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7 tips for helping learners minimize anxiety in speaking




Man with hand over his mouthIn this post, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, looks at anxiety, an important affective factor in second-language learning.

“Picture your audience naked!” “Focus on listening, not on thinking about how you are going to respond!” “Take a few deep breaths!” “Just relax!” — Many students will tell you that these methods don’t work or that they are easier to recommend than to do!

As we know, some people are predisposed to feeling anxious about things (called trait anxiety), while others experience state anxiety in relation to some particular events or situations. Many learners may experience anxiety because of their perceived inability to adequately express their thoughts, or because they are afraid of being judged negatively or not being socially accepted. Anxiety, according to various researchers, can be debilitative (or some call it “harmful”) or facilitative (some call it “helpful”). The latter kind, as the term suggests, can benefit speaking performance, as indicated by numerous research studies (see Brown, 2007).

In this post, I’d like to share some strategies for dealing with state anxiety, which might occur, for example, when performing a speaking task in class or in real-life situations. This kind of anxiety might prevent students from enjoying practicing with peers, doing oral reports in class, or engaging in conversations with other English speakers (Woodrow, 2006). If you have students who seem to need some help in overcoming the kind of anxiety that does not require professional intervention, then you might consider sharing these strategies with them.

  1. Allow for planning, preparation, and practice time. In the confidence-building stage, adequate planning time enables learners to become familiar with what they want to say and build success. Try the pyramid approach; that is, build in opportunities for learners to work individually, in pairs, and in small groups before proceeding with speaking in a whole class, so that learners can rehearse and modify what they want to express.
  2. Take a few deep breaths. This tip needs a bit of elaboration to be useful. If you have taken a voice training course, you know that breathing is fundamental to speaking. To release tension and slow down the heart rate, try relaxing the shoulders and breathing through the nose (noting the expansion of the diaphragm); holding the breath and tightening your stomach muscle, fists, and toes; and counting one-one thousand, two-two thousand, three-three thousand, four-four thousand, and five-five thousand. Then exhale through the mouth and release all tension. Repeat this a few times.
  3. Know the first 60 seconds like the back of your hand. This enables learners to start talking and feeling confident because the opening is usually the most nerve-wracking phase. After a smooth start, the butterflies start to dissipate, and the process usually gets much easier as they move along.
  4. Think positively. Remind your students that no one wants to spend time listening to an insubstantial talk or engaging in a bad conversation. Encourage learners to see themselves as fluent and confident speakers and to remember that listeners want them to succeed.
  5. Warm up the “gears.” In addition to drinking some water for dry mouth, encourage students to exercise the mouth muscles, much like a warm-up that one would do before a sports game, by exaggerated voicing “wee-woo-wee-woo” or “wow” a few times to loosen the facial tension. Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning produced an excellent video titled “The Act of Teaching,” which contains simple vocal warm-ups that instructors and students will enjoy doing together. In situations of dry mouth when water is inaccessible, gently chewing the tongue a few times will create some saliva to moisten the mouth. The video recently posted on Harvard Business ReviewBoost Power through Body Language – also provides some simple methods for reducing stress in speaking.
  6. Start speaking after inhaling. Shortness of breath can exacerbate the nervousness or anxiety associated with speaking,  so speak after inhaling a full breath.
  7. Experience builds confidence. Create opportunities for your students to build successes. At the same time, encourage your students to gain experience and to practice wherever and whenever they can by trying to respond to what their interlocutors say to them.

It’s important to remind your students to never expect any strategy to work magically the first time they try it. Suggest that they apply and experiment with different strategies a few times to find the routine that that best minimizes their anxiety associated with speaking.

Finally, help your students recognize that a modest amount of so-called “facilitative” anxiety can help them convey their message or ideas with energy and enthusiasm. That’s important, because, if one is not enthusiastic about what he or she has to share, why should others be? So encourage students to make the butterflies work for them.

Do you have any other personal tips to share? I’d love to hear from you and share your great tips with my students.

Brown, H. D. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching (5th edition). White Plains, NY: Pearson.
Woodrow, L. (2006). Anxiety and speaking English as a second language, RELC Journal, 37(3), 308-328.
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  1. So useful for those who have difficulty speaking easily and efficiently on the day of the speaking test!
    Many Thanks,

    • You are most welcome! That’s an excellent point about how those tips can also be applied to dealing with the anxiety associated with language-testing situations. I just finished collecting data from 40 test takers over the weekend, and your point makes perfect sense! Thank you for pointing it out!

