Three Ways to Engage and Empower Shy Adults

How to encourage participation with shy students in TESOL ESLKids are typically a lot easier to engage than adults. Even the shyest kids can usually be persuaded to participate and feel more relaxed through edutainment. Children are naturally less inhibited than adults, as they haven’t had years of experience moulding them to feel embarrassed at not knowing something or trying new things. As adults, most of us understand the dread of feeling and/or appearing incompetent amongst our peers. While these feelings are normal, they are intensified for a person coming from a culture that puts a strong negative connotation on shame. There are many countries and cultures, particularly in parts of Asia, that have a strong outlook on shame and embarrassment. This starts in childhood at school and is only exacerbated into adulthood. Looking ‘foolish’ is deemed quite disgraceful; with such a huge load of pressure, it’s unsurprising that some adults may lack confidence to put themselves out there in the classroom. Dealing with shy adult learners adds another layer of challenge to a teacher’s job, as it might feel awkward for you to try to engage them. Understandably, you don’t want to come off as forceful or disrespectful, especially when your students are older than you. I’ve encountered this predicament time and time again through my own teaching experiences as well as through discussions with other teachers, and wanted to offer a few suggestions to set your shy adult students up for success.

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1- Arrange Your Classroom Effectively

Alright, I’m pulling philosophical principles of feng shui here, but creating a harmonious learning environment is a logical first step toward effective teaching and promoting engagement with your students. The physical space is the first obstacle to tackle in order to facilitate participation and a sense of equality. This will, of course, depend on your group size, so plan accordingly. A horse shoe formation works best in my classroom, and I utilize it with groups ranging from three students up to 20, given that I have the space. By positioning the students in a manner that allows them to face each other, you open up the lanes of communication and create a true sense of togetherness. This seemingly minute detail is not so minute at all, and physical positioning can certainly work wonders for facilitating inclusion and participation from all students- even the shyer ones.

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2- Utilize ‘Get to Know You’ Activities

On the first day with a new group, tensions might be running a bit high. People are nervous about venturing into the unknown, not knowing what to expect. “Will I be up to par with the other students?”. “Will I understand or be able to communicate?” These are just some of the completely understandable thoughts that will run through most, not just shy, minds. ‘Ice breakers’ are a great way to kick start the classroom experience and allow everyone to let their hair down a bit. Encourage students to speak with each of their classmates or, depending on group size and time, at least several people whom they’ve never met before. Discuss introduction questions such as, “Where are you from?, What is your job?”, likes, dislikes, etc.. Promote basic activities such as this to allow each student to feel as though they belong. Often times, the more gregarious students intimidate shy students with their constant speaking, causing them to become more and more recluse. By putting everyone on an even keel to begin with, you are setting up the entire class for success.

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3- Don’t Underestimate the Power of a Laugh

It’s true that games are utilized much more often in youth classes. Autonomous adults typically make the decision to study English, whereas children are enrolled by their parents. As such, adults typically have specific learning goals and want to get down to the nitty-gritty of sentence writing, grammar, reading, and practical skills. They might find games to be an illegitimate waste of time, especially if they come from particularly strict or conventional academic cultures. However, never forget the power of a smile or laugh. Adults get nervous, just like children. They might be hesitant to put on a skit in which they feel they look silly or play a game that brings attention to them, but, in my experience, engaging in these activities is a home-run for breaking down barriers. I recently began doing an improvisation activity with an adult class. I’d ask one student to name a subject, another to set the scene in a place, and another to give me a verb (or, if they have the language ability, to come up with a detailed occurrence). Actors from the class would then act out the scenario. It’s a great task-based approach that can get the whole group involved. Shy students may not want to act (at least at first), but suggesting something funny for their more confident classmates to act out is a step in the right direction. Plus, everyone loves a good laugh!

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Techniques to Foster Participation in the ESL Class

Class Participation Obstacles