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by Erica Fischer on Dec 16, 2015

Motivate Reluctant Students to Use the Target (Language)!

Karen by Star Guitar, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Star Guitar 

Last week, Langchatters discussed how to motivate reluctant students to embrace the target language (TL). Participants brainstormed factors that cause students to shy away from the TL, and they considered ways to increase learners’ comfort. Instructors reflected on how group or audience size, task design, and assessment could be modified to support TL use. Langchatters also shared their favorite ways to create a safe space for risk-taking and growth in the TL. Before the start of the hour, #langchat was already a buzz of activity, as new and familiar participants alike lacked no motivation for this chat!

Thank you to everyone who joined the conversation once…or twice (!) last week, and thank you to the Thursday night moderators, Sara-Elizabeth (@SECottrell), Laura (@SraSpanglish), and Colleen (@CoLeeSensei), as well as John (@CadenaSensei) for leading Saturday morning!

Question 1: What internal and external factors cause students to be reluctant to produce in the TL?

Langchatters noted factors that can hinder students from jumping into the TL. They cited fear of looking silly or making a mistake in front of others, pressure of high-stakes exams, past experience with language courses, and frustration when not being able to communicate complex ideas in the TL.

  • Looking silly and messing up: @MlleSulewski observed that students are often “[afraid] of looking ‘dumb’ or getting it ‘wrong.’” @MrsCoblentz agreed, writing, “[The] fear of sounding or being wrong holds a lot of mine back. It’s hard for them to understand that mistakes are okay with [the TL].” @mmebrady pointed out that “adolescents are naturally self-conscious,” but @SraWienhold commented that this situation applies to peer groups in general: “[We] all have a fear of looking dumb in front of peers.” @mjosey1 added that students may also experience self-consciousness when they are “made fun of for succeeding and showing enthusiasm.”
  • Pressure to get it right: Others noted that high-pressure testing has increased students’ anxiety about being wrong. @LisaShepard2 wondered whether the “[prevalence] of high stakes tests [has] increased pressure to have the ‘right’ answer in class.” @tmsaue1 also mentioned grading pressure in general as a factor: “[Sadly] grading pressure is a big external factor too. [I] wish we could eliminate it all together.”
  • Past language-learning experiences: @CoLeeSensei noted that “[students’] past experience with language learning is a huge ‘factor’.” @IndwellingLang also mentioned “[bad] experience in a past language class” as a demotivating factor in TL use.
  • Complex ideas, simple tools: Participants noted that students can experience frustration when if do not yet have the tools in the TL to express their complex thoughts. @MmeCarbonneau wrote that students’ “L1 is much higher than [their] L2, [so they can become frustrated when they] can’t say what they truly want to say.” @MCanion warned that instructors should try to keep tasks doable to reduce the influence of this factor: “When the task is beyond [students’] language ability or skill level, [this can work against TL use].” Similarly, @srtamartino noted that “lack of TL [vocabulary]” can discourage expression in the TL.

Question 2: How does changing up the group or audience size help students feel more comfortable in the TL?

Langchatters generally agreed that changes to group size can increase comfort in the TL. @CoLeeSensei wrote that different seating arrangements work “amazingly.” She has students “[work] in tables of 4 not facing [her],” which has resulted in “way less ‘fear.’” @mmebrady commented, “[It’s] obviously less intimidating to speak to a partner than to speak to whole class — adults are no different.” That said, @krobertslwsd pointed out that comfort level “really depends [on] who else is at the table.” Most instructors felt that some initial discomfort working with others could promote growth in the long run. @MrsCoblentz said, “[Small] groups with familiar faces are nice, but constantly mixing it up turns that fear into a familiar thrill of uncertainty.” @mmebrady whole-heartedly agreed and expressed enthusiasm about mixing seating up: “YES!!! I change seating configuration weekly or more. [Students] whine, but it’s effective.” @SenoraRamsey observed that students eventually gain comfort as they become familiar with more and more of their classmates: “[Last] year I changed seats every 3 weeks and by the end of [the semester] everyone knew each other.” Others change seating multiple times within a single class period. For example, @SraTvasquez wrote, “My [students] get paired [probably] 5-8 different times [during a] 50 [minute] lesson. [They] get comfortable [because] they have to work with others.” In terms of deciding whom to pair with whom for a given activity, @Senora_Miller explained her system: “I have quadrant partners: 1- [someone] close by, 2- [a] friend, 3- [a] boy/girl, 4- [someone students] don’t know well. I pick different quadrants for [different] situations.” @SraDentlinger wrote that, ultimately, a positive learning environment that supports low affective filters is more important than group arrangements: “If I build the family, big or small [group work] doesn’t matter to my kiddos.” Some Langchatters suggested asking students for feedback on group or pair interactions. @SECottrell said, “[We] can also ask students what kind of group situations they prefer. Give them a voice,” and @hugghinss agreed, writing, “Checking with [students] for feedback on activities is important for future grouping and learning.”

Question 3: How does changing our task design help students feel more comfortable in the TL?

Langchatters suggested some easy ways to increase student comfort in the TL through small changes to task design. Here are some of their tips!

