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?