In 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Review – Boost Power through Body Language – also provides some simple methods for reducing stress in speaking.
- Start speaking after inhaling. Shortness of breath can exacerbate the nervousness or anxiety associated with speaking, so speak after inhaling a full breath.
- 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.