If you’ve ever struggled to speak another language in a foreign country, then you have an idea of how nerve-wracking school can be for English learners. The stress you experience creates what experts call the affective filter — an emotional response that can lock down the mental processes of learning a new language.
Stephen Krashen, a leading second-language learning scholar, developed the theory of the affective filter, which combines people’s emotional and physical states to impede learning processes. To reduce the affective filter in English learners, we need to create a supportive learning environment that helps them feel as comfortable as possible.
What elevates the affective filter
When English learners struggle in your class, it helps to pinpoint what’s increasing their affective filter. This may vary somewhat from student to student, but these factors are among the most common:
- Anxiety: Some students feel extremely anxious about reading out loud and answering questions while peers are listening.
- Judgment: It’s difficult to participate if students constantly worry that their peers are judging them because of their accent, grammar, spelling, reading pace, etc. If your English learners don’t feel your class is a safe space where they won’t be judged or made fun of for taking a risk, then they probably won’t feel motivated to contribute much. For some, taking a risk might be simply raising their hand to ask a question or to volunteer an answer.
- Low self-confidence: Whether your students are struggling with English in a history class or an English language arts class, low confidence can make it extremely hard to improve their reading, writing and speaking skills in English. If they feel they do not know enough to make a valuable contribution, then they’ll also feel inadequate and alone from the moment they walk in the door.
- Adjusting to the unknown: English learners who are new to this country or to a particular region of the United States must adapt to a raft of unwritten rules and societal norms. They’re getting used to a different climate, picking up on different social cues, learning slang and idioms, and understanding different expectations. For example, in some cultures direct eye contact with a person of authority is considered disrespectful, while in American culture that is often expected as a way of showing you’re paying attention.
4 ways to lower the affective filter
Try these practical strategies for overcoming the affective filter in your English language learners:
Tap into prior knowledge
Getting to know your students’ backgrounds, interests and strengths can not only help you form connections with them, it can enable you to use their unique knowledge to boost their comfort level. For instance, assigning them a project on their family’s holiday traditions helps them realize they have something to teach others — possibly even you. They might still feel a bit intimidated at the idea of explaining it in English, but they’re starting with something to share in an encouraging environment, which can boost self-confidence.
Try SDAIE strategies
SDAIE (specially designed academic instruction in English) offers a wide range of strategies for teaching any subject to English learners. It includes incorporating learning games, manipulatives, hands-on activities and visual aids such as graphic organizers. You might already be using these strategies in your classroom, but the key here is using them consistently to create a comfortable yet structured approach where English learners become familiar with these methods. This helps them feel less anxious and more supported on a daily basis.
Modify your methods
There are many ways to modify assignments and assessments to help English learners, including using sentence frames, sentence starters and vocabulary banks. These modifications provide support structures that allow them to better articulate their thoughts and opinions without having to nervously struggle with every single word. Modifications can also help reduce the fear of judgment because they have tools to guide them to the correct way to verbalize or write their responses. Once they become more advanced, those sentence starters and vocabulary words will become second nature, and you can build on that support structure to push them further.
Putting English learners in pairs or collaborative groups with students who are proficient or native speakers can help them learn from their peers’ different backgrounds. These valuable partnerships can decrease fears and feelings of judgement, and give English learners a sense of belonging over time.
It’s important to approach each English learner with an open mind because every student will respond to your methods differently. Just remember that lowering the affective filter can determine how well — and how fast or slow — an English language learner will progress.
Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and an MEd from University of California-Santa Barbara. She has worked with adolescents for a decade as a middle school and high school English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, and a curriculum designer for high school and college courses. She works with 13- to 19-year-old students as a project manager of a non-profit organization.