How to massively improve speaking confidence in conversation classes

Happy Jizo statue in SendaiWhat’s the one thing most students are afraid of?

Making mistakes.

Looking silly in front of the other students.

Being corrected a lot by the teacher, or by the other students.

This drains their speaking confidence and can ruin a conversation class.

I was that student, deathly afraid of speaking

When I was in high school, I would never speak in class. When I was forced to for graded tasks, I said as little as possible, from behind my hair, and shrunk into a corner as soon as I’d finished. I even scheduled instrumental music lessons over classes where I knew I’d be required to speak.

High school kids can be cruel, and I didn’t want to be teased.

Building confidence

I had to get past my fear of speaking in front of people when I started teaching at university.

It took a long time, and a lot of shaking after giving lectures until I could confidently speak in front of large groups.

But my fear of making mistakes as a student continued into adult language classes, where I’d be afraid of making mistakes in my Japanese and early German classes.

Having a good German language teacher, who corrected only a little, and glared at students to dared to giggle at mistakes, helped my confidence enormously.

She made the students feel comfortable and safe, and the class was much better because of it.

Building others’ speaking confidence

Having taught some absolute beginners in English, I had to dip into my basic German to explain some things. In the beginning, I made a lot of mistakes, and the students loved it. If the teacher could speak and make mistakes without feeling (too) silly or embarrassed, then they could too!

How to encourage speaking confidence

  • Make sure everyone is comfortable right from the beginning of the course. Use this first conversation class lesson plan – it’s a great way to get the class talking and interested in each other. Giving out small (and preferably unusual) sweets in the first class also helps!
  • Use food and drink to break the ice. Coffee and cake or biscuits, plus recipes, are great for getting students talking normally. Although you may find it challenging to keep them in the target language.
  • Let students choose the topics covered in the course. Personally I’d hate to have to speak about cars – I know nothing about them and am not interested in them. Therefore I would not be confident to talk about this topic.
  • Correct students only when something could be misunderstood. The aim of conversation classes is to be comfortable with and improve speaking skills, not use perfect grammar. Of course, if a student explicitly asks for more correction, feel free.
  • Ensure that no student giggles at, teases, or complains about another student’s speaking skills. This is harder with young students than with adults, but you’d be surprised how often it happens.
  • Make mistakes yourself! Nothing settles a nervous student more than a teacher making mistakes (and not covering it up).
  • Admit it when you don’t know the answer to questions. This one I learnt when teaching at university – there were a number of students who were much better at programming than I was! Look up the answer and have it ready for the next class – the students will love your honesty and be grateful you followed up and found the answer.
  • Break the class into smaller groups. It’s intimidating to have to speak in front of a large group of 15+ students, even when you are seated!

Classes are easy when you have confident speakers

Once the students are confident, the time spent in the class will be over before you realize. Students will be chatting away, and there will be very few silences that you will feel obliged to fill.

That’s exactly what we want to happen in our conversation courses – the teachers hardly speaks, and the students talk through the whole lesson.

Your tips for improving speaking confidence

What do you do in your conversation courses as a teacher, to improve speaking confidence?

As a language student, what things helped you be more confident when speaking?

Comments

  1. Speaking as a student of 4 languages (french, spanish, latin, and japanese): One thing that made me better in conversation classes, and at public speaking in general, was improv acting classes and exercises. In improv, the first rule is “always say ‘yes’ to your conversation partner.” This alleviates some of the “fear of making a mistake,” if you know your partner is just going to accept whatever ridiculous statement comes out of your mouth and move on with it. With enough practice, you develop the ability to think on your feet in conversation and respond to the natural nuances and abrupt changes in real-world conversations more nimbly.

    • Four languages is impressive! Improv classes would certainly make speaking less scary, although I can remember being terrified of such classes at high school! That rule goes well with mine – nothing said or asked is stupid or wrong. I find most older (elderly) students can improvise quite well, and they love to encourage the younger students.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences regarding the very(or most) important factor in leading successful conversation classes. I am a bilingual teacher, which means I can speak my students’ language as well as English, both at the same level of fluency. But I fear that this is rather accepted as a reason for the students to be more afraid of making mistakes, or a reason to only speak in their native language (because they know I understand it anyway). I’ve tried my best to create a comfortable atmosphere, but I sense that my students feel very uneasy when they say anything in English in front of me. I don’t know if you have had any experiences with this kind of reluctance, but it’s sort of overwhelming at times.

    • Hi Rebecca,
      The shyness or especially reluctance is very hard to overcome! I find this happens more in beginner classes, or where the students are ‘made’ to attend (compulsory workplace classes suck).
      Coffee/cake sessions early on in the course and topics that the students are truly interested in (travel, family, food, past interesting/scary experiences) have helped enormously with engagement and participation, as long as I rarely make corrections (I model the right language, but let them make mistakes without correcting to grow their confidence). Of course, if these were exam prep classes, I would correct, but I’ve mostly held older adult/workplace conversation classes.
      Breaking them into small groups or pairs also worked well for most classes: Less obvious supervision = less scary. This didn’t work in those demotivated compulsory classes though (only lots of coffee/cake or specific, non-work topics got them talking! 🙁 )
      Good luck!
      Kym

      • Rebecca says:

        Thank you so much for your help. You’re right in saying that students who are ‘made’ to attend are more unwilling. I’ll keep your advice in mind as I prepare my classes.

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