Breaking Down the Affective Filter and Building Confidence with Extempore

I see it every year (and sometimes, sadly, every day). The stammering, the shaking hands, the downcast eyes, the fear. For some students, the world language classroom is a place of total anxiety and dread--a place that, if possible, they'd flee from as fast as possible. And no amount of kind, encouraging words could convince them otherwise.

According to some second language theorists, this type of student has what's often called a high affective filter. This anxious student lacks confidence, second guesses him/herself, suffers from pervasive self-doubt, avoids the spotlight, and ultimately retreats from learning opportunities as a result. And it doesn't only impact beginning students. Rather, some advanced speakers report a rising affective filter brought on situationally.


As a teacher, of course, it's hard to watch. No one wants to feel responsible for contributing to this. Mistakes and general disfluency are par for the course for the first few years of learning (and even beyond that at times), so there's no way to break down a high filter all in one go. We teachers all have our tricks, though: pair work, small group discussions, marketplace-style presentations (rather than presenting in front of the whole class).

Digital classroom technology is another great way to break down the affective filter in the world language classroom, and Extempore in particular is the perfect tool to do it. It won't surprise anyone to say that speaking the target language (in front of others, naturally) is the aspect of learning that likely provokes the most classroom anxiety. But Extempore speaking (and listening) activities help to circumvent this problem by building confidence. Here's how:

  • The anxious student can build confidence at home by responding to teacher-generated prompts at his/her own speed in the comfort of his/her home. There's no longer an audience of peers, just the 1:1 digital "classroom".
  • If retries are allowed by the teacher, the student can take several cracks at a speaking assignment to help build fluency.
  • The assessments serve as milestones that can demonstrate linguistic growth. By referencing concrete examples from Extempore assignments, the teacher can show the student how much progress he or she made throughout a certain period of time, in turn building confidence and fostering a sense of self-worth in the classroom.
  • For listening assignments, the student can listen as many times as needed without feeling pressured to keep up with the audio source right away. Feeling overwhelmed by an in-class listening assignment can truly destroy a student's confidence, especially if it appears as if classmates understand the audio right away.
  • Extempore speaking assignments promote student responsibility. Students with high affective filters oftentimes avoid chances to use the target language even if they are otherwise capable students; therefore, Extempore activities encourage them to meet the challenge head-on!

Of course, Extempore isn't a replacement for face-to-face interaction; one of our primary responsibilities as world language teachers is to create classroom contexts where this sort of face-to-face communication can happen in real time. But another one of our responsibilities to our students is to help them recognize their strengths and instill confidence. With Extempore, this goal can be achieved at their own pace and in their own way. We may never fully break down the affective filter, but Extempore is a powerful tool in the battle.

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