Giving students space

elt preferences Oct 22, 2021

By James Jenkin

There’s a dilemma. Enthusiastic ESOL teachers want their students to enjoy class, to participate, to speak. But can our enthusiasm inhibit learners?

We do these things with the best intentions:

- stand close to and over students
- use big gestures
- give a thumbs-up while a student’s speaking
- urge students to speak
- affirm responses by echoing (‘I like pizza.’ ‘Pizza, yeah, it’s great, isn’t it!’)

But in fact, these behaviors often stop students talking. They would rarely occur outside the classroom, so the interaction seems weird. Students feel watched, which we all know makes us nervous. Students feel pressured to respond, with no chance to get their thoughts together.

And echoing literally stops students speaking.

Consider the following to give students breathing space.

While teaching:

- Ask a question, then wait. Look away slightly, rather than stare at students. Give them time to process. Don’t immediately repeat the question, or ask ‘Anyone? Does anyone know the answer?’
- Have students compare their answers in pairs before you ask them to tell the whole class. Stand somewhere discrete – like the corner – during their pair discussion.
- Let a student be the teacher out the front, to teach something, or run an activity. Don’t stand near them – let them try without your help. Don’t let students feel you’re watching every move, smiling and nodding with approval.

In a discussion:

- Sit with students, if possible, rather than stand over them.
- Ask a question, then stop talking. Give students time to think about what to say. Look away, nodding slightly to show you’re listening.
- Avoid echoing. Just nod when a student speaks to you. Ask ‘Why?’ or say ‘Tell us more’ to encourage them to keep talking.

While monitoring:

- Don’t stand over students. If possible, sit nearby, where you can hear. If you need to speak to a group, sit or crouch so you’re on their level.
- Keep your gestures discrete – being close to someone with flamboyant hand movements and facial expressions is intimidating.
- If a student asks you a question, turn the question back on the group: ‘What do you think?’ If they’re right, just say ‘Perfect’. You don’t need to have the last word to prove you’re an authority.

Some of these suggestions may be very different from what you normally do. Try one! Observe the response. It’s likely students will feel more confident and in control of their space.

James Jenkin has worked in the field of TESOL for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer and academic manager. He is an IELTS examiner and has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Monash University, Australia.

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