How can we help the quiet students?

Whether you’re teaching one-to-one classes as I do, or a big group, it’s natural that some students will be more talkative than others. Particularly in larger classes, the quieter students are sometimes overlooked because they don’t volunteer information or readily participate in discussions. As a language learner who found speaking the least exciting of all the language skills, I’d like to take a closer look at some of the reasons why students may be quiet in class, and what we can do to help them.

1. The naturally quiet student

I used to work with a student who always tried hard in lessons, but who genuinely didn’t talk a lot, even in his own language. I know this because we had some general conversations in his native language after the lesson. Where some people would use 100 words to answer a question, he would answer it succinctly in 20. That’s just how he spoke.

I think sometimes teachers believe that the larger the vocabulary, the more students will talk. However I don’t believe that you will make a naturally quiet member of the class into the life and soul of the party just by increasing their vocabulary.

I don’t believe this is an excuse for not speaking, and a quieter student definitely needs to be encouraged to expand upon their answers, give more detail, give reasons and justifications etc, but I equally don’t believe we can make someone into something their not already in their native language. So whilst it’s good to encourage such students to keep pushing their boundaries, I think teachers’ expectations should be realistic.

Clearly it’s different if each student has to give a presentation for 10 minutes in order to pass an exam. Every student’s presentation must be 10 minutes long. However I’m thinking more from the perspective of someone who works with adult learners on a one-to-one basis in order to improve their communication skills. If the student can get across their messages clearly and they choose to do so with less words, then I believe that’s just part of their communication style. After all, adding more words doesn’t necessarily equate to adding extra value!

2. The perfectionist

I know all about this problem, because I was that student! When I was 16, my German teacher told me that what I said was usually right, but I would never be able to improve my mark unless I took some language risks. I have also worked with a student who did exactly the same thing. She produced good, structurally sound sentences, but I knew that really she wanted to say more. However doing so would mean that she might make some mistakes, so she chose not to do it. Now she is a lot more relaxed and gives much fuller answers. Sometimes she makes mistakes, but she can learn from those.

When working in a business environment, it’s really important to encourage students who lean towards perfectionism to take some risks, if initially only with the teacher, as otherwise these students or their potential contributions may be overlooked in meetings.

I remember being in a meeting of German speakers and really wishing that I could contribute more. My perfectionism was keeping my mouth firmly shut and I was so annoyed with myself afterwards, that I sat down and wrote a long email detailing my thoughts. I made sure that the opportunity wasn’t wasted, but I don’t know whether everyone there read the email!

It can be hard if you would usually give your ideas, expertise or suggestions, and you suddenly don’t do it when the conversation is in English.

Often, I find that students who struggle in this way need to work on their confidence as much as their language skills, and I believe the classroom should be a good and safe place in order to do this. A place where students can try out new ideas and learn from their mistakes.

3. The frustrated chatterbox

Actually I can relate to this one as well. I remember being at a gathering of German friends and someone asked whether I was always so quiet. This just added to my sense of dejection and frustration at not being able to say all the things I wanted to say. Now I don’t have this problem in German, but when I started learning Turkish, I was back to square one.

When I communicate in English, a lot of my confidence stems from the fact that I don’t usually struggle to express my thoughts in words. When your vocabulary is suddenly reduced to that of a small child because you are learning a new language, it’s so frustrating! It’s even more of an issue in a business context because you want to be seen as competent, a source of knowledge or a leader in your field, and suddenly you have to simplify your message so that you can get it across, even though there is so much more that you would say in your native language. This makes some people feel as though they want to give up.

Part of the problem is that many people have a general working knowledge of English, but they haven’t been exposed to situations like formal meetings or presentations before, and they realise that their general English isn’t enough. This is where personalised, more specific training can come in useful.

If vocabulary is an issue, reading and listening exercises that focus on the missing vocabulary can also help the student to become more familiar with the terminology. Ultimately, I urge my students to practise in situations where it isn’t critical to their success – with me, in front of a mirror, a family pet or exchange partner.

