Language-learning anxiety is a real phenomenon that affects many students and makes them less willing to participate in class activities and even attend a foreign language class at all. This phenomenon is present in all language classes to varying degrees and is usually independent of the studied language. However, English language learners seem to occupy a unique position with specific issues that exacerbate their anxiety. So, what are these issues, and what can teachers do to help build confidence in ESL students so that they feel comfortable and thrive in class? Let’s dive in!
What is language-learning anxiety?
Anxiety is a psychological condition that arises in some individuals as a reaction to situations perceived as stressful. Psychologists distinguish among different types of anxiety. Generalized anxiety occurs in individuals with a predisposition not tied to any specific situation. Another type of anxiety is triggered by particular circumstances, such as having to perform a task that feels challenging or for which the person feels inadequate. Many school tasks fall in this category, and teachers are well acquainted with students’ anxiety associated with test-taking or with subjects that students regard as particularly challenging.
Although language learning anxiety is part of the anxiety that students may experience, it also presents some specific defining traits. Language learning targets the area of self-expression. The ability to express oneself is threatened in language learning because the individual lacks the tools to communicate adequately. Therefore, the risk of being misunderstood, misrepresenting oneself, or being exposed to ridicule by peers feels very real.
Language learners experience many of the anxious reactions typical of stressful situations. These include:
- Freezing and feeling like one’s mind has gone blank
- Avoidance (e.g., missing classes, sitting in the back of the classroom to avoid being called on by the teacher, etc.)
- Overcompensating (spending excessive amounts of time in preparing for class)
Why do many ESL students lack confidence?
- ESL students are a special kind of language learners. A first element to be considered when examining ESL students’ issues is that they are not simply students learning a foreign language to satisfy a curriculum requirement. They often reside in a country where English is the official language or has the status of an official second language.
- ESL students have to perform all school tasks using a language they are still learning. ESL students often find themselves in a school environment where English is used to teach all academic subjects (this is called Content and Language Integrated Learning, or CLIL). Students who are not proficient in English may be misjudged or mis-assessed by teachers, even in subjects in which they are knowledgeable.
- At least in the USA, a majority of ELLs come from low-income families. English language learners are the fastest-growing student population in the US. According to the National Education Association, they are projected to make up 25% of all public school students in 2025. Two-thirds of them come from low-income families, and many show lower academic performance than their peers. Thus, many ELLs appear to start in a position of disadvantage.
- Learning English is often high stakes for many ESL students. The high-stakes outcomes associated with mastering English may also contribute to ESL students’ lack of confidence. ESL students need English to master other academic subjects, take important tests that will determine their future, advance their careers, or access higher education institutions in Anglophone countries. Thus, even ESL students who don’t currently live in a country where English is the official language may experience language-learning anxiety. This is especially true if obtaining a visa or passing a TOEFL or GRE hinges on their knowledge of English.
How does language-learning anxiety affect ELLs?
In recent years, several studies have been conducted to try to understand and measure language-learning anxiety. Although language-related anxiety can be difficult to quantify, it does seem to affect English learners in two main ways:
It affects the learner’s ability to reach proficiency in English
- It makes students hesitant to engage in oral communication, inducing a sort of stage fright because of the fear of making mistakes, being teased, etc.
- It affects their ability to interpret and understand aural and written messages, as anxiety appears to create a cognitive deficit. As suggested in a study by Khan and Zafar, The Effects of Anxiety on Cognitive Processing in English Language Learning, “The arousal of state anxiety then interferes with ongoing cognitive activity (…) This interference reduces the ability to take in information, to learn new material, and to demonstrate that learning in terms of second language production.”
It affects the learner in areas not strictly related to learning English
- A lack of self-esteem – Students may feel inadequate, unable to communicate effectively with teachers and peers, and therefore construct a negative self-image.
- Disengagement – When students feel that they cannot effectively participate in school activities, they often lose interest or avoid them altogether.
- Misplacement in the academic setting – When English is the language of instruction, students who cannot express themselves adequately can easily be placed in an academic setting that is not fitting for them. ESL students may be competent in subjects other than English but simply unable to demonstrate their competency.
What strategies can you use in the ESL classroom to boost students’ confidence?
With all of the above in mind, how can teachers help build confidence in ESL students? Here are eight ways to combat anxiety in the ESL classroom.
