Number one for English language teachers

Methodology: shy students

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article offering suggestions and advice on teaching shy students.

I’d be more than glad if you could suggest a good approach/ method/ strategy/ exercise (whatever) for teaching an extremely shy person in one-to-one classes. How do I overcome his shyness and inability to utter a word?
Piotr Swiecicki

Suggestion one

Assuming that you share a common L1 with this student, the first step has to be to speak to him in his own language in order to ascertain what the problem is and if he is always shy. In other words is he shy when using his native language or does this shyness only occur when he is trying to speak English? Secondly, it would be very useful to spend some time talking to him about various aspects connected to his one-to-one classes and in particular how he would like to be taught and what his aims are. You could emphasise the value of trying things out in English and learning from mistakes rather than being afraid of them. You could also clarify your role and make sure that he understands that you are there to help and to give him constructive feedback on his English. 

Suggestion two

You say that the student is unable to utter a word. Many students find one-to-one quite intimidating. They feel they are expected to speak at length and answer numerous questions and if they are unable to do so, they feel inadequate. The natural response to this feeling is to be reticent and, in some cases, to react negatively and pretend it’s the teacher’s fault. The first thing this learner appears to need is space. If he is pressurised by constant questions (and especially questions repeated several times), he is likely to clam up still further. 

Suggestion three

You could start by turning things round and getting him to prepare a list of questions to ask you. Depending on his level, these questions could range from ‘How old are you?’ to ‘How long have you been working here?’ and ‘What did you do before you became a language teacher’. The point here is to give the student unpressurised time to prepare the questions and also, crucially, to give him something to say. He may be the kind of person who finds it difficult to come up with spontaneous ideas and to express them immediately. If he has something written down to fall back on, he is far more likely to find the confidence to start speaking. You might consider leaving the room while he is preparing the questions, as having a teacher looming over you or watching what you are doing can also be intimidating. 

Suggestion four

You could also use homework as the basis for speaking. If he has prepared a homework exercise (a grammar exercise or similar), go through it in the next class with him reading out the answers. It’s important that he gets used to hearing himself speaking this strange foreign language and feels comfortable with it. 

Suggestion five

Another factor could be the dynamic in the classroom. Sitting next to the student rather than standing or sitting opposite can create a feeling of co-operation and may help the student to overcome his shyness. Writing on sheets of paper on the table rather than the whiteboard could also help as could the use of visual aids on the desk such as maps, photographs, magazine pictures and so on. All of these can help to shift the focus away from the student. The important thing here is for you to experiment and find the style and approach that best suits your student. 

Suggestion six 

Finally, it is important not to expect too much too soon. Some learners are by their very nature quiet and prefer to listen, read and take notes for a considerable length of time before they are ready to speak. In your discussion with the student in his native language you could suggest that perhaps he is not ready for a one-to-one class at this particular stage. Maybe he would benefit from a group course to begin with, where he would be able to adopt a more passive learning role, and then move on to a one-to-one when he has more confidence in the language.

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