An article offering advice on how to deal with shy students.

What can I do with a painfully shy student who just won’t speak? My class is made up of immigrants to New Zealand, in need of effective, communicative English skills to get on with their lives here. Class time (two hours daily) consists of the usual mix of accuracy and fluency practice activities. But this man, who excels on paper, seems incapable of taking any risks to speak out.

Just getting him to read an answer loudly enough for everyone to hear is impossible. He is a 40ish Chinese man, very conscious of 'face'. The classroom is comfortable and friendly, and his knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is better than most of his classmates, but where they feel safe enough to speak out, he doesn’t. Do you have any suggestions to bring him out of his shell?


If a student is 'painfully shy' as you say, but otherwise non-disruptive, my inclination would be to let him be. After all, we’re not in the business of changing people’s personalities – only their language! One of the dangers of a communicative teaching approach, which emphasises expression, interaction, and spontaneity, is that it may sit very uncomfortably with learners of a certain personality type – like your Chinese man. But you could also experiment with certain 'low risk' activity types, such as reading aloud. For example, students write a mixture of true and false sentences about themselves and read them aloud for the rest of the class (or group) to guess.

This can then be extended to students writing dialogues in pairs, and then reading them aloud. Giving students reflection time before a speaking activity might also help, e.g.: You have one minute to think about the answer to this question: What did you do at the weekend? If he seems reluctant to talk for fear of making mistakes, try a 'paper conversation': students in pairs write to each other as if they were chatting online, asking and answering questions on the same sheet of paper. The extra thinking-time involved takes some of the pressure off 'monitor over-users'. You could also use pairwork stages to sit with this student and interact with him yourself: it may be that he is only shy with his peers.

If all else fails, you can take heart from a piece of classroom research conducted by Dick Allwright several years ago, in which he observed a class for a term and noted that, despite the highly interactive nature of the lessons, there was one student who hardly ever participated in group or class speaking activities. However, at the end of the course she scored as highly, if not more highly, than her peers on several measures of proficiency, including speaking! Allwright concluded that 'for some students at least, learning a second language is a spectator sport'.

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