1. Identify the cause of student anxiety
The first step is to identify the type and degree of your students’ anxiety. In 1986, Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M., & Cope, J., in their study titled Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety, created a scale called FLCAS (Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale) to measure language-related anxiety. This scale is a handy tool to identify the kind of anxiety suffered by your students. Another study from Japan, Teachers’ Strategies for Decreasing Students’ Anxiety Levels to Improve Their Communicative Skills by Takako Inada, suggests that teachers “ask all students to share their anxiety in class at the first class,” as part of an effort to create an unthreatening environment.
2. Emphasize collaboration among students
Emphasizing cooperation instead of competition can go a long way in helping anxious students to relax. A collaborative learning approach fosters interpersonal skills and encourages students to communicate. It inspires even shy or nervous students to get involved in class. It also gives students autonomy and ownership of their learning by making them accountable for the learning process.
3. Make it personal
Establishing an interpersonal relationship with your students helps even the shyest and most insecure learners to feel at ease and accepted in the class community. It creates connections that, in turn, make students more willing to participate in class activities. There are many strategies to build rapport with one’s students. One of the best ways to connect with students is to ask them questions to learn more about them and to reciprocate by sharing small bits of information about yourself. You can easily incorporate these exchanges into the language class. For example, a lesson about family can spur a conversation about siblings, favorite family members, etc. Similarly, a lesson about pets can generate lively exchanges about furry friends and a sharing of personal stories. Personal activities also help students focus on communication and forget that they are engaged in learning, thus effectively removing anxiety triggers.
4. Address individual needs
Once you start to know your students better, another helpful strategy to minimize anxiety is to tailor your lessons to their individual needs and interests. When students feel that their needs are being addressed and that the content you present meets their interests, they will be motivated to engage. A good start to ascertain your students’ needs is to find out how they learn best. What is their learning style? You can use an online questionnaire to get an idea of the kind of learner you are dealing with. Next, present the class with various activities to ensure you are addressing multiple learning styles. Also, keep in mind your learners’ interests. Leveraging students’ passions is an excellent way to increase their involvement.
5. Establish routines
The establishment of routines is not specifically related to ELL anxiety but does help create a feeling of predictability that will ease the nervousness of many students. After all, not knowing what will happen next can be an anxiety trigger. Set up clear routines in your class, so your students will know what to expect and be prepared for it. Routines can simply consist of having a set way of organizing class time, for example, greetings, independent reading time, pair conversation time, etc.
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6. Use authentic materials that appeal to your student’s interests
Using authentic material will make your lesson more interesting and boost students’ confidence. When students are captivated by a lesson topic, they are more likely to forget about their anxiety or lack of confidence. Reading and discussing authentic material also gives them a greater sense of accomplishment and makes them feel more prepared to use English in the real world.
7. Avoid correcting students every step of the way
This may seem to contradict everything we know about teaching. However, correcting every single mistake or, in some instances, correcting at all can be counterproductive for anxious students. It makes them painfully aware of their shortcomings. Especially with beginners, focus more on the content of the message than the grammar, but encourage exposure and repetition. With enough exposure and repetition, the correct grammatical forms will emerge.
To learn more, check out this guide to error correction when teaching English, and print out the following infographic as a reminder!
8. Use TPRS strategies proven to minimize student anxiety
Teachers have long been aware of anxiety’s impact on language learning. Stephen Krashen’s work on the affective filter has illuminated many aspects of such impact. One of the methodologies that came out of the affective filter theory is TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling). TPRS pays a lot of attention to the psychological and emotional implications of language learning. Many strategies suggested in the method are geared toward lowering the affective filter.
- Not focusing on learning but, rather, on communication. The lesson should not feel like a lesson but a conversation.
- Creating a personal rapport with the students, e.g., asking personal questions or adding them as parallel characters when creating a story.
- Using content that is repetitive, interesting, comprehensible, and high-frequency (RICH). This guarantees that the students will get enough exposure to the L2, be intrigued enough to pay attention, understand what is going on during class, and eventually acquire the basic vocabulary for communication.
Language anxiety in English language learners is intensified by the high stakes involved in learning English and by the individual student’s psychological makeup. However, there are simple steps teachers can take to build confidence in ESL students and ensure they reach their full potential and are successful in their English classes and beyond.