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Confidence in the Classroom

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Confidence in the Classroom

The fluency of some students suffers because they focus far too much on accuracy and perfection rather than smooth communication. For example, response time to questions ends up as overly slow, as these students analyze and translate every sentence rather than accept a general understanding to correctly answer and participate in a conversation. I don't advocate tossing out accuracy. However, for some students in particular, too much attention to mistakes actually hinders communication. It also negatively affects motivation, and can be one reason as to why students quit.

So what can be done?

In general, you should praise students for guesses, even incorrect ones. Similarly, a teacher shouldn't ever laugh or ridicule a guess, no matter how far from the mark it may be. Even a seemingly harmless comment such as "You didn't know that?" can make a student defensive, especially if most of the other students seem to know or understand. Remember: A positive and supportive learning environment is important, and everyone in the class must realize that it's better to make and work out mistakes in the classroom than to do so in real-life situations. What's more, the praise offered for guesses should be sincere, else it loses all effect and purpose. If you constantly comment, "Good!" and "Great!" and the like, no matter the difficulty of the task, the comments soon lose any meaning. Students won't as readily offer those guesses over time.

You also shouldn't overly explain grammar and language points. Shorter, simpler explanations increase students' acceptance of ambiguity. In other words, students realize that effective communication can occur even when they don't understand every single in and out and exception. Examples on the board help too, as the class can repeatedly refer to the information. Again, I want to reemphasize that grammatical accuracy remains important, just that a fifteen minute explanation on a particular tense is never necessary.

...praise students for guesses, even incorrect ones

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Lastly, there are mistakes. You shouldn't correct every mistake that students make, as the teacher should understand Mistakes, Errors, and Correction. Instead focus on problems relevant to the target language and (to some extent) level-relevant mistakes. This is especially true in the early portions of the lesson when students are working towards absorbing the target language. With their focus on the new material, slips of the tongue with familiar language tend to be more common. The meaning of a sentence often remains clear even when there are minor slips with articles, prepositions, and even verb tense or word order. As for the more serious or frequent mistakes because of fossilization or emergent language, you can easily take notes and then develop future lesson plans around these problems. 

But the above points only get the class partly towards an improved classroom performance. You need more than encouragement and a focus on language production. Self-confidence needs to be fostered in the ESL EFL classroom, as it is critically important for students.

One particularly effective method requires students to reuse information and language. When students reuse and recycle information in activities, then everyone has the chance to get comfortable with the new language. This builds much-needed confidence, which in turn leads to experimentation and risk-taking with the language. However, it's important to note that interest must be maintained, as the same activity again and again and again leads to boredom. Take a look at the following idea as an example to offer repetition yet maintain interest.

Step One: The teacher writes two questions on the board related to the topic or grammar point.

Step Two: Students get into pairs to discuss the questions at their own pace. If students talk about only one question, that's fine. However, everyone must still be in the middle of the conversation when the teacher says, "Stop!"

Step Three: The teacher ends step two of the activity, students then find a new partner and discuss the questions again. Armed with a practice conversation in the previous step, students will reuse much of the contents of the past conversation. However, new comments will be added, forcing each pair to incorporate the new information. This may be repeated several times to encourage greater and greater risk taking.

Compare a class in which the teacher throws one activity after another at the students. This similarly not only gets students to practice the language, it also keeps the class from growing bored. Unfortunately, because the objective, focus, or content of the activity changes, the language used also changes. They won't use the same words, express the same ideas, or enrich the past conversations with more information. They lose valuable opportunities to re-practice conversations, yet keep them dynamic.

You can also improve self-confidence with a recap at the end of the lesson. This review and correction stage provides a summary of what everyone accomplished during the lesson. Elicit example sentences from the class, prompt for vocabulary studied, and review a few difficult points in the final five minutes. This last stage of the lesson sort of says, "You didn't know this grammar, vocabulary, etc. one hour ago, but now you do." It markedly improves confidence.

...self-confidence needs to be fostered in the ESL EFL classroom

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Lastly, goals also work quite well to build self-confidence. If the teacher sets manageable goals with students and establishes steps to successfully reach these goals, then students can chart progress over months of study. Oftentimes, the miniscule progress made daily isn't noticed, and so students can't effectively measure improvement. This can lead to discouragement and a drop in confidence.

However, it's also very important for the teacher to regularly provide oral and written assessment. If the teacher and student sit down together to discuss progress and how it relates to the student's goals, then he can realize how far along the path he has traversed. Similarly, the student can also discover what he is doing well, so that he can continue in this regard.

There isn't one specific solution, especially as each student proves unique. Yet with the above suggestions, students can and do gain speaking confidence. And with confidence comes a greater sense of enjoyment in the language-learning process.



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