The Secret Ingredient for Fluent Speaking and Writing: Self Confidence

speak english fluently

By Jeanne Bourne

Teachers can add a cup of grammar and two cups of vocabulary along with a teaspoon of syntax and a pinch of punctuation. But without a kilo (or two) of self-confidence students will never turn out to be fluent speakers and writers, no matter how long they are baked.

In language learning, self-confidence translates to a willingness to make ‘embarrassing’ mistakes. If learners won’t risk sounding silly or are uncomfortable speaking with an accent, then they won’t make much progress. I can’t even decide which mistake was my most cringe worthy when I was learning Greek.  Maybe it was the time I kept using the feminine endings when I was talking to men or maybe it was the time when I wanted to say ‘they cry’ but it came out as ‘they pass gas’. The two words are distressingly similar in Greek.

What can teachers do to ease the way?

Promote self-esteem in general

  • Make the classroom a non-judgmental place where students feel free to practice, experiment and, most importantly, not feel ashamed to make mistakes. A teacher would never berate a student for making mistakes, of course, but make sure other students don’t either. A zero tolerance policy for teasing is a starting point.

  • Tell students about your own language learning mistakes. Obviously, I’ve had my students laughing until ‘they cry’ with my stories.

  • Be patient. It takes some students longer to formulate answers. Don’t let the more fluent students dominate conversations.

Writing with confidence

  • Students should take writer Anne Lamott’s advice and start with a terrible first draft. After assigning a topic, tell students to write for 10 minutes (or any appropriate length of time) without stopping. This strict time limit obliges them to get started and once they’ve written the introduction, they’ll have the confidence to finish the rest of the essay or assignment. Even if/when they have to rewrite it later, this exercise helps students to stop procrastinating.

  • Make writing fun and start early, really early, with the simplest of assignments. If young students start writing a couple of sentences or short descriptions in A class, then they will find it much easier to write the essays required in C1-C2- level classes.

  • If you have older students who didn’t start early, no worries. Give them the tools they need: a plan, relevant vocabulary, and an understanding of the topic. A thorough discussion of the topic goes a long way to giving them the self-assurance to complete the assignment.

  • Make revising a part of the writing process. Emphasize the fact that everyone makes mistakes and can learn from their errors.

  • Self-correcting is helpful. Instead of marking up an essay in red ink, use a correction code and place symbols next to each error. For example, G denotes a grammar mistake; WW indicates wrong word, etc.  Download this correction code for free.  Group correcting is also a helpful method. Photocopy one essay and correct it out loud as a class or in small groups.

Speaking with confidence

“. . .to speak a language, you’ve just got to start speaking it. There’s no magic. . . you only need a willingness to make mistakes.”

Benny Lewis

Benny Lewis, now a polyglot, started learning his seven + languages as an adult. His site, www.fluentin3months.com, offers plenty of advice and articles about language learning. One in particular caught my eye. The article “Studying Will Never Help” is well worth a read. In short, it says you can study a language for years or forever, but if you don’t start speaking it, you will never know it.

I keep that ‘lesson’ in mind when I teach and always get students talking from the very first day. This may sound obvious to experienced teachers, but I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard English lessons conducted mostly in Greek or met students who passed EFL exams, but couldn’t speak at all.

Here are some other ideas for promoting confidence in speaking:

  • Make your classroom a (mostly) English-only space. Again, start early with simple activities that put your students at ease. From the first lessons, always greet students in English and expect them to answer in English. Teach them various commands (open your books, turn to page __, listen, etc) and use any new vocabulary repeatedly and at regular intervals.

  • Don’t interrupt students when they are speaking. We all think we need to correct any and every mistake, but interrupting just makes hesitant speakers more hesitant.  When I was learning Greek I always felt judged and uncomfortable when people broke in to correct me. It also made me lose my train of thought. That is one of the reasons it took me so long to be able to speak Greek with ease.

  • Give students something interesting to talk about. Make fun role-play cards, plan an epic party, or debate who is the best singer or band. Find out what your students are interested in and use that a base for speaking activities.

  • I believe that some reading aloud by the students is a valuable use of time. It gives them individual attention and helps me check on their pronunciation. I can also follow-up by asking comprehension questions to test out their understanding at the same time.

In closing, helping our students become fluent speakers and writers is a piece of cake with the secret ingredient: self-confidence! We’d love to hear your ideas to add to the mixture.