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Get Students Talking

Cora's campus in La Réunion.

Tips for TEFL teachers for engaging even the quiestest students.

As an English Language Assistant on Reunion Island, or La Réunion, I teach all of my lessons at a high school in Saint-André, a small city on the east coast of the island.

English for many of my students is a third or fourth language, as all students speak French, but tend to speak Creole around the hallways. Many students also learn Spanish or German in school as well. My job as a language assistant is not to teach grammar, but mainly to help students practice English conversations. This sounds easy, but because I am teaching at a high school with 14 to 18 year olds, encouraging them to even speak can sometimes be a challenge in itself.

One thing I’ve observed from teaching is that teenagers around the world are in some ways all very similar: they care what their peers think, they can be extremely self-conscious and at times they can appear very unmotivated. Thinking back to when I was in high school, I probably fit this description to a tee.

After teaching for about two months, I have found some small ways that can help to break the barrier of silence. And getting to know the students behind this has been encouraging in itself. So here are some tips to get those seemingly hesitant students to start speaking.

1. Talk about something they will be interested in.

Ask them about their interests, their hobbies and their favourite TV shows. Planning activities around their interests can make a conversation come more naturally and make them more enthusiastic.

For example, I asked one of my classes what their favourite musical artists were. Then I created a comprehension activity that involved listening for the lyrics to a will.i.am song, then analyzing the meaning of the song. Also, if planning an activity like a debate let them choose the topic and they will be more excited to participate.

2. Choose silly activities and games.

I have found that students will be more willing to talk and less nervous about making mistakes if the topic is not too serious. For example, creating a funny story that requires using random celebrities, verbs and adjectives.

3. It’s okay to be slightly self-deprecating.

If students see that you are willing to look a little bit silly in front of the class, they may not be afraid to either. Telling a funny or embarrassing story can sometimes work to make the students feel more at ease. They may also feel the urge to ask you a lot of questions about it afterwards.

For one of my classes I told a story about a recent trip to Mauritius in which myself and two other friends ate some fish Dhal Puri, which had probably sat in the sun for a bit too long. I will save you the whole story, but the punch line involves a guided boat trip, sickness, the runs and making the boat stop to jump into the ocean for sweet relief.

4. Split the class up into smaller groups.

There are always a few students that will refuse to say even two words in front of the entire class. However, allowing them to speak just amongst their peers often opens them up and allows them to practice the language.

5. Be patient.

Like everyone, students sometimes just have bad days and will not be very talkative no matter how hard you try. This is okay, with time and multiple classes, students will usually begin to open up and talk more, especially when they watch their peers doing the same.

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Cora Siebert

Cora Siebert recently graduated with an undergraduate degree in Political Science and is working in the overseas department of France, La Réunion for seven months as an English Language Assistant.

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