Building Up Students and Reducing Fear in the World Language Classroom

Oh no, I hope my teacher doesn’t call on me! What if I mispronounce a word in French and the whole class laughs at me?

I don’t even like reading in English. How does my teacher expect me to read and understand German? 

When it comes time for the speaking tests in Spanish, I always draw a blank. I try to prepare beforehand, but I just get too nervous. 

Today, the level of student anxiety is at an all-time high—there’s tremendous pressure to achieve at a high level. It’s no surprise our students are fearful when it comes to learning a second language. Regardless of what stressors students bring with them into the classroom, we’ve all witnessed some level of fear or worry in our language learners.

In fact, anxiety in the world language classroom is no new concept—it has been an area of research since the 1970s. This type of anxiety was found to be distinct from other types of anxiety—including general school-related anxiety—because, according to one study, "no other field of study implicates self-concept and self-expression to the degree that language study does." This anxiety can affect students’ motivation and desire to succeed. 

So, how do we provide the support our students need so that they find growth and success? Here are three ways to build up your students to help reduce anxiety in your world language classroom. 

1. Talk About It! 

Acknowledge that learning a second language is hard. We expect our students to put themselves out there, to take risks in the target language, and to get out of their comfort zones. This is hard work! When we legitimize our students’ anxiety, we help reinforce the idea that language learning is a process. Naming a fear or a source of anxiety affirms that progress is more important than perfection. 

Bringing light to our students’ fears also often reduces the severity of the fear. We can ask them questions like:

  • What is easiest for you in the target language? Why do you think it’s the easiest?
  • Do you (or did you in the past) feel anxious in regard to the target language class? Why? What was it? What helped you to overcome it?
  • What’s the most difficult aspect of learning a target language for you?
  • What does your teacher do to help support you? What could he/she do more of?

Reflecting on the good and the bad helps to highlight student strengths and weaknesses. Moving forward, a teacher can lead students into goal setting regarding their personal weaknesses. Empowering students to move toward their weaknesses instead of away from them is one step in breaking down foreign language anxiety.

2. Keep Your Class Student Centered.

Generally, students do not feel less anxious to use the target language when the teacher spends the majority of class speaking. Instead, let’s offer students a variety of activities that provide them the opportunity to invest in their own learning. This means the activity must be appropriate to a student’s proficiency level (novice, intermediate, or advanced) as well as support the modes of communication (interpretive, presentational, interpersonal).

Here are a few ideas for student-centered approaches.

  1. An information gap activity is a low-stakes way to support interpersonal skills. Here, students need to use the target language in context to solicit the information they need from their partner. Communication is highlighted over perfection.
  2. Many students panic when asked to interpret the target language, especially when listening to a native speaker. Allowing students the opportunity to listen first before being expected to respond helps to reduce their anxiety. After hearing, students feel more at ease.
  3. One method that helps to increase confidence for the presentational mode is the tried and true think-pair-share strategy. Here, students are able to formulate a response in the target language and then try it out with a partner first. They can stumble through pronunciation and/or delivery while also getting some immediate feedback from a partner. When it comes time to share, students are much more confident to produce language in front of the class.
  4. Create an environment where the intention is to read, write, listen, and speak in the target language daily—when you come to class, you’re here to participate. Call on every student at least once a class period. Invite the class to respond chorally with small phrases or even just one word. Setting the expectation for all to engage helps to level the playing field between those who are eager participants and those who need extra support.

3. Celebrate the Small Victories.

Showing support for students as they make mistakes in the learning process helps drive in the idea that success is attainable, and that proficiency—not perfection—is your goal. Highlighting students’ good pronunciation is an easy proclamation. Pointing out self-correction stresses the importance of metacognition, another part of the process of language learning. Did a student meet a goal? A simple high five shows you care. Sending positive notes home to parents goes a long way, too! Offering positive feedback to students about the steps they are taking down the path to proficiency reframes their brain, encouraging them to focus on what they can do as opposed to what they can’t. 

When you intentionally seek to build students up in your classroom, students will change their perspective on their learning. Instead of statements full of fear, you might overhear...

It’s so fun to watch commercials in Spanish. I love understanding more of the culture. I might not catch every word, but I definitely get the big picture! 

All the partner practice we do in class really helps make me feel confident as I go into the interpersonal tests. Everyone is in the same boat—no one is really judging you!

I love how my French teacher always finds something good in what I write. I know it’s not perfect, but it makes me feel proud of what I’ve done.

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Looking for support for your language class? Learn more about HMH’s world languages programs.