A positive group atmosphere is hugely important to the success of any language class in terms of engagement. We need learners to be actively using the language in class, so we need to ensure that speaking is not associated with any kind of social risk or threat to their sense of self. Learners need to feel safe and willing to use the language with others.
However, very often, students are afraid of using the language in front of peers who they are worried may ridicule them and they are concerned about speaking in front of the teacher who they imagine is evaluating and judging them. In sum, asking learners to speak up in class can be incredibly face-threatening, especially during the teenage years, when learners are preoccupied with social standing and hyper-sensitive about how they may appear to others.
For some, being silent may seem safer and smarter than taking the risk of speaking up and facing negative evaluation or even being made fun of. So, how can we create the kind of group atmosphere in which learners feel safe, supported, and encouraged to speak up and use the language without fear of mistakes or risk of embarrassment?
The key is having a positive group atmosphere among the students. However, this does not arise overnight or as the result of one single activity. There are no express routes to a good group dynamic. Rather, this emerges over time from the quality of relationships developed among peers and between teacher and students. It takes time but it is worth the investment as it can transform learner participation and language use in class.
For teachers, it is important to make a conscious effort to get to know your learners as individuals. This means knowing their names and how to pronounce them correctly and also finding out personal things about them such as their hobbies, interests, or favourite films or band. Micro-conversations are those little two-minute interactions you may have with a learner in the hall, before class starts, after class ends, or during an activity – these little conversations play a critical role in building up trust and rapport. It is a way for you to connect on a personal level and show you are interested in them as a person.
Another way to build trust is to be transparent in what you are doing and why. Explain the reasoning behind actions, have clear grading scales and criteria, welcome feedback from learners, empower learners to make choices where possible, and be consistent in your expectations of learners. Teachers may also share a little about their personal lives (not too much and only what is appropriate!) so that learners can see you as a real person beyond the classroom! With a good rapport between teacher and learners, they will feel safer and less worried about being judged harshly when they speak or make mistakes.
Learners also need to appreciate each other as individuals, respecting difference and individuality. Many of the activities in the language class enable learners to get to know each other personally, and it is good to occasionally allow students to work with diverse partners when they feel confident to do so, in order to ensure learners know as many of their peers as possible. There are other ways we can work on strengthening learner relationships, here are just a selection of ideas:
Use ice-breaker and team-building activities.
Ice-breaker activities are designed to help people feel at ease and get to know each other when a group first forms. However, they can be used repeatedly throughout the year to ensure individuals continue to get to know each other, learn personal details about one another, have fun together, or cooperate on a shared task. Knowing others in class makes it a safer space and helps learners feel a sense of connection to one another.
Ensure learners work with diverse members of class.
Learners tend to stick with friends for activities which is fine when they need to feel secure and strengthen their confidence. However, with low-risk speaking tasks, it can useful to deliberately mix learners up so they get to know others in class individually. For example, students can find out about each other’s hobbies, get them to learn what things they have in common, have them share photographs of things or people they love, or ask them to tell each other about a social issue that matters to them (e.g., the environment, animal rights, racism etc.).
Make sure learners feel a sense of belonging.
Not only teachers need to know learner names and how to pronounce them correctly, but also learners need to know each other and be able to use each other’s names appropriately and respectfully. This helps a sense of inclusion and togetherness. In addition, diverse social groups represented in your class may have different celebrations that can be acknowledged as a group. To ensure learners feel a sense of belonging, the whole class could draw up a calendar of diverse social and cultural celebrations and days of relevance (e.g., Easter or Diwali or Eid or World mother languages day or World chess day or World diabetes day) – let learners suggest things to add to the calendar and ideas of how the days can be marked. This enables all learners and issues or events that matter to them to be celebrated within the group as a whole, which can strengthen everyone’s sense of belonging and also generate a shared understanding of diversity. In a classroom where everyone feels welcome and seen, learners will feel a stronger sense of security and a greater willingness to participate as a valued member of the group.
Have learners work cooperatively together on joint projects or tasks.
Relationships can be positively impacted when learners have a shared goal and support each other in working towards it. When learners depend on each other and everyone has something to contribute, they can value and appreciate every individual’s contribution. A common task type that fosters this sense of cooperation is when learners work on jigsaw tasks or form expert groups. Here they form groups of say four. Each individual then works on a reading or research task alone. They then come back together to share what they have read or found out with the rest of the group. Together all four work on a joint task that they can only complete with the input from each and every individual member of the group.
Develop students’ empathic skills through role play or perspective-taking.
Learners need to become empathic by imagining how another person might think or feel in diverse situations. This is a key life skill learners need not just for enhancing classroom life but also for life beyond school. They can work with stories, film extracts, poems, or photographs where they are asked to imagine how another person might feel, think, or react. Taking part in role plays also involves imagining the thinking and behaviour of someone else. Being able to switch perspectives and see the world through another person’s eyes helps learners be more supportive of peers and less likely to engage in bullying.
Have a zero-tolerance policy for any bullying or ridicule.
If a problematic situation does arise, try to find ways to turn this incident into a discussion on empathy, perspective-taking, and respect. Do not ignore such incidents but use them as an opportunity for learning and demonstrate your insistence on respect for all learners.
Here are some questions to help you think in concrete terms about your own learners and what areas you might wish to explore in more depth. As you read the series of blog posts on each of these issues, think about a specific group of learners you work with. Consider how the issues raised concern your group of learners as individuals and/or as a group and which of the suggestions you would feel comfortable working with in your setting.
- When you think of a class you work with currently, how would you describe the group dynamic? Is there any areas of your relationship with students you could work on? To what extent do you feel all the learners know and respect each other? Are there any learner relationships activities you might want to work with?
- Can you think of a past class which had a fantastic, positive group dynamic? Reflecting on the class now, what do you think were the factors which contributed to this positive atmosphere? Are there any lessons you can draw from it for your current teaching groups?
Let us know what you think in the comments, do you have any advice for other teachers who have students facing the same issues?
This blog is the start of a mini-series exploring the key issues which impact learners willingness to use language. Explore the other parts here:
Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author, and co-editor of several books in this area including, Exploring Psychology for Language Teachers (2015, with Marion Williams and Stephen Ryan), Teacher Wellbeing (2020, with Tammy Gregersen), and Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms (2020, with Zoltán Dörnyei). She has published over 150 book chapters and journal articles and has served as Principal Investigator on several funded research projects. In 2018, she was awarded the Robert C. Gardner Award for excellence in second language research by the International Association of Language and Social Psychology (IALSP). Sarah is the author of this paper.