More talking in world language classes

It’s no secret that students are self-conscious and anxious about speaking in a new language, especially in front of their teacher and peers. However, this can be changed—with time, practice, and the right strategies, we can get students talking and using the language. Here are four strategies I use to increase participation in my classes.

Create a nonthreatening environment

First and foremost, it’s essential to create a classroom environment in which students feel that they can make mistakes. When students are comfortable, they’re more inclined to make the effort to contribute aloud. And learning a new language entails mistakes—they’re proof that students are learning and trying.

Instead of penalizing students when they make a speaking error, give them a chance to self-correct. If they’re unable to do that, point out the error in a calm, friendly way. Ignoring the error entirely is not the answer, especially if it impedes communication, but you can point out in a way that encourages the student to keep trying.

Similarly, if a student is stuck and doesn’t know what to say on the spot, model a response or provide a sentence starter. Smile as you implement these steps, to show that you’re happy the student is contributing.

Use compelling photos to inspire students

This strategy requires us world language teachers to take a closer look at the speaking opportunities we give our students. Are we exposing them to compelling material?

I used to use very basic questions to try to start discussions, such as: What did you do this weekend? What do you like to do in your free time?

These questions encouraged some students to speak, but are they compelling, culturally relevant, or inspiring? No way. Do they lead to a discussion that everyone can participate in? Nope. These surface-level questions always fell flat. They were predictable and unimaginative, and inspired no creativity or critical thinking.

Now I find real-life pictures related to the target culture for each unit of study. I go to Flickr and search for topics that are relevant to the unit we’re working on, like immigration, the causes and effects of global warming, family structures and traditions, or volunteerism. This takes a bit of time but is really worthwhile.

Use engaging videos

In addition to pictures, video clips elicit more student responses and can lead to rich discussions at any ability level. While we often associate video clips with listening comprehension, try to use them as talking points, too. Video clips can include news and ads from YouTube, or try TED talks in the target language for upper-level courses—you can filter by language.

A video clip supports students because they don’t have to come up with a contribution to an open-ended question—they can talk about what they just watched. This may help students leave their comfort zones more easily, leading to increased participation.

Keep asking students questions to dig deeper

As students speak, spend more time listening to them and engaging with them. Try to extend their speaking time by asking follow-up questions before moving on to the next volunteer.

For example, after a student shares their opinion of a video clip you’ve just shown to the class, ask them why they hold that opinion, or what factors shaped that perspective. If a student shares their impression of a photo, ask them what specific aspects of the picture led them to that impression. Be specific, and ask questions that address the why.

Encouraging students to explain their thought process makes them more aware of their learning, and involves them in it. It also gives them more opportunities to use the language, which better prepares them to converse in a real context.

In real life, conversations are two-sided, and they evolve. Let’s emulate that when speaking to our students. The more students speak, the more confident they will become. The result is a win-win situation for all.