Engaging and encouraging reluctant ESL students

Shyness, anxiety, or a lack of self-confidence are common barriers in the classroom. No matter what age you are, speaking in front a room full of your peers can be a frightening task. Now imagine dealing with public speaking induced anxiety in a second language. Scary stuff.

Students face this type of intimidation in international ESL classrooms every day. The result is reluctant students who might seem like they aren’t keen to learn. As the instructor, it’s your job to curb anxiety and shyness, and to boost confidence among your students. I’ve compiled and expanded on some effective methods that teachers can use to engage reluctant ESL students.

Choose topics your students find interesting

Choosing the right topics might be the most effective way to encourage participation in your classroom. A reluctant student is far more likely to engage in a lesson that aligns with his or her interests than one that is boring and unrelatable. Giving students opportunities to read, write, and speak on topics they like helps them to find the motivation they need to tackle a new language.

Depending on where in the world you are teaching, types of interesting topics at your disposal will vary, but some to try might be sports, music, or even a friendly PC versus Mac conversation. 

Casual is key

Keep your lessons casual and light. Instead of having your students read aloud to their peers, use exercises that rely on chatty, natural conversation as a tool to reduce anxiety. If students don’t feel pressured to perform, they are more likely to relax and engage.

An easy way to keep things casual in your classroom is to use word-based learning games (I mentioned these in my Brilliant back-to-school ideas for your overseas classroom post as well - have a look for an example and more elaboration on word-based games in the classroom).   

Switch up group sizes and composition regularly

Changing up the number of students and members of groups on a regular basis is an effective avenue to provide different types of learners equal opportunities to find their comfort zones. Some students may find comfort in small groups, some may react well to a specific partner, and others may decide to engage when the whole class is participating together.

Some reluctant ESL students are more inclined to fuel conversation when paired with another shy student - this situation means that one needs to be the instigator. Others may find inspiration when paired with an extroverted, confident partner.

Find prompts from beyond the textbook

Remember those outdated textbooks you used in high-school French class? They were important tools to learn the rules of the language, but they weren’t always the best conversation prompts.

In addition to textbooks, teachers can use material such as cue cards, role play cards and items, pictures, mixed media, or objects students bring from home. The goal here is to create more personal, relatable conversation. If it feels less like by-the-book school and more like personal communication, reluctant students are more likely to get involved.

Remember as well that these don’t necessarily need to be spoken communication prompts, but may also serve as motivation for writing and reading material.


Do you have any tips or tricks that help make your classroom a more comfortable environment for reluctant ESL students? Let me know in the comments below!