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K-12 Tips for Engaging Shy Students in Foreign Countries

  • 8 min read
  • TEYL

Imagine that you are a shy student and, to add to that, the class is being conducted in a foreign language. Seems fair to characterize it as at least mildly intimidating, right? Shyness is a composition of emotions, ranging from fear, apprehension, and embarrassment, often manifesting itself as self-consciousness. More often than not, an ESL class will have one student who is less keen to participate. I’ve found that this is only exacerbated as the group grows larger, allowing the shy students to retreat into anonymity.

K-12 teachers who are teaching in foreign countries are inevitably faced with this common challenge. Don’t panic! There are a few ways to gently encourage (never ‘push’) your shy students to come out of their shell. This OnTESOL Graduate blog will give you a few practical tips to engage shy students, and they are useful for any K-12 classroom in the world. 

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Utilize Pair Work

Pair work is an excellent way to take the perceived pressure off of a shy student. By shying away from a big group and focusing on more personal interactions, students feel empowered to speak up and voice their ideas without fear of being ‘wrong’ in front of a room full of their peers. One-on-one interactions also take away the unease caused by fear of being randomly called on to answer. It promotes creative thinking and participation, especially when you utilize task-based learning activities.

Call On Them to Answer, But Not First

Although you don’t want to make your students uncomfortable, you can’t allow them to retreat into the shadows forever. While some would say that flooding desensitization is the most effective way to break ‘stage fright’, I opt for a less extreme strategy. A great way to gently ease them into having confidence in participating is to call on them after another student has already answered.

If you ask an open-ended question or something that allows for multiple answers (such as, “What is your favorite ____?” or “Name some animals”), allow the more gregarious students to answer first. Call on the shy student next. Even if their hand is not raised, it still removes the initial spotlight and allows them to have a moment to think of an answer. In fact, it can often be helpful not to rely on hand-raising at all, calling out names at random as a rule of thumb.

I would suggest against going around the room one-by-one, having each student respond. This can stir up internal anxieties for shy students, who become nervous and withdrawn after another student says the answer that they thought up. It may seem like a small detail, but it is certainly something to be aware of.

Don’t Overcorrect

Of course, our job is to teach them a language and teach it properly. However, it sometimes does more harm than good to correct every grammatical error or pronunciation flop. This is particularly true for self-conscious students. Encourage and praise the effort first.

If your students are making similar errors as a class or if several students use the same error a few times, direct the correction to the group, not the individual, especially if you are working with new content. If your activity/exercise focuses on a topic that you have covered extensively, it’s more understandable to give detailed corrections. The last thing you want is to make the shy child feel embarrassed when using a new language for the first time, mentally shutting down and closing up shop for the remainder of the lesson.

Give Easy Tasks First

The best way to build confidence and encourage participation is to give the student a softball question right off the bat. Empower them by asking a question that you know they will be able to answer in order to build their confidence. Allowing them to answer a review question or complete another simple task first sets a positive tone to the lesson and can weaken any potential anxieties that they might be feeling.

Gauge the situation: calling on a shy student first might be appropriate and a super confidence booster in this situation. If you do and the student is unable/unwilling to answer, move on to another with finesse, demonstrating that you will not punish an individual, branding them with a dunce hat for not knowing an answer. Build confidence first and learning will come much easier.

Introduce Novel and Fun Ideas with Simple Activities and Resources

A week before this lesson, I reminded my K-12 ESL students to bring a secret object from home and not to tell their classmates what it was. This already made the students very curious about what they were going to do in the upcoming lesson. The lesson I planned was about finding out what was in the mystery box. To do this, students would ask me questions and jot down their answers as clues. The materials this time were only a big box, a mystery object inside, and the blackboard.

I started the lesson showing the students the box and explained that they needed to guess what was inside by asking questions. Then, I asked the class what types of questions they could ask, and I wrote them on one side of the blackboard.

Students came up with many different questions, such as “What shape is it?”; “What colour is it?”; “How does it feel?”; “How heavy is it?”; “When do you use it?”; “Where can you find it?”; “How much is it?” and so on. Students remembered all the Wh-questions from their past lessons. After that, we also discussed possible answers to those questions, and I wrote down the vocabulary on the board while students wrote them in their book. This vocabulary was divided into such categories as shape, colours, feelings, and weight. This was practice before we started the activity.

Before starting the activity, I told them that it’s a competition to see which team guesses correctly first. I then divided the class into rows according to their seating plan. This stirred up the excitement in class and grabbed their attention. They already had an existing class rule that when we play a game, the winning team receives a star.  At the end of the semester, the team with most stars receives a present from their teacher.

When I started the game, almost every student raised their hands to ask a question, including those who never spoke. Many sample questions were already on the board, so students simply read them out loud instead of not speaking at all. While we played, I invited one student to write down my answers on the board as I answered questions. The more clues written on the board, the closer the students became to finding out what was in the box. This was the most intense part of the lesson, where all students were in a rush to guess correctly first. They asked more and guessed more, increasing their class engagement, excitement, and curiosity to speak out.

Next, each student who brought their secret object to class took a turn to speak. This time, the students holding the box with their secret object answered their classmates’ questions. After a team guessed the object correctly, the students took turns. In this way, most students got the chance to ask and answer questions. They answered questions such as “It is green in colour,” “It feels rough,” “It is as big as an elephant,” and “You cannot buy it”.

Use Meaningful Topics

I decided to teach one of my speaking lessons using the topic of dinosaurs to excite the elementary school students and increase their interest. Kids are usually very interested in dinosaurs because of their size and mightiness, and especially because they are extinct animals. I learned in my online TESOL course with OnTESOL that high interest in a conceptual domain like dinosaurs, can help children to develop increased knowledge and persistence, a better attention span, and deeper information-processing skills.

When I introduced dinosaurs at the start of the lesson, I found that only some students knew what dinosaurs were, and the rest had no idea. Those who knew what they were showed excitement. The rest who didn’t were surprised that such enormous animals had actually existed. The PowerPoint had attractive pictures of dinosaurs which also grabbed the students’ attention from the start.

I presented and explained different kinds of dinosaurs, herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, how they looked, and so on. Students found this part very fascinating and continued to give full attention and read along with me as I described each dinosaur. They also wrote down many words from the screen without me having to remind them. Everyone behaved and the whole class was in control.

About the Author: Zarin Tasnim completed the online TESOL certification course with OnTESOL in 2020 while teaching abroad in Hong Kong.

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