In addition, you can’t expect a student to give their opinions on a new topic with specialist vocabulary if you don’t know whether the student is already familiar with these words. A vocabulary list or an introductory text can sometimes make the speaking part of the lesson more productive because you’ve given the student the tools they need by empowering them to use the new words in context.

Reducing what you actually want to say into what you can say is a skill that needs to be developed. It takes practise to become good at it, and the better your language skills become, the less you need to do it. Still, in the beginner and intermediate stages, it’s a good skill to have. After all, it’s better to say a simplified version of something than to say nothing at all.

4. The image conscious student

Sometimes there are a range of factors that hinder participation in group discussions. A student may feel worried about making mistakes, but they may also be worried about looking stupid in front of their colleagues – particularly if members of staff of different grades are learning together, or there is already some kind of friction or competition between the members of staff. A group learning session may not be the best place for these students to thrive, and if they have to attend the group training, some other activities in which they can develop their confidence and speaking skills away from the other colleagues (whether individual training or general speaking activities in a general interest group) may be just what they need to get over their fear of speaking in front of the other colleagues. Being proactive and setting up other learning activities will probably be more productive than only focussing on learning in an environment in which they already feel uncomfortable.

5. The student with fantastic writing skills

Whether the student chose to focus on writing because they didn’t enjoy speaking (I’ve done that as well), or their English education so far has not given them opportunities to speak, it can be hard for students whose speaking skills are at a much lower level than their reading, writing or listening skills. We’ll cover reading and listening skills in the next point, but in terms of writing, some students love the sense of security that they have when they can reread their work, look up words in the dictionary, and spend more time thinking about what they want to write. Spontaneous conversations don’t offer the same degree of security and they can feel scary, particularly for those who are not used to speaking.

I used to think that allowing a student to prepare some notes before speaking on a topic was a good idea, but invariably they just read their presentation. Now I believe it’s more useful to focus entirely on the speaking aspect because in conversations, you need to practice the skill of spontaneity without having the opportunity to prepare everything in writing first. After you’ve done all the preparation, learned the vocabulary, understood the grammar rules, the only way to become good at speaking is to actually speak!

6. The student who loves reading and listening

I can relate to these students too. They are usually the ones who enjoy language learning activities that can be done without other people, or people who genuinely enjoy reading and do it as a hobby, not just a language acquisition activity.

I’ve been in meetings in which I understood everything that was going on around me, but I didn’t contribute anything. This was as a result of a number of factors, but one of them was that I had focussed too much on the language skills that I enjoyed, and neglected the one that I found most difficult. If a student is doing one-to-one training, doing a range of activities, but focussing on the weakest area is a good way to bring all of the competencies to a similar level.

7. The student who hates pointless conversations

I’m not a fan of pointless conversations either, but I know how to engage in them! I know what’s expected of me and how to get people to talk. However, some people really struggle with this, particularly if you want them to have general, in their eyes pointless, conversations with colleagues over dinner. I will go into more depth about this in a separate article, but I try to keep it real with my students. I don’t promise them that they’ll enjoy small talk in English if they don’t enjoy it in their native language, but I encourage them to see it as a useful skill to have, and to see the bigger picture in terms of it helping to develop relationships and build trust.

8. The student who doesn’t really want to be there

I think this is the hardest problem to resolve, which is why I’ve left it until last. As a private teacher working with adults, it doesn’t come up for me too often. People are paying me for my time, and even if they are learning English because they have to, and not because they want to, they want to get the best out of the sessions.

I think the problem of people not engaging because they don’t want to be there occurs more when companies put on classes for people who would rather be elsewhere, or when parents decide their children need help with English, but the children aren’t motivated to learn.

There are certainly things that a teacher can do in terms of making the lessons more interesting, relevant, or better suited to an individual’s learning style, but I believe ultimately the motivation has to come from the learner, and the learner has to be willing to put in the effort if they want to succeed or see an improvement in their language skills.

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Kirsty working with students


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