9 Fail-proof Tips to Get Shy ESL Students Out of Their Shells

We’ve all had a shy guy in the class.

You know, that student who stays totally silent during pair work.

The one who stares at her desk when you’re looking for someone to call on?

The one who did his homework but never gave the answers out loud.

Have you ever had a student that, no matter how you tried, you just couldn’t convince to get involved?

For whatever reason, be it shyness about an accent or fear of getting things wrong, they don’t want to come out of their shells. And in ESL classes, that’s always a bit of a shame — lots of ESL success comes from participating in group activities and from making the mistakes your students are so afraid of!

So what can you do to help a student who’s holding their tongue a bit too much?

9 Fail-proof Tactics to Get Shy ESL Students Out of Their Shells

1. Do Harness the Power of Pair Work

Some of the fear of participating in class comes from having the whole class looking at them. Shy students don’t want to be in the spotlight.

They’re not likely to raise their hand to answer a question. I mean, they might get the answer wrong in front of everyone. You and I both know that mistakes are nothing to worry about, in fact, they’re a natural part of the language learning process. Your shy students need to learn this more gradually.

To take some of the pressure off, split students into pairs to practice language concepts in a controlled setting.

Have students interview each other, for example, or construct arguments for a debate in pairs. Then have the students present to the class. Your shy student will have been able to validate some of their answers with a buddy and may not be quite so worried about sharing the results of the work with the whole class.

2. Do Your ESL Homework

No, no, don’t give them more homework. It’s time for you to do your homework, teacher.

ESL teachers who’ve been around the block a few times know that speaking perfect English is only half — maybe even less! — of what it takes to become a great ESL teacher. Students’ homework is nothing compared to what you do every night to prepare for your class… right?

As tempting as it can be sometimes to just phone it in and go with a classic textbook exercise, you’re doing a disservice to your students if you don’t take just a few minutes to plan out the questions you intend to ask them.

Asking a roomful of beginners (or even intermediate students) what’s wrong with a sentence when you haven’t covered the material yet is setting them up for failure. Set them up for success by making the questions you ask them coherent with what you’ve taught.

For example, why not always start the class by having students read a short passage, listen to a recording or watch a video? Ask a question at the very beginning that’s easy to answer, like, “what is the name of the main character of the story?” or “where does the story take place?” 

This is a great way to get the whole class involved in comprehension-related activities. It increases their concentration on the story because students will be searching for the answer while listening or reading. Let your shy student jump in on these easy-to-answer questions to gain some confidence.

Then, when it comes to tougher questions, they might be willing to throw their hat into the ring.

3. Do Call on Your Shy Student…Second

At some point, you’re not going to be able to let your shy student hide in the shadows. But instead of shining the spotlight right in her face, let her stand in the shadows, at least at first.

When you’re doing a group brainstorm, for example, call on another student first. Hopefully one of the more gregarious ones will jump right in.

Next, call on your shy student. Listen, accept his answer as part of the brainstorm and quickly (but naturally!) move on to another student. The shy student will get used to short bits of time in the spotlight and won’t be quite so nervous the next time it’s his or her turn to speak.

4. Do Call on ESL Students at Random

In most classroom settings, teachers rely on hand-raising to make sure that students are participating.

But in some contexts, particularly ESL classes with older students, this is not only unnecessary but can actually be counterproductive. Only students who think they have the right answer will come forward, and unsure or shy students will hide in the background.

While some teachers rely on going around in a circle for answers, this too can be counterproductive. Students are so concentrated on counting who’s ahead of them and seeing which answer they’ll have to give that they’re not usually paying attention to their peers. That means they’re missing out on key language points and learning moments. Shy students are often so paralyzed by anticipation that they’re not taking full advantage of the information being presented either.

A better way to go about this in any context where you’re expecting all students to participate (like brainstorming sessions, group conjugation exercises or homework checking) is to call on students at random. If you initiate this from the very beginning of your class, students will get used to it and anticipate it.

The fear of the unknown nearly disappears with this technique, because students can’t predict who you’ll call on next. That means they’re unable to guess which question they’ll have to answer. They’ll remain more concentrated on their peers and on you. This technique also allows shy students to participate quickly, without leading up to it or drawing it out at the end. All in all, this helps to remove some of the fear that comes along with class participation.

5. Don’t shine the spotlight on them.

With shy students in particular, try not to put or keep them in the spotlight too long. Using the techniques above, you’ll be able to incite a student to participate in group discussions. But if you call on a student and he or she shrinks from the spotlight or just says, “I don’t know,” move on. Remaining focused on that one student is detrimental to their progression in the class and may be even more overwhelming.

6. Don’t call on them for challenging questions.

Try calling on a shy student for an easy answer first. If the student refuses to answer, ask a classmate to give the answer instead. Show that you’re not going to hone in on the student just because he or she doesn’t know the answer or isn’t sure.

7. Don’t over-correct.

This is especially true when they’ve given an answer regarding a topic that hasn’t been covered thoroughly. If you’re working on animal vocabulary and you ask a student for an example of a large animal, let the student get away with saying, “It’s an elephant,” even if it’s not a perfect, full-sentence English response.

Try responding with the correct answer instead. For example: “An elephant is a large animal, yes! Very good. Who else can give me an example of a large animal?” Then if someone else, perhaps a more gregarious student, copies the poor form of the first student, you can gently correct. As a rule, if you’re working on an oral participation exercise it’s best to concentrate on the topic you’re covering and not on topics you aren’t.

8. Don’t go outside the lesson plan.

Above all, never expect a student to be able to produce a structure you haven’t covered in class. If you haven’t talked about how to form comparative and superlative adjectives yet and a shy student (or any student!) volunteers the sentence, “Spain was more hot than here in the summer,” when you’re practicing the preterite, let it go!

If, however, you have covered that rule, it’s up to you to exercise your judgement as to whether the student needs to be corrected or whether you’d rather praise a correct use of the preterite. Generally, the latter option is a better choice to increase participation and allow shy students to overcome self-consciousness.

9. Don’t get too complex.

When you’re dealing with a shy student in your class, shy away from open-ended questions. This is good at least at the beginning.

Questions that are too open leave shy students paralyzed, whereas questions that are relatively easy to answer allow the student to concentrate on forming a correct sentence.

For example, instead of asking, “what did you think of the story?” ask “was the narrator’s mother mean to him or kind to him?” or “who are the characters in the story?” When there are concrete, correct answers, the student won’t have to think too hard about the correct answer or the correct way to phrase their answer.

Dealing with a shy ESL student can be hard at first. If you’re patient and use the right techniques, soon even your shyest students will shine!

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe