To feel or not to feel? That is the question!

I just got off the phone with a student who was not happy. As manager of ESL programs at the college where I work, I have just finished with a major overhaul of all our language courses, essentially flipping them, individualizing the syllabi and encouraging the active participation of students in class. I have followed all of the cutting-edge research in educational techniques and I know that my program is now excellent. So why was she angry?

She was thrown into conversation activities without getting instruction on `the basics“ as she put it. I asked her what she meant and she replied (in French) with `how can I be asked to speak if I can`t speak? `.

I was confused. Her level and needs assessment, done before starting the course, showed that she was not an absolute beginner, had some ability to speak, and that her main goal was to improve her speaking. So, I replied that in order to speak, she had to speak. It`s quite simple really.

But this is me talking from an intellectual point of view, backed by evidence-based research. What she was really trying to tell me is that she did not FEEL comfortable speaking with others without first KNOWING that she could say things correctly. She did not want to be mocked or publicly corrected. I knew immediately that, if she does not lose this fear, she would struggle to learn English for the rest of her life. Those who learn languages easily are not afraid to make errors; they constantly seek opportunities to practice, and focus more on producing the language rather than its ‘correct’ use. Obviously, these great language learners are either naturally confident, or have developed this confidence at some point.

I know some ESL teachers who only focus on confidence – at the potential expense of real ability. For them, it is most important to develop confidence to speak in front of others, rather than improving a student`s grammar use. I am torn between the two, because in any class of students, there are some who are overconfident and want to actively engage, while there are others who are more tentative and won’t dare speak without the teacher holding their hand. I have tried, time and time again, to explain to these students that the best way to learn is to not be afraid and to simply try. This does not work since they are not seeking an explanation of the facts – no. They are seeking some form of encouragement.

Now, to be clear – I always encourage. But it does not seem to work. Knowing and being able to `do` something, these can be achieved in an English course. However, learning to `be` someone different, someone who is confident and assured and willing to make mistakes, these elements may be difficult to change in the short time a student is in an ESL classroom. These insecurities may stem from life experience,  childhood memories, or a host of other possibilities. Overcoming this is a tall order for a language teacher who only has 36 hours to impart a difference!

So how can we achieve both? How does an ESL instructor go about boosting confidence and motivation while simultaneously generating learning, that may or may not discourage the learner – especially the type that sees correction and feedback as reprimands rather than learning guidelines? I, myself, am an overly confident student/teacher/manager and I have a very hard time relating with the idea that the basic act of speaking can be terrifying for some. I truly appreciate active classrooms where I am `thrown into `the fray’ and must learn to swim or sink. It works, but it is not for the faint of heart.

What do you think, dear reader? How can we encourage and push our students to succeed, but also, not frustrate them in the process?

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POST COMMENT 6

6 thoughts on “To feel or not to feel? That is the question!”

  1. Thank you for this post. I think this particular teaching dilemma deserves a lot of attention and exploration by all of us as ESL instructors.

    I am glad that you are aware that you are the type who is overly confident, loving to be thrown into the fray to sink or swim. It’s good that you recognize your own limitation / difficulty relating to the other type of learner.

    One thing you wrote here is, “Those who learn languages easily are not afraid to make errors.” I hope you can re-think this assumption. I found out in high school that I am a gifted language learner. I have studied Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Demotic Greek, Persian, Japanese, and American Sign Language. I have reached “near native” ability in one of these languages, and have often been told that my pronunciation is uncannily native sounding in the languages to which I’ve been able to devote any significant chunk of time / energy. In any language class, I learn so quickly that instructors sometimes suggest I skip a level. So I think I can put myself in the category of someone who learns languages easily. Yet I am not a risk taker when it comes to speaking. I have a definite silent period during which I am building my knowledge of the grammar structures, cultural dos and don’ts, etc.

    I once had a Farsi tutor who insisted that I HAD to start taking risks, trying to utter sentences. We would take walks on the university campus during my sessions during which he would ask me questions or comment on the weather and wait for my reply. I was still in the phase during which I wanted to sit and absorb input from native speakers. In the end, I changed tutors; I found someone who did not stress me out and who trusted me to know how I learn languages best.

  2. Thanks for your comment Kelly!

    I wanted to avoid writing an academic blog post, but it seems I have no choice but to relate this to a study 🙂

    http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED507398.pdf

    The link above will direct you to a study (Tran, 2009), which supports my claims. Specifically, points 3 to 7 seem to suggest a comfort with errors and using errors to learn.

    In your specific case, I think it is rather consistent with the descriptors of a good language learner to take some time to reflect and assimilate quietly BEFORE attempting to speak. This means that you are approaching the language with a conscious cognitive effort. However, maintaining a reluctance to speak due to emotional factors, for a long period of time is more of an impediment to learning than anything else.

