To speak or not to speak, that is the question by Edite Abrantes

Having engaged students who take part in classroom discussions is the objective of any language teacher, however, improving student participation in our lessons requires much more than time and planning. The way we interact with our students reflects how significant participation is in our classes and inevitably, it affects their attitude and input.

Naturally, the key to having more involved students is creating an environment in which everyone has the opportunity to learn by sharing ideas and exploring different perspectives. While the most enthusiastic students raise their hands, (and voices!), others ponder quietly on the given topic before shyly voicing their opinions. Since, our objective as teachers is to ensure that we create conditions which enable students of various personalities to be dynamic participants in interactive speaking activities; there are some tactics which can be adopted to encourage the quieter students to speak up and not be overwhelmed by their more effusive peers.

One easy strategy, which is frequently overlooked, is the way the classroom is organised. So, bearing in mind the size of the class, try moving the chairs around to form a circle or  a “U”, thus creating an environment in which students are more actively involved in discussions, while allowing you to move around and gently prompt the input of the quieter ones, and control the liveliness of the others.

Next, since participation is a two-way street, why not allocate some responsibility to your students for greater engagement in class discussions? How about asking for their views on what contributes and generates animated yet cohesive “talks”?  Then, and based on their input, come up with a list of “dos and don’ts” which can be put up on the classroom notice board as a reminder of their “commitment” to be more active participants in speaking activities. Not only will it highlight students’ accountability for the success of the set activities, it will also serve to make them more co-operative participants in discussions and speaking tasks.

Moreover, learners’ enthusiasm and involvement can be boosted by eliciting topics from them and arranging activities in which they can play the role of “advisers”, who not only listen to their colleagues’ talk but also give feedback on how they believe the presentation could be improved, bearing in mind items such as organization, the lexical range and the language used. By having students assess and advise their peers on their contributions means that greater attention needs to be paid so that the feedback may be constructive and objective.

If you are preparing a discussion activity, integrate short texts into the lesson plan in order to introduce concepts, clarify doubts and help students understand the subject, include small-group discussions or informal writing assignments before or at the start of the class to prompt students to consider the discussion topic before presenting their views to the whole class. Such steps can be effective in providing shy students with the time and means to think about and develop ideas which they can then use in the class discussion with greater confidence and more readily.

Then, it’s vital that students are given time to think before they answer questions. Do not be afraid of silence and giving students a few seconds to think and formulate a response. If no one volunteers an answer, rephrase your question and prompt some feedback rather than giving in to the temptation of answering your own question. By supplying the answer, students fall into the habit of waiting for the appropriate reply rather than participating and sharing their views, so be patient and do not be afraid of silence.

Additionally, use both verbal and non-verbal cues to encourage inputAvoid relying on the same volunteers to answer your questions. Respond to frequent volunteers in a way that indicates that you appreciate their contribution, but want to hear from others as well. Move around the classroom; smile at and make eye contact with the quieter students to encourage them to speak up. In the same way, when frequent volunteers speak, look around the room, rather than only at them, so as to encourage and motivate everyone to participate. Furthermore, encourage students to respond to one another, rather than merely to you. By making eye contact with other students lets them know that you expect them to be listening and responding aptly to what is being said. Listen fully to your students’ questions and answers and resist the urge to interrupt when you think you know what the student is going to say or ask. Often, such well-meaning interruptions result either in incorrect assumptions or misinterpretation of what the students had planned to say or ask, not to mention the frustration they will feel in seeing their efforts being curbed and cut short!

Make sure you give specific, positive, varied repliesPoint out what is useful or thought-provoking about a student’s response, pick up on comments that were made so further discussion can be carried out and ask follow-up questions to prompt students to clarify and develop their ideas. When a student gives an incorrect answer, reply in a way that encourages the student to think the answer through, and come up with a more appropriate response. Furthermore, highlight students’ ideas whenever you can. Referring back to a comment made by a student earlier in class or in a previous lesson shows that you value what your students have to say. Likewise, avoid using general, standard praise as nothing discourages students more than not being seen as individuals.

Finally, as active student participation does not happen naturally when learning a foreign language, its success depends not only on careful planning and varied approaches, but also on team working and exchanging ideas with other teachers. One way to do so is asking a colleague to observe your class. Frequently, outside observers can recognize patterns that hinder participation, but which may not be apparent to you. Take notes of your peers’ advice so that you have a record of what went well and what you should change in order to improve your students’ participation and heighten their confidence and fluency in the use of the language they are learning. After all “Teaching is a strategic act of engagement”. – James Bellanca

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