Tag Archives: small-group activity

• Helping Students Overcome Hesitancy to Volunteer an Answer in Group Discussions

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(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

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 • A More Sophisticated Technique Than Just Saying, “What did you say?” and “I don’t understand.”

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(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

Spoiler alert: You will hear quite a bit of laughing when students are doing the activity in pairs. 😁

Here is how I introduce this technique to intermediate-level ESL students:

If I say to you, “My cousin gave me a jigsaw puzzle,” and you say, “Pardon?” I’ll know you didn’t understand. But I won’t know which word you didn’t understand. It will help me if you let me know specifically which word you didn’t understand, so you might ask, “Your cousin gave you a what?” Then I know you didn’t understand “jigsaw puzzle.” Or you might ask, “Who gave you a puzzle?” Then I know you didn’t understand that I had said “my cousin.” This unit will give you practice in asking questions about specific information which you did not understand.

The practice for this technique involves a brief introductory exercise and a 3-step pair work activity.  (You can find the complete set of exercise to download and use with your students in the link below.)

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• ESL Students Won’t Progress In Conversation Skills Without This Technique.

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YouTube This posting is discussed on my YouTube video YouTube ESL Students Won’t Progress In Conversation Skills Without This Technique

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

In her book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers,  Amy Sutherland describes how “progressive” animal trainers help animals who may feel nervous about anything new or that they are not accustomed to. One way is called desensitizing. She explains, “When you counter-condition, you take a negative experience and make it a positive one by pairing it with something good.”

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She gives the example of a cavy, which is a South American rodent, who was terrified of the humans at the animal training school. Anytime that it needed vet care, it had to be caught, which meant chasing it around its cage, and this made it even more terrified of humans. The animal trainer set up a counter-conditioning. Each day she would enter the cavy’s cage and move just an inch closer. If the cagy didn’t hide behind a bush, the trainer would reward it with an alfalfa pellet. Overtime, the cavy allowed the trainer to come closer and closer, until one day the animal ate some pellets right out of the trainer’s hand.

I realized that desensitizing our ESL students to a “negative experience” could help them become more open to using an important technique, just as it helped the cavy.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand that.”

For many language learners, it seems so hard to say this or a similar phrase. For some, it can be embarrassing to appear less proficient than others (e.g. classmates) seem to be. Some don’t have confidence that they’ll understand even if their interlocutor repeats slower or rephrases what was said. Others don’t want to take up the other person’s time having to explain or simplify what they had just said.

I, myself even as an adult, was like this when I was trying to navigate my way around France or Japan. If the situation wasn’t dire, I usually just nodded like I understood and thanked them. But at times, when I really needed the information, I put aside my ego when I couldn’t understand and said in French or Japanese, “Excuse me. Could you repeat that?”  To my amazement, nine out of ten times, the people adjusted their speech by speaking more slowly, and/or used easier vocabulary, pantomimed, and sometimes even used some English. Over time, I became desensitized to those negative emotions I had felt about saying, “I didn’t understand.”

Classroom activities to make it easier and natural to ask for clarification. (Handout included.)

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• Four-Part Series: Why, How And When to Teach ESL Integrated- and Discrete-Skills Courses. 

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(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

This posting expands on the discussion in the most visited posting on Common Sense Teaching ESL:  Integrated vs Discrete Skills ESL Courses: Advantages of Discrete Skills

In that posting, I explained the many advantages there are for both students and teachers when Conversation, Reading, Writing and Listening are taught in separate classes.

However, it may not be possible to teach them separately due to the structure of the ESL program. And on top of that, there is a situation in which integrating the skills around one subject or topic in one course has several important advantages for students.

YouTube To explore this more, I put together a four-part YouTube video series.

In PART 1, I discuss the best way to teach students in a LOW- or INTERMEDIATE-LEVEL class in which all four skills need to be taught in one class due to the program’s design. Here is the link to the video: Teach All ESL Skills in a Class But NOT Integrating Around a Topic-PART 1 Integrated/Discrete Skills

In PARTS 2, 3 & 4, I focus on ADVANCED-LEVEL classes. At this level, especially in Academic ESL programs, an integrated-skills course that revolves around a topic or subject area can best mirror the types of mainstream (non-ESL) college classes which student will be taking.

About PARTS 2, 3 and 4. (Including a link to two academic, integrated-ESL skills units for advanced levels which you can download for free to use with your students.)

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