The Internet TESL Journal

Promoting Positive Attitudes in ESL/EFL Classes

Iakovos Tsiplakides and Areti Keramida
tsiplakides [ =at= ]
(Ioannina, Greece)


It is widely accepted that an important predictor of success in a foreign language is students' attitude towards it. In ESL/EFL contexts, students who consider the learning of English as a positive and rewarding experience are less likely to suffer from foreign language anxiety. By contrast, they usually have higher levels of motivation, willingness to participate, and high language performance. Students' attitude towards the foreign language is very often influenced by: a) teacher-student relationships, b) the general classroom atmosphere, and c) the use of authentic teaching materials and activities.

This article is practical in nature. Its aim is to provide English teachers with a set of strategies and practical suggestions in order to help their students develop a positive attitude toward learning English as a foreign language.

Factor 1: Teacher-student Relationships

Teachers can make a valuable contribution to developing a friendly relationship with their students. The following is a checklist with appropriate and effective teacher behavior:

1. Remember that your everyday classroom behavior is important. Most students consider their teacher as a role model. For this reason, in order to motivate your students to learn English, you need to be enthusiastic, cheerful and sincere. (Brophy, 2004:28). Show your students that you actually care for them, and you are there to help them master the English language, rather that constantly criticizing or correcting them. Students want teachers who are friendly, caring, and trustworthy (Ebata, 2008). Always be well prepared for the lesson, and show willingness to answer students' questions.

2. Acknowledge the importance of immediacy in your classroom behavior. This involves verbal (use of humor, use of students' first names), and nonverbal (eye contact, positive gestures) immediacy behavior. Such behavior has a positive impact on motivation to learn, and can decrease foreign language anxiety (Frymier, 1993).

3. Provide to all students, regardless of their performance, enough time to answer questions. When students have difficulty answering, provide scaffolding rather than calling on another student. Use the following techniques: a) thinking aloud, b) providing hints and clues, c) providing appropriate feedback, and d) explaining the stages necessary for task completion

4. Communicate expectancies for success for all students. Do not form differential expectations for your students based on qualities such as gender, ethnicity, or parents' background (Schunk et al, 2008: 322). Remember that active participation is a major determinant of performance in the foreign language and that in your lesson you need the participation of all students. In order to avoid communicating low expectancies for success, you should avoid the following: a) calling on weak students less often to answer questions, b) providing fewer clues to low achievers when they have difficulty in answering, c) rarely expressing personal interest in low achievers, d) criticizing low achievers more often when they make mistakes, and e) smiling less often to weak students, waiting less time for them to answer, staying farther away physically, or avoiding eye contact with them

5. Address the issue of lack of interest due to past failures in the foreign language. Past failures (e.g. low exam grades) are often the main reason for students' lack of motivation and low self-esteem. One of your first priorities should be to communicate to all students that you expect all students to be successful, regardless of previous performance. Tell them that you expect them to "make a fresh start" and show them that you believe in their abilities and you are there to help them.

6. Be extremely careful in providing praise. While praise can convey "positive teacher affect" (Schunk et al, 2008: 314), it should be proportionate to the language performance eliciting the praise. For example, if excessive praise is given to students of low ability for answering a simple question, this can be interpreted by students as an indication that the teacher has little confidence in their abilities (Thompson, 1997). Thus, praise should be appropriate and provided at the time of the desired performance. Criticism should aim at explaining to students how they could do better (Kyriacou, 1997:83), and should be devoid of personal criticism or sarcasm.

Factor 2: Fostering a Positive Psychological Classroom Atmosphere

It is important to establish a kind of "classroom community", in which students feel free to communicate using the foreign language. An important thing to bear in mind is that you should create a classroom atmosphere in which language errors are considered a natural part of the process of learning a foreign language (Dornyei (2001: 42). If errors are ridiculed, some students may suffer from communication apprehension, that is, they will be unwilling to communicate using the target language. The following techniques are intended to create a friendly, non-threatening class classroom climate:

1. In speaking activities avoid excessive, "on the spot" correction. This can discourage students from speaking and experimenting with new language (Lightbown and Spada, 1999).

2. In writing tasks, adopt a correction code. Prompt students about the location and the nature of errors rather than correcting every mistake (Lee 1997:466). When students get back any piece of written work with too many corrections, their confidence is undermined, and they experience frustration and demotivation (Edge, 1989:50).

3. Establish a set of classroom rules and enforce them fairly and consistently with all students. For example, make it clear to all students that ridiculing a wrong answer, not completing homework, or misbehaving is not acceptable behavior.

4. Incorporate collaborative work in your English classroom. Short-term, or long-term projects can make students personally involved in the language learning process, and increase motivation (Lee, 2002). They help students feel that their language output is not constantly assessed. As a result, they are more likely to participate and focus on communication, rather than on accuracy. An additional advantage of project work is that students have an active role in the implementation of project work, which can both boost their confidence and also teach them collaborative skills.

Factor 3: Creating an Attractive Physical Classroom Environment

Very often teachers overlook the significance of an attractive and motivating physical environment. However, teachers can make a significant contribution to the physical environment in which teaching and learning takes place. The following is some practical advice.

1. Pay attention to seating arrangement. For example, you can encourage and facilitate cooperation among students (e.g. pair or group work), by carefully arranging three to four desks together (Levin and Nolan, 1996:126).

2. Make effective use of bulletin boards and display areas. These are excellent for displaying students' work, such as collaborative tasks and projects.

3. Posters, maps, newspaper clippings, can be used in order to provide a stimulus for classroom discussion. Posters can also familiarize students with cultural elements of the countries in which the English language is spoken.

4. Classroom procedures and rules are necessary for effective classroom organization. Posting these guidelines on a bulletin board is a good way to communicate them to students.

5. Bring to the classroom a number of English books, so that students can borrow them. This can serve as a stimulus for learners to read authentic English texts (e.g. literature) and familiarize themselves with English culture and history.

Factor 4: Supplementing the Teaching Material with Authentic Texts and Tasks

Students often develop negative attitudes towards learning English as a foreign language due to the lack of stimulating, authentic teaching material and tasks. Authentic material is meaningful to students, challenges their cognitive abilities, engages them personally. It also increases interest and intrinsic motivation. If you feel that your English coursebook contains few authentic texts, then you need to provide your students with authentic texts and activities. Authentic material and tasks should be selected based on the following guidelines:

a) They should be related to the students' interests, knowledge and everyday experiences.
b) They should foster learner autonomy by providing activities and tasks that require students to use English for authentic communicative purposes.


The above parameters, which have a great impact on promoting positive attitudes towards learning English as a foreign language, are essential by themselves. However, they overlap, and fostering of positive attitudes is a complex mixture of all the features described.

English teachers should also note that the principles and techniques described above are general. Teachers need to adapt them according to their students' needs and the specific teaching context.

Finally, apart from the above principles, it is worth mentioning that fostering positive attitudes towards learning English as a foreign language is a dynamic process. Teachers should be constantly observing their classrooms and their students. In this way, they will be able to identify sources of discontent among students, recognize the reasons why they misbehave, are unwilling to participate, and have low performance.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 1, January 2010