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Techniques To Foster Participation In The ESL Class

Participation in the ESL classroom is indispensable for students to improve their English skills. By increasing student interaction during class, you will encourage participation, and students will have a better chance to develop their language skills more successfully.

Task Based Learning Activities Teaching English to Young LearnersFor most students, their English class is one of the few moments in the day, or the only time, when they have a chance to use their spoken English. If they do not participate, their oral skills fall behind and they lose confidence as time goes by instead of gaining it. Telling students that participation is beneficial for their language development and improvement is often not enough to motivate them to participate.

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Setting the Scene

Start out by making friendly eye-contact with all your students throughout each lesson. Try smiling at each one of them and learning all their names and the proper pronunciation of their names as well. One key to encouraging participation is to lower the language difficulty of the questions, as well as lowering the anxiety of answering questions. Provide as many opportunities as possible for students to interact with you throughout the lesson with questions, answers, comments or even body language at first (raising hands, or thumbs-up or down) if they agree or not. The more comfortable and risk-free the atmosphere of the class is, the more students will feel like participating.

Obstacles to Class Participation


If a student is naturally shy or quiet, their personality might become an obstacle to their participation in class. If you notice this, or if the student lets you know that they are shy, strive to make them feel as confident as possible in class and at first only call on them if you are positive they know the right answer or if the question does not have a right/wrong answer.

Direct Methods

Students who are used to a direct method of instruction or lecturing – such as Direct Method, Grammar Translation Method or Audiolingualism – might also find participation in class more challenging than normal. Make sure you explain to these students – and all the class – the purpose and benefits of participating in class. Teaching English with communicative methods and activities (ei: role-playing) will certainly help students feel more comfortable and confident in class and thus improve their participation as well.

Participation involves more than just calling upon all the students in your class.  As teachers, we must ask ourselves, “Do you interact with all the students in your classroom?” This question is important, and if you are not sure of the answer, try checking off students’ names on a class list or seating chart as you interact with them. Tally the scores at the end of the day and see who and where the interaction is concentrated. Sometimes the way or the place where you stand to deliver a class also influences where your attention is focused. A simple way to prevent this problem is to move around the class as often as you can without being disruptive so that your attention is also focused on different areas of the classroom and therefore different students as well.

Overly Participative Students

Finally, sometimes ‘too much’ participation by a particular student or a couple of students can become an obstacle for the rest of the class because they expect these very eager students to give the answers first. A simple way to solve this obstacle is to call out the name of the person you would like to answer the question before asking it, or having a 3-interactions-maximum (or 4 or 5) rule per lesson.

If these very eager students want to participate so much, they could ‘help’ quiet students by asking them to participate on their behalf so both students are participating in a way.

8 Techniques to Foster Class Participation

Whole Class Response 

To involve all students at the same time, use a whole class response technique. Students can respond simultaneously to questions so teachers can see who understands and who does not. Before a review session, students can make response cards with content-specific words on index cards. Students hold up the appropriate card in response to the teachers’ questions. Large pieces of paper can be used to record answers which will be held up for only the teacher to see.

For Yes / No questions, students can make a Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down sign. Even though this technique does not help students improve their speaking skills, it helps them develop more confidence with the language and it encourages more interaction in class. Once this is achieved, tasks that involve more oral participation become easier.


Mark corners of the classroom with signs that read “I agree”, “I don’t agree” and “I am not sure.” Then read out statements related to a topic that the class has been discussing or reading about. Ask students to move to the corner that represents their point of view and discuss their reasons with the rest of the students who go to the same corner.

If you want to make the activity very low-risk just walk around listening in on their conversations and not intervening with comments or follow-up questions. You could also ask the groups to present a summary of their discussion to the rest of the class and ensure a different student is in charge of doing this each time.

Follow up Questions 

After students answer a question in class, follow their answers with another question directed at another student. This continues the discussion and involves more students in the interaction, opening up a discussion that is more similar to real-life conversations. Some good follow-up questions are:

  •      Do you agree with X’s answer?
  •      Why do you think that is the answer, Y?
  •      Z, can you add anything to X’s answer?

Numbered Groups

Allow small groups of students a short time to discuss possible answers to questions before calling on anyone to answer them.  Students prepare critical thinking answers in small groups.  The teacher assigns a number to each student in the group.

When time is up, the teacher asks for all the number 2’s to answer the question.  You can continue the process until you are satisfied with the completeness of the answer.

Student Readiness  

Invite ELLs to answer a question if you sense that they would like to try, but can’t bring themselves to put up their hand.  You can assist them by using visual aids to support their words, such as pointing to pictures, maps, or words on the board.

Give Credit for Trying  

Acknowledge all answers with a positive response, even if the answer is incorrect.  Try using;

  •      Good try!
  •      Almost!
  •      Thank you for trying!
  •      Not quite, but you’re thinking!
  •      That is an interesting way to look at it.
  •      Thanks for suggesting that

 A Chance to Pass or Get Help  

Allow students to “pass” on a question, or to call on another student for assistance.  The student seeking assistance should paraphrase or repeat the information.

Repeat, Review, and Summarize  

Students need the repetition of content information.  While teaching, ask questions that require repeating, reviewing, and paraphrasing.

  •      So, what did we just cover?
  •      Who remembers the reasons for ________?
  •      Who can explain what we just saw?       

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