How To Improve Engagement In The Language Learning Classroom

How To Improve Engagement In The Language Learning Classroom
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How Can You Improve Engagement In The Language Learning Classroom?

contributed by Aziz Ghannaj, Teacher of English, Morocco. 

Overview: Low student Participation in EFL classrooms: causes and suggested solutions.

In the context of language learning, active verbal participation on the part of the students is essential.

It is widely believed that when students are encouraged to speak the foreign language in the classroom setting, either with their teachers or classmates, they find themselves participating in the ‘negotiation of meaning.’ In other words, they are forced into clarifying their thoughts, intentions, and opinions by expressing them. 

As a practitioner, I have observed many students abstaining from active class participation. This phenomenon in language learning classrooms is widely recognized by teachers and practitioners. Opinions vary but many teachers agree that the reasons for this phenomenon are complex and multi-leveled. 

It stands to reason that the solutions will need to be just as complex and multi-leveled to be successfully understood and implemented. By choosing this topic for discussion I hope to pinpoint the main causes behind the phenomenon and humbly put forward possible solutions to help increase students’ level of classroom participation. 

See also 4 Key Factors In Language Acquisition

The Classroom: Where Pedagogy And Culture Merge

The classroom is the most formal setting where teaching and learning processes occur. This is the form in which the interaction phenomenon whereby the teaching and learning goals are achieved and organized by teachers and students. In the classroom, both teachers and students perform a variety of different actions designed to accomplish classroom activities.

Among these actions, classroom participation is an important interactional and pedagogical task through which students display their involvement. Classroom participation in this paper refers to student-teacher talk; the extent to which students are involved in classroom discussions. In this respect, many practitioners and experts in the field of English language teaching have stressed the importance of students’ oral participation in the classroom.

Interestingly, Petress (2001) contends that student’s low-participation in language learning classrooms is not appreciated because it might negatively influence classroom learning by reducing the teacher’s effectiveness and students’ benefits. Furthermore, Jackson (2002) argues that classroom participation provides the setting in which students can construct and shape identities as members of the classroom.

To wit, when students do participate in class and have a say in whatever is going on; they feel that they are being appreciated among their peers and that what they say is important to the teacher. Thus, participation is of utmost importance in language classrooms for it adds interest to the learning and teaching process. Sometimes it’s hard to maintain student’s attention when all they hear is the professor talking. It helps to hear another point of view that comes from a voice other than the teacher’s.

Causes of Lack Of Student Engagement In Language Learning Classrooms

Liu (2001) elaborated four types of student behavior in the classroom as full integration, participation in the circumstances, marginal interaction, and silence observation. In this context, we are not concerned with the other three types of students’ behavior; but we are primarily concerned with the second type which is participation.

Accordingly, participation occurs when students are influenced by factors, that are socio-cultural, cognitive, affective, linguistic, and environment. These often lead to decreased students’ participation and interaction with other students and instructors, resulting in them speaking up in class only when given no alternative.

In this part, I will try to list some of the causes that make students reluctant when it comes to participation.

6 Factors That Influence Student Engagement In A Language Learning Classroom

1. Lack of language fluency

First, many students are not really linguistically well-equipped to hold a discussion and express themselves freely. They find it hard to express themselves in English. Many of my students began this year of study with me not having attended English class regularly the previous year because, as some of them said, they lost interest in the subject matter.

This has unfortunately made them ill-prepared to carry on discussions in English at the level they should be at by now. They simply aren’t linguistically prepared, which makes their reluctance to participate in class understandable. They aren’t capable yet of holding even a short conversation, let alone give their opinions and express themselves freely in front of the class. In fact, they are always telling me that they don’t understand what I am saying. How can they be expected to interact in class?  The majority of students can’t and, sadly, they can’t be expected to either.

2. The approach of the teacher

The second reason is the teacher’s elicitation or questioning system. When the school year began, I would ask students questions, not paying attention to diction. Session after session, I realized that I had to simplify my language and even noticed I was beginning to use my body language appropriately to try and convey the meaning of what I was saying to my students. Clearly, when students don’t understand the question, they play it safe and abstain from participating in the classroom.

3. Personality types

Third, shyness is another reason for students’ limited participation. When I ask my students a question, I feel and I’m convinced that some female students know the answer, yet they remain silent. Indeed, shyness is an influencing factor which could affect students’ participation. However, shyness is a behavior that could be the result of any or a combination of the following factors: social introversion, lacking confidence in the subject matter, and/or communication apprehension.

The latter is defined “as the level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person’’ (MacCroskey, 1977). In other words, some students can’t raise their hands and speak in front of their peers and in the presence of the teacher because they are afraid of others’ reactions.

