The Internet TESL Journal

Encouraging Reluctant ESL/EFL Learners to Speak in the Classroom

Nguyen Minh Hue
nguyenmhue [(at)]
Vietnam National University (Hanoi, Vietnam)


EFL learners’ reluctance to speak English in the classroom is a problem commonly found in EFL contexts. Consequently, students have fewer opportunities to learn from speaking than the more oral students. Research shows that they develop more negative attitudes to school and are likely to lack motivation to put more effort in it (McCroskey & Richmond, 1991). For other students, working with students who are reluctant to maintain and extend conversations also limits their opportunities for language use.

This paper aims to provide EFL teachers with a range of techniques to encourage reluctant students to speak in the language classroom. Many of these techniques are suggested based on the Cognitive, Affective and Situational Framework put forth by Nation (2007).

Reduce the Level of Task Difficulty

From Nation’s point of view, if students do not know enough, they will not be able to perform the task well, and this is one of the causes of students’ unwillingness to speak. The following techniques are practical in dealing with the problem:

Give Students More Time to do Tasks

This can be done by giving students more preparation time. Alternatively, allow them to perform oral tasks without time pressure (Ellis, 2005) by giving them enough time to plan for and perform a task at the same time.     

Bring the Tasks Within Students’ Experience

According to Nation (2000), teachers can create recalling and sharing-experience opportunities for students to make use of their background knowledge and experience in doing the tasks. Key oral skills and strategies should be pre-taught in preparing students for communicative tasks. Also, it is advisable that teachers grade the difficulty level of oral tasks to suit their students’ communicative ability.  

Allow Students to Collaboratively Solve Communicative Tasks (Nation, 2000)

When organizing pair work and group work, make sure that every student’s participation is necessary for the task to be completed. It is best if each participant has “unique, essential information” or distinctive role to play (Nation, 2007).

Provide Students with Task Guidance

Nation (2000) suggests providing this kind of support through repeated input, guiding questions, multiple choices, and so on.

Attend to Individual Students’ Needs and Ability

In a class of heterogeneous communicative ability, the teacher should not expect every student to perform at the same level. Likewise, different kinds of tasks can be devised to suite different levels. Alternatively, task demands can be adjusted according to individual levels of oral competence.

It is thought that once a student has a learning problem, it is best to allow the student to try to solve the problem on their own in the first place. When the problem is too challenging for the student to solve, support can be provided. The above list is made with the amount of support increasing from the first to the last solution.

Promote Positive Attitudes among Students

Students who hold positive attitudes towards language learning are less likely to suffer from language learning anxiety and more likely to participate actively in learning tasks (Tsiplakides & Keramida, 2010).

The techniques suggested below can help the teacher build up positive attitudes among students so that they can feel free to speak in the language class.

Change Students’ Negative Beliefs and Attitudes Towards Mistakes

Teachers can discuss with students the value of language use even if it is not fluent and accurate (Young, 1991; Nation, 1997). Meaning-focused oral activities (Nation, 2007) can also be used frequently with the goal clearly stated. When students are rewarded for successfully conveying a message, they will gradually change their perceptions about mistakes and language use. The teachers' tolerance of mistakes also needs to be made clear because there is no point in trying to change students’ attitudes when the teacher still keeps them.

Boost Students’ Self-confidence

This can be done by creating various opportunities for classroom success in using spoken English (Oxford, 1999). A sense of success and high self-perceived communication competence can be easily achieved by students if easy tasks with clear and simple goals are used in the first place. The level of difficulty can be increased over time as students’ ability develops. General goals should be broken down into smaller, short-term goals so that even when students do not achieve the final goals they still feel a sense of achievement for completing some of the sub-goals. Also, students should be rewarded once they achieve one or more goals.

Lower Students’ Anxiety in the Classroom

According to Young (1991), teachers can start with finding out what students are anxious about. Then teachers can help them ease some of their irrational fears and teach them strategies such as self-talks and doing relaxation exercises to deal with fears.

With the principle of encouraging students to solve their own problems, the first two solutions should be prioritized because they provide assistance for them to change their own attitudes and affect in an appositive way while the third solution does not require as much effort from the students in solving the problem.

Build a Supportive Learning Environment

Once students feel a sense of support from their teacher and peers, it is likely that they will be more willing to speak in the target language. The following are some techniques that teachers can use to create a supportive atmosphere for students.

Encourage Peer Support in the Classroom

Tsui (1996:160) suggests that “allowing students to check their answers with their peers before offering them to the whole class also encourages students to speak up.” Similarly, they can be allowed to have a discussion with their peers before talking to the whole class so that they will feel more confident in speaking English.

Be Sensitive When Assigning Students into Groups

Many students tend to talk more with their close friends. Therefore, when organizing group work, the teachers should take account of and accommodate these personal traits. For example, students can be allowed to choose who they are going to work with.

Tolerate L1 Use When Appropriate

At a low English communicative level, students are not able to convey their every thought. Therefore, teachers should be tolerant of some L1 use. According to Nation (1997), using L1 can help learning in many cases. The teachers’ attitude to L1 use should be positive so that students are not humiliated when they use L1 to assist L2 development. When L1 use is not necessary, the teachers should tactically lead students back to using English, e.g. by commenting or asking a question in English instead of showing strong objections.

Make the Classroom Environment a Non-threatening Place (Oxford, 1999)

The classroom should be an environment where students are not scared of making communicative mistakes and being ambiguous in communicating. Situations that make students anxious such as correcting mistakes on the spot, calling on students at random (Young, 1991), calling on students without allowing them to prepare for the answers, and calling on a student simply because he/she is quiet or not concentrating should be avoided. Otherwise, what the teacher gets from students is usually not desired language use but threatened faces and this will have negative effects on the students’ feelings and attitudes afterwards.

Introduce Opportunities for Students to Speak English Outside the Class

Opportunities such as English clubs inside and outside the school should be introduced to students. The benefits of and tactics for participation should be clearly explained to them. Classroom activities can also be linked to these club activities. For example, students can be asked in the class to report on their participation in the clubs or they can share their experience with their classmates. More opportunities for speaking English outside the class can also be created. For instance, students can be put into groups to do some projects and if possible, their group work should be recorded. They may also be asked to carry out and record interviews with foreigners who are visiting or living around.

The solutions in this category are ranked from the most specific, day-to-day basis to the most long-term one. Although short-term and long-term measures should be taken in parallel, it is believed that short-term solutions should receive priority to be completed first. This will create more opportunities for the long-term ones to be successful.


This paper has focused on the problem of students who are reluctant to speak in the English classroom and suggested a range of techniques that can be used to address the problem. It should be noted that the list of techniques is far from comprehensive because the causes of students’ reluctance to speak are varied. Teachers need to adapt these techniques to suite their class situation. Furthermore, many of these solutions should be implemented simultaneously so that they can supplement each other in tackling the problem from different angles, creating a better chance that the problem will successfully be solved.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 3, March 2010