  • Think variety: @CoLeeSensei wrote, “[Variety] is key – [It] plays to everyone’s strengths!” @mjosey1 agreed, saying, “[Differentiation] is key to finding what each [student] responds to, [and it] also helps hold [student] interest.”
  • Scaffold: @mmebrady encouraged instructors to “scaffold, scaffold, scaffold.” If you’d like to read up on scaffolding, check out this summary on scaffolding authentic resources.
  • Model: @srtamartino commented, “[Modeling] is everything. It gives [students] a clear example of what they need to do.”
  • Keep tasks doable and focused: @MmeBrady wrote, “The task needs to give [students] confidence and not make them shut down. It’s ok not to understand every word!” Similarly, @SraSpanglish noted, “They HAVE to feel like the task is something they CAN do, they have the vocab to express it, AND it’s WORTH expressing.” @SraStephanie pointed out that focused tasks feel more doable: “Keep parameters tight and focused [to] prevent overwhelming [students].”
  • Make tasks fun: @bjillmoore said, “@teawithbvp mentioned [the] importance of fun in motivation of students. Students need to enjoy being in class and feel comfortable.”
  • Keep it real: @IndwellingLang wrote, “[Tasks] should be as natural as possible, e.g., not require ‘3 verbs in [the] preterite’ and ‘2 superlatives.’” @krobertslwsd noted: “I find that when the learning is about REAL life, the engagement goes way up . . . but then some get impatient [and] want to [use] English.”

Question 4: How does the way we assess TL production help students feel more comfortable?

In reflecting on the relationship between assessment practice and student comfort in the TL, Langchatters discussed the benefits of rubrics, the role of the assessment format, and the power of holistic grading.

  • The benefits of rubrics: @Vtracy7 wrote in favor of rubrics: “Rubrics make it so clear! This is where I am and this is what I need to do to improve.” @srtamartino voiced similar enthusiasm for “rubrics with clear objectives [or] can-do statements,” and she prompted instructors to “introduce them early on so [students] know what’s expected of them by the end of [the] unit.”
  • The role of assessment format: @CoLeeSensei wrote, “I’ll say it again: Vary the ‘way’ [students] are assessed (pair/solo/self) [and] almost never have ’em stand in front of class [and] recite!” @hugghinss replied, “Yes!! [Students] don’t usually feel comfortable in [the] L1 in front of class. Why have them do it in L2?”
  • The power of holistic grading – or don’t sweat the small stuff! @MrsCoblentz observed, “Losing points for every mistake is counterproductive to our goals. Switching to holistic grading has been monumental for me!” @MlleSulewski added, “If [students] know they’re going to be evaluated on the message, not the errors, they’re more willing to take risks.” @SoyBolingual pointed out that this is especially important with novices: “Don’t correct every error a [novice] makes! [That’s an easy] way to silence their output.” @SraDentlinger added that visual encouragement also goes a long way: “I also think encouraging nods and facial expressions are helpful.” She commented that feedback should not be provided until students are done speaking and should highlight strengths and areas for improvement.

Question 5: What are your favorite ways to make your classroom a SAFE PLACE to TAKE RISKS in the TL?

Langchatters shared how they support risk-taking in a supportive environment. Instructors’ comments focused on reminding students that everyone makes mistakes, expressing genuine care and concern for students, and cheering learners on collectively.

  • Admit to imperfections: @windycitysenora said, “I let [students] see me use of [WordReference] or point out when I make a mistake. [We] don’t know everything so I [don’t] expect them to.” @profelopez716 replied, “[Me] too! I’m not a walking dictionary and some words they want to know not part of my active [vocabulary].” Similarly, @mjosey1 said, “[I remind students that] we ALL make mistakes [and] share my struggles as a learner [with] them (like words that [are] tough for me [to] pronounce).”
  • Show you care: @SraDentlinger wrote, “I CARE ABOUT MY KIDS. I promote them, they feel safe and valued, they promote me. It’s a lovely cycle!” @SraStephanie wrote in favor of listening carefully to students and offering constructive advice: “Lots of feedback. Allll the time. [Students] know they are being heard [or] seen and someone cares.”
  • Cheer collectively: Many instructors wrote in favor of collective applause and cheering. @SECottrell said, “[We] cheer ‘Bravo, Bravo’ for students who volunteer any kind of TL… and never focus on ‘errors.’” @SraTvasquez suggested, “Literally [applaud] (we have [much applause] in [our Spanish] class!) in the TL when students take risks, speak the TL.” @tmsaue1 noted the powerful effect of recognizing and cheering on student growth each day: “[If] students leave class every day thinking they can do something they couldn’t do at the beginning it will build confidence.”@CoLeeSensei closes each class by having students express gratitude for their classmates’ contributions: “[At] the end of every class we thank our table [and] partners for their work that day… お疲れさま.”

@IndwellingLang prompted fellow instructors to “[make the classroom] a safe place, period [through encouragement], affirmation, humor, fairness, physical safety, compassion, dream-bigging,…” Additionally, he suggested that teachers “[take] note [or find] out from [students] and keep track of what promoted safety and what threatened it [in order to then] make necessary adjustments.” In terms of safe spaces for risk-taking, @SraWillis added, “Remind [students that] there is no better place to mess up than at school where [a] teacher can pick [you] up, dust [you] off, and toss [you] back in the game.”


Langchatters discussed how to motivate reluctant students to embrace the target language (TL). Participants considered factors that can cause students to shy away from the TL, and they brainstormed ways to increase learners’ comfort. Instructors reflected on effects of changing group or audience size, task design, and assessment could be modified to support TL use. Langchatters also shared their favorite ways to create a safe space for risk-taking and growth in the TL.

Thank You!

Thank you to everyone who contributed to a motivating #langchat! We hope to see you soon on Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET OR Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. ET!

Due to space limitations, many tweets had to be omitted from this summary. To view the entire conversation, you can access the full transcript on our tweet archive. Got a question you’re eager to discuss?! Send us your ideas for future #langchats so that our weekly discussions can become as relevant and inclusive as possible!

Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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