a learning objective that reads something like “students will express themselves orally in the target language”. When speaking the language is the goal, then let’s expand the opportunities for speaking practice beyond the classroom and include homework tasks that also help the more self-conscious learners build their oral skills in the target language. After all, providing alternatives is a differentiated instruction practice that benefits everybody.

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