  3. Greg,
    Thank you for the study! I for one love to see the odd academic post here on this blog to balance out the fluffier ones now and then. 😉 I’ll admit I haven’t finished reading the whole paper yet, but I got through the first third before my timer went off reminding me to go put the laundry in the drier.
    As I go through the list of Good Language Learner (GLL) attributes, I see that almost all of them apply to how I approach language learning (not all of them from the beginning, but all of them eventually). One of the statements that jumped out at me was, “Good language learners find their own way to learn and take charge.”

    I think that’s what I was doing when I changed tutors, and I suspect it MIGHT be what your student is attempting to do by calling you up.

    Reading the paper you reference triggered many wonderful memories for me. After the tutor, I managed to find Saturday Farsi classes for public school students (children of immigrants) that I was allowed to join for a fee. I squeezed myself into the tiny desk and was assigned a place at the back to start practicing rows and rows of my aleph, be, pe, te, se. Meanwhile, I could eavesdrop on the teacher as he addressed about 15 children between the ages of eight and thirteen as they worked their way through a chapter per week in their primer. Week after week, I secretly absorbed the language while the teacher thought I was practicing writing simple sentences (Baba nan dad). Finally the day came when I understood the question being asked, “What are the colours of the Iranian flag?” I knew the answer and how to say it. I raised my hand. And that was the day I graduated from the back row to join the children discussing the tribes of Iran, writing and presenting short reports in front of the class, etc. I made that leap on my own terms with no pressure from anyone.
    I guess my point is that no stack of academic papers proving you are right can offset the necessity of building a safe space where all language learners, the gifted and those who might never become GLLs, are free from undue pressure to leap before they are ready. The stress, in my opinion, is counter-productive.

    I do eventually become someone who cheerfully joins in conversation circles, but not before I’ve lined up for myself hours upon hours of exposure to rich linguistic input, a period during which I’m saturating my brain with as many linguistic affordances as possible. I’m hanging out in Iranian diners, patronizing Iranian grocers, going to Iranian movie night on campus, and making eight-year-old friends at recess.

    I’ll be curious to hear how you handle this student’s plea and what she specifically wants you to do differently for her.

    1. Hi Kelly,

      Done! I will keep you posted. I have already asked the instructor of the course to “segregate” her somewhat and give her written exercises before “throwing her into the fray”. Basically, I have asked the instructor (who is quite like me) to focus more on her accuracy (As Ruth points out below) in a quiet, paper-based way, to spend a few weeks on getting her basic English accurate, then integrate her slowly into conversation groups with a lot of support. However, I can’t allow the other students in the group to start feeling like they are getting less attention because of a student who may take up all of the “emotional space”. As a manager, we must consider the whole group and there are moments when an affective disorder becomes a problem for everyone involved.

  4. This strikes me as the basic debate between accuracy and fluency. I know that lacking confidence and being afraid of making errors can make it almost impossible to learn a language . This is one of the reasons my Korean is still not as strong as I would like. Being mocked for my pronunciation and having difficulties expressing myself in what looked like my first language has had its toll. However, we cannot ignore the importance of accuracy. I am a grammar tutor at a university and I can see the difference between just expressing something and expressing it well. Greg, thank you for this essay, I found it really thought-provoking.

  5. Kelly, a question. In English do you think before you speak? Like, shoot first, ask questions later? That’s me! Like you I have a facility for picking up spoken language easily. Making errors? Laugh and correct. I like reading and writing so I seek out the written word. I don’t flourish in an atmosphere of focusing on accuracy – but I do seek out grammar structures as the need arises (e.g. how to make possessive in Mandarin). All this UNTIL I am in a sutuation where accuracy really matters (my work as a psychiatric social worker in Israel/Hebrew). THEN I became a fanatic right to left writing prescriptionist and blessed my Afrikaans as it gave me help with gutterals..)
    Greg,: All of this to say that as a teacher I “plug in” to everyone in my class because everyone has different personalities and ego strengths; different needs; are at different stages of their English language journey (my training in group work helps here). Someone who is hesitant? I ask myself “Why?” And try to understand. With some I am brash, challenging, laughing “So?” Others -I slowly bring them in ( but persistently, the class gets to understand and support) My greatest kick is when someone tells me they feel more confident speaking.
    A practical note: many ESL students speaking issues have to do with pronunciation and intelligibility (not grammar accuracy or inaccuracy)
    So pronunciation is a integral part of my teaching of my Level 6/7 class.
    Today – still talking about Family: Newspaper article on 2006 Canadian census results yesterday; today listening on same topic – slightly different approach from Chap 3 “Have Your Say” ❤AND from same chapter/resource Pronunciation element “Intonation in Questions and Statements” Lots of interactive communicative elements ( it is Irene McKay❤)
    btw – Statscan just released initial 2011 Census results and schedule of releases ( Family is in August) We will follow releases (reading graphs, charts, tables) and make a StatsWall.
    Sorry for the OT!

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