4. Pronunciation and oral fluency

Fourth, Poor Pronunciation is another factor behind students’ low-participation in the classroom. In fact, this appeared to be a huge source of stress for learners in my class. It is an important issue across language groups because of its immediate effect on interaction. When you sense somebody does not understand you, your reaction is immediate. You feel you need to improve your pronunciation within a second, which is often hard and stressful.

As a result of this performance anxiety, learners become self-conscious about their pronunciation when they speak in the class and I have noticed that they feel embarrassed if they mispronounced a word. There are times when I asked my students to read a passage of text from one of their textbooks out loud. No one volunteers because they are afraid of being laughed at or of being criticized by others due to inaccurate pronunciation.

6 Strategies To Increase Student Participation In EFL/ESL Classrooms

Suggested solutions for students’ low participation:

As far as solutions for the issue of low classroom participation are concerned, it has to be admitted that the teacher as a single entity cannot be held accountable for the issues inherent in the Moroccan educational system in general; among them is limited students’ participation in the classroom. The best the teacher can hope for is to create an atmosphere in his/her classroom that is separated from any negative challenges mentioned in the causes section. 

1. Create a ‘safe’ classroom culture

First and foremost, students at school need to feel good about being in the classroom. The way to start creating this feeling is for the teacher to establish from the first day of class that this room is a safe place for everyone.  The idea of being in a classroom is to learn. If students already knew everything, there would be no need to be there. It should go without saying that perfection is not expected, especially in the beginning. The teacher should present himself or herself to the students as a guide, someone who is there as a facilitator to learning.  

All students should consider themselves to be starting the school year at exactly the same spot, square 1, so to speak. It’s my belief that when students see themselves and their classmates on the same level from the first class, they will begin to relax about presenting a perfect exterior.

It’s also critical for the teacher to set ground rules in the class that establish it as a safe zone for everyone. Zero tolerance on ridiculing students who participate, because of a missed pronunciation or a misinterpreted meaning, will create a more comfortable place for the students to participate in. If there is no fear of criticism, walls of shyness and apprehension collapse, and students feel encouraged to participate actively. Like a party where no-one is dancing, it only takes one brave soul to get it started. Soon the dance floor is full and everyone is enjoying the experience, so to speak. Learning should feel the same way.

2. Watch body language

When teachers are presenting the lesson to students, it’s important to pay attention to their body language. Are they following you? Are you using the vocabulary they understand? Their faces will tell you everything. When you notice you are losing them, simply stop and take a reading on the class.  Ask if they are following, ask what needs clarification. In my classroom, I won’t continue until I know I have got them all back with me.

There are still a handful of students who will struggle with shyness, no matter how safe a teacher makes their classroom environment.  Sometimes these kids will need one-on-one encouragement from the teacher; that is to say, the teacher has to approach these students face to face and tell them that there is nothing they should fear and that they should feel free to make mistakes.

The teacher can do that but in a low key way, so as not to call attention to it so that they don’t feel spotlighted by the rest of the class.  They should be quietly encouraged to feel relaxed when they make mistakes. The teacher has also to assure those shy students that mistakes are learning tools they need to make friends with.

3. Make it fun

Teachers can also help inspire language learning classroom participation by creating fun, interactive activities to present the curriculum.  Education is a serious business, to be sure, but there is a lot to be said for bringing in activities to shake what can become predictable, staid lessons such as suggesting competitions and using humour in the classroom.

I have tried these fun activities and came to the conclusion that I had more students participating in class than ever. As long as the curriculum obligations are met, teachers should try to introduce games, fun competitions, and role-plays into the class to get students excited.  Sometimes when they are having fun they don’t even realize they have learned something until the class is over.

4. Build relationships

In the case of tests or exams, teachers should create a bonus system for extra grades to help motivate them to reach beyond what they think they are capable of. In addition, I had some students who misbehaved at the beginning of the year, but session after session I managed to get close to them, I talked to them and they shared their problems with me. After that, those students felt that I care about them and they appreciated that.

They told me that they want to change their lives and want to study, I encouraged them and they started doing all the things I told them to do, like bringing their copybooks and textbooks. They started participating in my class though they have very poor English, I kept encouraging them though.

In brief, teachers have to get as much as close to students and make them understand that the teacher is there to guide them and help them learn.


Jackson, J. (2002). Reticence in second language case discussions: Anxiety and aspirations. System, 30,65-84.

Liu, J. (2001). Asian students classroom communication patterns in U.S. universities: an emic perspective Westport, CT. U.S.A: Greenwood

Publishing Group, Inc.

Petress, K. (2001). The ethics of student classroom silence. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 28,104-107.