If you’ve ever struggled to speak another language in a foreign country, then you have an idea of how nerve-wracking school can be for English learners. The stress you experience creates what experts call the affective filter — an emotional response that can lock down the mental processes of learning a new language.
Stephen Krashen, a leading second-language learning scholar, developed the theory of the affective filter, which combines people’s emotional and physical states to impede learning processes. To reduce the affective filter in English learners, we need to create a supportive learning environment that helps them feel as comfortable as possible.
When English learners struggle in your class, it helps to pinpoint what’s increasing their affective filter. This may vary somewhat from student to student, but these factors are among the most common:
Try these practical strategies for overcoming the affective filter in your English language learners:
Getting to know your students’ backgrounds, interests and strengths can not only help you form connections with them, it can enable you to use their unique knowledge to boost their comfort level. For instance, assigning them a project on their family’s holiday traditions helps them realize they have something to teach others — possibly even you. They might still feel a bit intimidated at the idea of explaining it in English, but they’re starting with something to share in an encouraging environment, which can boost self-confidence.
SDAIE (specially designed academic instruction in English) offers a wide range of strategies for teaching any subject to English learners. It includes incorporating learning games, manipulatives, hands-on activities and visual aids such as graphic organizers. You might already be using these strategies in your classroom, but the key here is using them consistently to create a comfortable yet structured approach where English learners become familiar with these methods. This helps them feel less anxious and more supported on a daily basis.
There are many ways to modify assignments and assessments to help English learners, including using sentence frames, sentence starters, and vocabulary banks. These modifications provide support structures that allow them to better articulate their thoughts and opinions without having to nervously struggle with every single word. Modifications can also help reduce the fear of judgment because they have tools to guide them to the correct way to verbalize or write their responses. Once they become more advanced, those sentence starters and vocabulary words will become second nature, and you can build on that support structure to push them further.
Putting English learners in pairs or collaborative groups with students who are proficient or native speakers can help them learn from their peers’ different backgrounds. These valuable partnerships can decrease fears and feelings of judgment, and give English learners a sense of belonging over time.
It’s important to approach each English learner with an open mind because every student will respond to your methods differently. Just remember that lowering the affective filter can determine how well — and how fast or slow — an English language learner will progress.
Want to learn more ways to help English learners? Discover other strategies in a TESOL or ESL-focused degree program.
Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and a MEd from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She has worked with adolescents for a decade as a middle school and high school English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, and a curriculum designer for high school and college courses. She works with 13- to 19-year-old students as a project manager of a non-profit organization.