Ensuring East Asian speakers find their voice in the classroom

By Damien Marwood

Having begun my TEFL life in Thailand, teaching mainly homogenous groups of East Asian students, what became a typical part of my teaching routine was finding ways to get students to actually open up and speak in class, even at advanced levels. I never imagined it could be any different until I first encountered an Elementary Spanish speaker who upon being asked how his weekend was, proceeded with a beautifully free-form, rambling speech, rife with inaccuracies as it was, for what seemed like 30 minutes. As you can imagine, this was a great surprise to me, to say the least.

This initial experience was one of the factors which set me on the path of deciding to spend some time teaching in Europe in order to expand my experience teaching students from different backgrounds. Once there, one thing that struck me was that many teachers were encountering East Asian students for the first time, and were experiencing the same marked difference that I had had on initially meeting my first European student, only the other way around!

Why so reticent?

With East Asian students, there is a heady cocktail of cultural and sociological factors that may lead to reticence to speaking in the classroom. In the multinational classroom, these factors only increase. From my experience, an East Asian speaker may not present their full ability when speaking for a number of reasons.

  1. I have heard from numerous East Asian students that talking too in depth about themselves (or boasting, as they see it) is frowned upon. Given the proliferation of personalised tasks in the modern communicative classroom, it’s no wonder that East Asian students can feel a little out of sorts.

  2. Many East Asian learners carry an aversion to confrontation. Japanese culture dictates that in order to minimise potential harm or offence to others, opinions should be tightly guarded, or at the least carefully considered before being vocalised. In Thailand, raising your voice, or expressing strong opinions is seen as unnecessarily confrontational.

  3. East Asian nations revolve around the family unit, and focus on community. Activities are carried out in groups and individual achievement is simply not as pronounced. In the classroom, speaking activities that don’t include collaborative work can be met with resistance.

  4. The concept of ‘face’ and managing how you are perceived by others plays an important cultural role for many. Helping students to feel comfortable and relaxed in the classroom, lowering the affective filter, becomes an elevated concern when you have East Asian learners in the classroom. Compounding this fear of embarrassing oneself in front of others is the possibility of a teacher’s low tolerance for silence.

  5. From my experience, a vast majority of East Again students undervalue their abilities, especially when judged against others. This can lead to anxiety when speaking in front of the class.

  6. Power dynamics in the classroom. Teachers still hold a great position of respect and power in East Asian countries. Opinions are rarely encouraged or sought after until one is in a place of seniority, and this filters into educational contexts. Rote learning and adherence to the teacher’s views and preferences are still common in Thailand, for example. This can lead to problems generating ideas or engaging in creative tasks.

Therefore, the following are some practical considerations for both teaching in East Asian countries as well as accommodating the integration of East Asian students into multinational classrooms.

All in it together

Speaking tasks that focus on group-work, consensus-building and teamwork not only help an East Asian learner feel more comfortable in the class, but can benefit all your students as such tasks provide practice in various forms of communicative discourse. Pyramid discussions are also useful in aiding retention of language. You may find reticent students engage more in these contexts than when put on the spot with requests for monologues and individual speaking tasks. East Asian learners are just as willing to communicate as others, just in different ways.

Preparation time

Giving students time to think about and plan what they want to say is always important but extra important in these cases. It’s essential that learners have the required time to listen to and repeat models, brainstorm ideas together and make notes on what they want to say. When students are speaking, give them time to speak without interruption.

Language reminders

I often take what may be a singular question in a coursebook and expand on it with learners. I might board conjunctions and linkers, or provide sentence stems on slips of paper to certain students as a reminder for how to expand on their answer. I have personally found that giving students a number of options, particularly when planning details of a fictional story or speaking in hypotheticals can help immensely with learners lacking in creativity.

Slips of paper with reminders of classroom language, in conjunction with class displays, can also be used to eliminate L1 usage in the classroom, expanding learners L2 usage as a result.

Speaking tasks that focus on communicative purpose

Carefully select the type of speaking tasks that you ask students to perform. Tasks which have a clear communicative purpose will help learners who are overly focused on their own mistakes, grow as speakers. For example, fluency exercises such as ‘talk about a topic for two minutes’. For such tasks, review the strategies for completion, including hesitation devices, which allow learners to think while talking. Let the learners know that achieving the task of speaking for the full time period is key. If learners finish early then provide ways to keep talking. Focus feedback on how to extend answers, or who had the most original opinion.

An especially important competence to focus on is making interruptions. Many East Asian speakers will avoid interruptions out of respect for the other speakers, and need to be shown that this is a natural turn-taking function. Fun games that involve creating narratives together by politely interrupting and adding key details to the previous speaker’s contribution are great for this purpose.

Familiarity and repetition

After introducing new phrases, familiarising the learners with the language and discovering shades of meaning help the students feel comfortable using it. Drills are a vitally important step to help build confidence and make learners feel comfortable with their pronunciation. There is a reason Crazy English developed in the East. Drilling new phrases as a whole class with exaggerated intonation has worked wonders for me. Once let loose into a freer practice, I see a big difference from the usually reserved learners.

Effective monitoring

Effective monitoring is a cornerstone of a good classroom. It is doubly important when you have a student who is immensely aware of making mistakes in front of their peers. When selecting such a student for full-class feedback, ensure that they definitely have the correct answer, thus helping them gain confidence, rather than showing them up. This is a critical moment in a class where you can make or break a student. Lots of positive feedback should follow correct answers.

Mindful correction

You really have to be mindful of the affective filter, and particularly with teenagers, over-correction can really affect their ability to speak again. With a particularly self-aware student, letting them be heard and understood is clearly preferable to ‘perfect’ speech. Don’t focus unduly on minor errors, instead compliment them on the areas that they do perform well in, such as communicative competency. For errors that need addressing, a more subtle approach to feedback can be taken such as written feedback away from the glare of their peers.

Reinventing the classroom

If possible, and if the learners are willing, holding the occasional class in a social setting can help to loosen up students. Even simply taking a mobile whiteboard on a balcony outside (weather permitting) has really helped lower the affective filter for my learners.

It’s also important to give the learners ownership of the classroom itself by involving them in designing and creating displays. Also helpful is having a section of the room for learners to revise using flashcards from previous classes when they are on downtime. Tasks where learners use the whiteboard for their own purposes, for example brainstorming, are also a great way to break down barriers.

We all make mistakes

Particularly with YL classes, one way to nudge students to feel free to speak out freely and not be intimidated by the teacher is by making obvious mistakes myself, thus initiating correction from the students. For example, casually referring to a red pen as blue, accompanied by a knowing smile of course. If you do try this, obviously it is essential that corrections are forthcoming, otherwise you are simply providing incorrect models of English.

An option with adult students who focus too intently on their own mistakes is to conduct a free discussion between teachers in front of the class. Natural errors that occur in everyday speech can be highlighted and show that they do not hinder communication. Of course, as language learners ourselves, we can share are own language journeys and mistakes to show that it is a natural part of learning.

It can be a slow process, finding ways to allow East Asian speakers to have their voice heard in class, but a doubly joyful experience for all involved when learners do finally open up! I hope some of these pointers are useful for those encountering reticent speakers for the first time. It can be done!

Author's bio: Since getting into ELT around 10 years ago, Damien Marwood has found a home with IH, teaching at IH Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Berlin and Newcastle. He is currently back in beautiful Chiang Mai, as Director of Studies. CELTA and Delta qualified, he enjoys sitting in on other’s training sessions, attempting to progress past A2 in Spanish and forgetting everything on long motorbike trips.