Lowering the Affective Filter with Communicative Tasks

This post is written by one of our Extempore teacher Ambassador, Kathryn (Kalee) Rump, who teaches Spanish at Appoquinimink High School in Delaware. 

For the past year and a half, teachers have faced various obstacles due to the pandemic. Through lockdowns, online schooling, teaching from home, and feelings of impending doom, we have still managed to innovate and persevere. Words and phrases like asynchronous, pivot, and I’m going to share my screen have become part of our everyday vernacular, for better or for worse.

What we may have missed the most is connecting with other people. When we bring into focus the impact of the pandemic on educators and students, the results are staggering, and it is no surprise that learning has been greatly impacted: students have less time with their teachers and peers, and they also lack access to learning materials. There are no easy solutions as we continue to work in an environment that is notably different than it was in the fall of 2019. 

The Influence of the Affective Filter

In the world language classroom, one consequence of the pandemic that I have noticed is an increase in students’ affective filter. A year or so with little contact with teachers in person, cameras off, and silent breakout rooms did not help students bond with each other, and forming relationships with adults at school was very difficult. The affective filter is best described as a mental block which can form for a number of reasons, including 

  • students’ previous experience in world language class
  • their level of comfort and confidence, and 
  • how open they are to learning a new language and culture. 
“People with high affective filter will lower their intake whereas people with low affective filter allow more input into their language acquisition device. Affective filter hypothesis is first proposed by Dulay and Burt (1977), and is incorporated by Krashen as one of his five input Hypotheses in 1985. Krashen argued that people acquire second languages only if they obtain comprehensible input and if their affective filters are low enough to allow the input ‘in’. In his theory, affect includes motivation, attitude, anxiety, and self-confidence” (Du, 2009). 

In my classroom, I see students who are afraid to make a mistake and feel so wrapped up in saying something correctly that they shut down and do not try to produce their own language and would rather rely on translators. I have also noticed that some students have a closed mindset and are unwilling or unable to listen to or read the target language, thus missing out on comprehensible input necessary for acquisition. Such apprehensive and waning interest makes it even more difficult to motivate students.

Understanding and Responding to the Affective Filter

The graphic above shows the affective filter as a funnel which allows input via a language acquisition device. These devices are the activities and methods used in the world language classroom, the core of our instruction. The lower the student's affective filter, the more input allowed through the funnel and vice versa.

Input that makes it through can become part of a student’s acquired knowledge which is then monitored by the student’s previous knowledge which includes their first language. According to Krashen, “The 'monitor' acts in a planning, editing and correcting function when three specific conditions are met:

  • The second language learner has sufficient time at their disposal.

  • They focus on form or think about correctness.

  • They know the rule” (Schütz, 2019).

Based on the input received and the influence of previous knowledge, the student can finally produce output. If a student has received less input due to a high affective filter, he/she will have less language to use in order to produce output.

Lowering the Affective Filter

As we return to a new normal, students are eager to connect with each other, but often not in the target language. Even when I greet them in Spanish, many will still respond with “Hi” or “Hey." It Is not unexpected that communicational skills in the target language, especially interpersonal skills, have seen stilted growth during the past year and a half of learning. This anxiety greatly stems from the aforementioned affective filter. How, then, can we as world language educators help students lower their affective filters and feel more comfortable to speak?

One of the ways that we can start lowering students’ affective filters is by getting to know them and using personalization to motivate them. Teachers can also strive for a comfortable and safe learning environment where students will be able to take risks. Strategies that can facilitate risk taking among students include

  • building relationships 
  • providing word walls and sentence starters, 
  • or allowing for retakes on assessments. 

It's also imperative that the instructor cultivates a classroom environment that encourages risk-taking and making mistakes, pushing students to see these as part of the learning process. One of the approaches that has worked in my class to allow students to feel more comfortable in taking a risk is learning about the different levels of proficiency and seeing where they are now and how they can grow instead of focusing on all that is wrong.

Most of this is nothing new to teachers. We always strive to build connections with students and create welcoming classrooms, but doing so in a post-lockdown era presents a unique set of challenges. Students and teachers are wearing masks which can make speaking with someone difficult; we are trying to remain socially distant, and in some cases we still meet in a hybrid learning environment. I have been able to make connections by doing weekly check ins, calling out students’ birthdays, giving surveys, and allowing for student choice.

We always strive to build connections with students and create welcoming classrooms, but doing so in a post-lockdown era presents a unique set of challenges.

Task-Based Activities to Lower the Affective Filter

Using task-based activities is another way to lower the affective filter. Tasks allow students to engage with language that focuses on communication, allowing them to put aside anxiety about using the language and become “immersed in performing their activities for their own communicative value, for their own intrinsic meaningfulness to their learning experience and to their lives” (Luna-Escudero-Alie, 2018, p. 150). Easier said than done, of course. No matter how authentic a task, students may balk at immersing themselves in a task right away. When designing a task, it's important to consider factors that will influence students' response to it, like

  • Clarity of the instructions
  • Student interest in this task, and
  • Applicability to their lives

Task Examples

Some of the daily tasks that I enjoy using are dictations, describing a picture, recitation, short written responses to simulate a conversation, short simulated spoken conversations, and spoken or written responses to a prompt. Students can complete short tasks using familiar topics to help them be more comfortable using the target language. These tasks allow them to practice on their own before engaging in spontaneous communication with each other or with me.

Example #1 - Finding a Roommate

In the example below, students read about someone who is searching for a roommate and are tasked with leaving a voicemail comparing their morning routine. Completion of the task entails students stating whether or not this person would make a good potential roommates. This task requires them to use the interpretive and presentational modes of communication. Click on the button below the picture to import this task into your Extempore account.

Import Here

Example #2 - Greetings + Introductions

The next example is a review of greetings and introductions. Students were writing answers to five questions in order to simulate a text conversation to meet and get to know someone. The task requires interpersonal writing.

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Example #3 - Describing a Sport

This last example requires a video response to demonstrate presentational speaking. Students were asked to describe their favorite sport during a unit about sports and healthy lifestyles. 

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Wrapping Up

Low-pressure tasks like theses allow students to use a variety of communication modes to practice familiar topics. When seeking to lower students’ affective filters, we must first create a community within the classroom that is built on being open-minded and using our mistakes to learn. By giving students many opportunities to use the language for a communicative task, they can gain confidence and grow in comfort when using the language for spontaneous communication.

References:

American Colombian Academy. (2020). Motivation to Learn and the Affective Filter. ACA Explorers Blog. Retrieved from https://www.acaexplorers.com/b...;

Burgess, S., & Sievertsen, H. H. (2020, April 1). The impact of covid-19 on Education. VOX, CEPR Policy Portal. Retrieved from https://voxeu.org/article/impa...;

Du, X. (2009). The Affective Filter in Second Language Teaching . Asian Social Science, 5(8), 162–165. Retrieved from http://files.onthewebquest.web...;

Luna-Escudero-Alie, M.-E. (2018). Lowering the Affective Filter in Task-Based Activities. WEI International Academic Conference Proceedings. Retrieved from https://www.westeastinstitute....;

Schütz, Ricardo E. "Stephen Krashen's Theory of Second Language Acquisition" English Made in Brazil<;. Online.

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