(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)*
One day, I ran into an exasperated-looking colleague in the copy room at our school. She had just come from her ESL class in which she wanted to check some homework whole class. To do this, she asked, “What is the answer to Question 1?” Then she waited for someone to volunteer to answer, but nobody would.
Many of us ESL teachers have been in similar situations, especially with East Asian students. In his book, Behave, neuroendocrinology Robert Sapolsky gives a possible explanation for this by describing “… the archetypical experience of American Peace Corps teachers in [East Asian] countries—pose your students a math question, and no one will volunteer the correct answer because they don’t want to stand out and shame their classmates.”
[For more about the reasons for the differences among students from different cultures, see Best Subject for an ESL Integrated-Skills Class (Part 1 Overview)]
Needless to say, it’s not just East Asian students who are reluctant to volunteer answers. Students from other parts of the world who are basically shy or lack confidence in their speaking skills may also be hesitant.
Most of us would agree that a willingness to volunteer an answer during group discussions carries some great benefits in helping students take advantage of speaking opportunities. Once they become comfortable with this skill, there is often a carry-over effect in which they tend to be more will to volunteer in whole class situations. Also, perhaps more importantly, I’ve noticed an increase in students’ willingness to initiate a conversation with me before or after class and to ask for help on assignments and not just wait for me to offer.
How to help students feel comfortable volunteering an answer
Decrease students’ feelings of uneasiness about volunteering an answer.
In a previous post, • ESL Students Won’t Progress In Conversation Skills Without This Technique. , I explained how we need to desensitize ESL students to the discomfort they feel in certain situations, like telling someone that you didn’t understand what that person had said. And I shared an activity that teachers can use to help students become comfortable (and even enjoy) asking for clarification questions when they don’t understand.
We can apply this same “desensitizing” process to help students become willing to (and enjoy) volunteering an answer in group discussions and, perhaps, even whole class.
In the activity in the link below, students are in groups of five (Students A, B, C, D and E). Each student is given a different page with these directions:
In addition, each one is given a different set of questions to ask their partners. For example, some of the questions are:
The goal is for each member to volunteer an answer and not wait to be directly asked. In addition, to make it more interesting, they need to respond with and, but, so, because, or two sentences. I also emphasis that sometimes they should try to answer first, and at other times to let others do that before answering. In addition, I’ve found it helpful to choose a few students to model how to do it with one question. No doubt you’ll hear a lot of friendly laughing if you do this.
Here is the link to the activity, which you can download for free and use with your students Volunteer an Answer Handout
One of the several benefits from this activity is that students become aware of how much they can actually help a group discussion by being willing to volunteer to respond. In other words, instead of thinking that they are a better group member by not standing out, they are actually doing the others a favor by volunteering.
*About the free-download materials. During my 40 years of teaching ESL, I have had many colleagues who were very generous with their time, advice and materials. These downloads are my way of paying it forward.