  2. The best way to learn a language, no matter if your anxious or not, is to just jump right into it. If you cant just FLY ON OVER to said country, try learning one word at a time! = )

  3. Sometimes what may be a small step in an instructor’s eyes may be a giant leap for our students for a whole host of reasons that may or may not be observable to the instructor. What can we as instructors do is to never stop searching for ways that can make those steps just a bit easier to take so that our students can accumulate successes and have opportunities to glimpse what they can accomplish in their language-learning endeavours.

  4. One key thing is to realise that anxiety is a normal response – your hands are shaking, your mouth is dry, your brain is filling up with thoughts like “why am I here? I am not ready. today is not a good day for this. i will look bad. i can’t remember how to…” is what is supposed to happen. The key is to not engage with these thoughts… let them begin, let them pass through… but don’t engage, don’t enter into the argument.

    • Great to read your comments here, Conor. Thank you very much for pointing out that anxiety is a normal response and for offering a key point, which is not to engage in those self-limiting thoughts.

      I find intriguing the idea of letting those thoughts pass through…. The process of letting those thoughts pass through sounds meditative, and the idea of not engaging with or entering the argument requires one’s conscious effort to disrupt a particular thought process. Is it necessary to replace those self-limiting thoughts with positive ones (much like ideas about how to break a bad habit, for example), or would simply telling oneself to stop engaging in certain thoughts naturally lead to the passing through of those thoughts?

      A breathing exercise that helps a speaker to clear his/her mind and focus on breathing (related to tip #2) and/or replacement of those self-limiting thoughts with positive ones (related to tip #4) are methods that learners can use to self-regulate the physical and mental responses triggered by anxiety. Still, I wonder what other methods language instructors can use to facilitate the process of “letting those thoughts begin and letting them pass through” as part of the pre-task work in class, because, in a situation when learners are being ask to perform a speaking task with little or no preparation, they sometimes might not be able to wait for those anxiety-ridden thoughts to pass through or those negative internal dialogues to die down. Any thoughts?

      • I believe that it’s all a matter of habit. Allowing anxiety to take over has become the subconscious “habit” or autopilot for many, whereas for others they may have developed the conscious habit of overtaking that anxiety in their own little ways. For those who haven’t been able to detect this or get help with it-which is the majority-it is upon us teachers to elaborate on the whole phenomenon of anxiety as a habit and how to TRANSFER that habit. By this I mean that old habits die hard and the only way and perhaps best way to get rid of a certain habit is to replace it with a habit one step closer to the aim, which here would be to manipulate that anxiety for the better.

        This takes time, effort on the part of the student, the leadership of a patient teacher, and of course, much encouragement.

        If students are not able to come up with ideas as to what sorts of habits to transfer their old one onto, we can help out. One example would be to talk to yourself about how you’re feeling right now-in English of course-that you’re about to take the test, or give a presentation. There must be myriads of ideas out there that I myself would love to hear from other teachers as well.

  5. Allow me to clarify further with an additional example: on the day of the interview or presentation, the student may-as he/she exercises correct inhalation and exhalation-close eyes and whisper a short talk on a particular subject, trying to reach in for the advanced vocabulary he’s been working so hard to show off his language abilities with. Let him know that when he remembers and uses so many as even ONE of those vocabulary items, he’s good to go; his brain is ready to pour out the rest automatically on the interview itself-if he genuinely HAS been prepping of course. This encourages students and stops them thinking that they’ve “forgotten every new word they’ve been trying to hard to learn and utilize!”

  6. I believe it’s all a matter of habit. Anxiety can and most often has become a subconscious habit of the mind. I believe making students aware of this fact and training them to tackle this habit through practical transferral tactics will help a great deal.

  7. […] Unfortunately, becoming aware of my problem did not make it disappear. I am still struggling with speaking, but I continue to push myself out of my comfort-zone and just speak. My own struggle has allowed me to empathize with my students and has allowed me to support them as they work through this constant struggle and overcome this difficulty. I am not an expert on this matter, yet I like to share my experience with my students as well as hearing other second language teachers’ experiences. Some of the techniques I use in my classes to create a lower-anxiety environment and raise self-confidence are: I focus on fluency in most of my speaking activities and avoid interrupting my students to correct a speaking errors or mistakes. I also do not use peer feedback in speaking; I try to use games to get my student engaged in fun and relaxed activities. In addition to that, I always try to know my students better and their different personalities, so I can avoid placing pressure on those who are shy or introverted by forcing them to speak on the spot or in front of audiences.  I usually give students time to prepare for any speaking in-class activity. I think that it is teachers’ responsibility to create space in our classes for our second-language learners, to try and make mistakes without the fear of being judged or losing any grades. Allowing your students to make mistakes without consequences will not make them worse, but it will lower down their filter, so they are more willing and able to learn, and will develop a healthy, relaxed, and encouraging learning environment. More tips that you can share with your students about how to control anxiety and build self-confident while practicing speaking can be found here. […]

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