How can we encourage English learners to feel self-confident?

Jeanne Perrett
Jeanne Perrett
A group of students in a classroom sat at their desks, smiling and looking towards their teacher at the front

Encouraging learners to feel more confident in the classroom is a problem often faced by teachers. Below are five simple things you can adopt in your classroom to encourage learners to feel self-confident.

The small things

Let’s start with the physical comfort of our students. Having the room adequately heated or cooled, asking if they would like the window open, making sure everyone has had some water or checking to see if anyone needs to go to the bathroom or wash their hands only takes a minute at the beginning of the lesson. It helps our children to know that their welfare is our concern.

Then, make sure that everyone has their books and praise them for being organized or having their pencils sharpened and ready. These things seem trivial, but they count. They count because we are acknowledging the fact that it isn’t always easy to get up and ready for school every morning, day after day and that just managing that well is an achievement.

So, starting by checking the small things helps to give our students a feeling of well-being before the lesson has even begun.

Clarity and familiarity

Be clear. Be clear about what you are all going to do and why you are going to do it. There is no such thing as ‘the obvious’ when it comes to learning. For example, you know that English is spoken internationally, but primary-aged students may have no concept of what ‘internationally’ means.

They may never have considered the concept of language itself. So, we must state the ‘obvious’ and do it in ways which are meaningful to the children, through videos, pictures and relatable examples. This goes for everything; what a verb is, how we form negative statements, what question marks indicate and what today’s lesson aims are.

Whatever they need to know, we need to state it clearly and when they have forgotten, we tell them again without ever making them feel that they ‘should’ have remembered. They forget – we remind. That’s our job.

Then there is the familiarity of a routine. Apart from making us feel reassured that we know what is happening, routines also feed into the innate need for repetition. Young children want their favorite bedtime stories told to them exactly the same way each night and will pop their heads up to correct us if we do something differently. That repetition is part of practice; doing, saying or hearing something repeatedly until we are completely sure we know it.

Most teachers don’t need reminding of this, but it might be helpful to remember that within that routine, one can also have surprises.

A five-minute ‘something different’ slot could be built into your routine. This could be a fun quiz, game or song and dance. A straightforward way of managing this is to write the names of different ‘surprise activities’ on pieces of card, put them into a pot and let a different student pick a card each day.

Room to maneuver

We all feel more confident if we know that we are free to experiment and, within that experimentation, to make mistakes. It can’t be stated often enough that we will only ever learn something by doing it wrong, often many times, before we do it right.

This message may be even more important nowadays when we see and hear perfect versions of whatever has been created - music, cookery and writing to name but a few - especially on social media.

The learning process is not brought to our attention as often as the result, and the results are often digitally altered to look more impressive. We need to remind our children of this and make them feel good about their efforts, however small and halting.

Peer pressure often contributes to a lack of self-confidence; you only need one mocking ‘friend’ to put you off. So, we must be vigilant in noticing little glances or whispered asides and praise the majority of the students who are quietly accepting or encouraging.

Space to flourish

Finally, confidence in our language learning abilities will soar when we know we can make the language our own and use it however we want.

This goes beyond personalizing activities, which can be done at any level ("What’s your favorite food?" "Do you like tomatoes?") and is dependent on the teacher noticing and accepting what individual children are really interested in. So, for example, if we continue with the example of food, a sporty child might be interested in what famous sports people have for breakfast or which foods give us stamina.

A child who is interested in nature might want to know what birds and animals eat. For this to happen, first we need to notice their interests, show enthusiasm for what they are finding out and encourage them to share what they have learnt with the class.

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