Why is it Important for ESL Teachers to Focus on Building Confidence in Beginner Students?
Learning a new language is an inherently challenging task. One important way for ESL teachers to help beginner students learn English is to focus not only on teaching language concepts but on building their confidence to experiment with the language and persist with their learning. This essay will firstly examine why building confidence is important in ESL teaching, and different strategies teachers can employ to do this, including how they interact with students and the content they choose for classes.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Emily U. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Why might beginner students suffer from low confidence, and how can this interfere with their learning?
Different groups of beginner learners might be especially likely to suffer from low confidence. Adult learners for example, while often more motivated, inherently can find it more difficult to learn a new language that younger learners after a lifetime of speaking their primary language. Adults and adolescents can also be more self-conscious in the classroom than children and sensitive to making errors in front of their peers, and thus be reluctant to experiment with the language. It is important to focus on building confidence in ESL students because a willingness to make errors and experiment with language is integral to learning. Further, when students attempt exercises before they are certain and make errors it helps a teacher to identify areas of weakness and tailor lessons to fill in these knowledge gaps. A willingness to attempt language is also an important focus of ‘fluency’ exercises, which aim to strengthen the ability to speak in a free-flowing way for communicative purposes rather than strictly on accuracy.
When students believe they will not be successful they are less likely to attempt exercises in class and persist with their learning. In psychological terms, this is referred to as self-efficacy, i.e., the belief that one can successfully act, and it is a strong predictor of the likelihood of attempting an action or persisting with a long-term goal. Thus, teachers of beginner students should be especially sensitive to this need and focus on building students’ confidence as an important goal in early classes.
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An important initial way that teachers can help build their students’ confidence is via the way they present in the classroom and the relationships they build with their students. Students are more likely to feel comfortable attempting class exercises if the teacher presents as warm, friendly, approachable, patient, and gentle in their manner. Teachers can put effort into getting to know and building rapport with the individual students in their class to help foster trust, and communicate that they care about their learning and wellbeing. Teachers can build confidence by creating an atmosphere of warmth, inclusion, and fun in the classroom, emphasizing a focus on curiosity and fun rather than on complete accuracy at all times. For example, when choosing activities, they can ensure there is a balance between ‘Study’ activities focusing on theory and accuracy and ‘Engage’ and ‘Activate’ activities where the focus is more on experimenting with the language in a fun and social way. A teacher can also normalize difficulties by explicitly reminding students that language learning is challenging, but that with practice, improvement is possible.
How teachers correct student errors is also important in fostering confidence. While feedback is essential to effectively teach a language, overcorrection can reduce student confidence. Teachers can focus on correcting more in the ‘Study’ phase of the lesson, where accuracy is important, and less in the ‘Engage’ and ‘Activate’ activities of the lesson which focus more on fluency. Teachers should generally wait until a student has finished speaking before providing corrections. Another technique may be to provide corrective feedback to the class as a whole when an error is observed to show that the error is common and to reduce the focus on a particular student. Teachers need to refrain from criticizing or belittling students at any time. With a patient and encouraging manner, teachers can provide a culture in the classroom where students feel safe to experiment with the language because it is OK to make errors.
Further, a greater focus on what students do well, including not only correct answers but attempts to produce language or answer questions, is a further way to build students’ confidence. Teachers can positively reinforce student’s attempts at speaking with attention, labeled praise, encouraging body language such as smiling and gestures, and highlighting good work in front of the class, for example reading out a good response to the class.
Carefully tailoring the content of classes to beginner students is also important. Teachers should keep their language simple and choose activities that will present some challenges to students but at a manageable level. This gives students an experience of success, while also stretching them beyond their previous level of knowledge, which helps to build confidence. Teachers can hone in on particular areas of strength and weakness for different students and ensure their classes include a mix of activities that match these.
The Focus of the Lesson
In general, teachers should allow plenty of time in the Study phase of the lesson for controlled practice, where students can practice correctly producing language as a class (e.g., with pronunciation drills), before they are challenged to produce language independently in Activate activities. Similarly, using pair work and roleplay activities can help foster confidence by providing what can feel like a safer environment for students to practice a language than in front of the whole class.
Type of Materials
Finally, the inclusion of authentic materials in class can help build students’ confidence as they interact with the English language in a real-life way. It is important to select these materials carefully to suitably match the students’ language level.
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In conclusion, helping to instill confidence is a vitally important task for the ESL teacher of beginner students, as it, in turn, allows more effective learning. Teachers can do this both through how they interact with students in the classroom, and by carefully choosing the content of their classes to both give students a sense of success and realistic challenges.
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