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Chapter 23     Creating Confidence in Young Learners

It is very important for teachers to create a sense of confidence in young learners.  Children who understand that making mistakes is part of learning, who are not afraid of making those mistakes and who are prepared to risk an answer will become better learners.  In Asia, where learners are very reticent due to a traditional upbringing, this can be even more of a problem for teachers at all ages.  Thus, teachers of young children can play an important role in reassuring their young children that it is better to try and not produce the right answer the first time than not to try at all.

Personality and Language Acquisition

There are several factors related to the personality of the learner that may also affect the language acquisition process. Some of those factors are:

- Self Esteem
- Inhibition
- Risk-taking
- Anxiety
- Empathy

Self Esteem

Self-esteem refers to a personal evaluation and judgement of worthiness that is expressed in the individual's attitude toward him or herself or toward his or her capabilities.

Although several studies have shown that those who have high self-esteem are also good language learners, it is difficult to say whether successful language learning is because of high self-esteem, or if high self-esteem is a result of successful language learning.

We do know that teachers who pay attention to their students' emotional well-being in addition to their language performance will have more successful and happier students.

A common mistake many new teachers of young learners make is to assume that what works for older or adult students (students they can more readily relate to) in terms of self-esteem may not necessarily apply to children.  In more cases than not, children's self esteem tends to revolve more around their relative "place" in the class, how popular and accepted they are, and not on how much they have improved compared to past performances.


Inhibition in a person arises as he/she tries to defend or protect their self-image. If the learner perceives the mistakes that he/she makes in the second language as a threat to their emotional well-being and self perception, then acquisition might not occur or might occur at a slower and/or reduced rate.

Young learners do have the potential to feel inhibited - especially if they perceive that other students are progressing faster than them or receiving more obvious rewards for their efforts.


One of the characteristics that has been found to exist in "good" language learners is the willingness to guess.  If the learner is less inhibited, he/she is more willing to take a chance on producing a "correct" utterance in the second language.

An example of this might be those students who through past experience have learned that often, when a word in Spanish ends in -ci? there is a cognate in English that ends in - tion.  So even though they don't know the word in English for exploraci?, they will guess that it is exploration. They are willing to guess about the possible word in the second language, even when their guesses often bring comical results. They do not worry about the possible consequence - of looking or feeling foolish - if they guess incorrectly.

It has already been established that in the majority of cases, children are less inhibited than adult learners, and risk-taking should be a natural part of their approach to learning.  Teachers who discourage or prevent (knowingly or unknowingly) children from taking risks with their language learning are depriving this kind of learner with one of their greatest strengths in developing communicative ability.


Anxiety is associated with the feelings of uneasiness, self- doubt, worry or fear that a person feels under certain circumstances.

A threatening environment does not promote language acquisition.  Factors such as an emphasis on competition between students, or forcing students to produce in the second language before they are ready, can cause anxiety.

Whereas there is less chance of self-inhibition on the part of young learners, there is a greater risk of anxiety.  Particularly young students feel anxiety in being away from their mothers and family environment, and they may feel scared or intimidated by native speaking teachers who are of a different nationality to them.  There is also a greater risk that failure to perform or classroom discipline can result in anxiety in children - issues that adults on the whole tend to handle better.


Empathy refers to an individual's ability to imagine what another person is feeling or thinking based on his or her own experiences - to put him/herself in the other's shoes.

A lot of communication relies on the person's ability to emphathize with the person he/she is interacting with in order to "guess" or predict what that person might say next. This allows the second language learner to mentally prepare for what he/she will say next.

This is a double-bladed consideration for the young learner sphere.  On the one hand, children do not often have the empathy to know a person so well as to start predicting what that person might do or say next.  Their focus on the "here-and-now" limits the amount of past experiences they can draw on to empathize with others.  For teachers, there is the risk that they may not be able to empathize with their children on a child's level.  This can restrict how much predicting the teacher can do, and subsequently effect their ability to guide a child's learning patterns.  An inability to effectively empathize can also cause feelings of anxiety, which is one of the greatest deterents to language learning.

Praise, Encouragement and Criticism

These are two opportunities for teachers to build self-confidence in their young students.  They apply to all subjects and ESL is no different.


When a child does something right, praise it.  We all like to be told we have done something very well.  It encourages us to continue to do the same thing.  This is a natural instinct and it needs to be fed regularly.

Find a reason to praise every student every day. If you can do this, you will have a happy, motivated class.


Praise is the best form of encouragement but if a child is struggling with pronunciation, memory, or another aspect of language learning, he or she needs encouragement. Without it, the child is likely to give up.  To prevent that, a teacher has to provide encouragement to continue.

Learning a new language is difficult. Learning 'in' a new language is even more so. Teachers should make very effort show students how they are valued and admired by the school and the teachers. Frequent encouraging remarks should be made, not only about the students' academic progress, but also their personal triumphs, attitudes and successes.

Keep Criticism Positive

It is very easy for teachers to be negative:

"She'll never learn!"
"Hasn't done a thing all semester!"
"A waste of a good seat!"
"I'm giving up trying to get through to him!"
"A do-nothing student!"

This type of comment generally does more harm than good.  As teachers, our job is to encourage learning and so we must be careful that comments we make are constructive.  At times this is difficult and some students will fail no matter how hard we try - but we must try and keep on trying.

"Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a personís growth without destroying their roots."--Frank Clark

Didn't think criticism could be positive, did you? Positive criticism is the greatest gift you can get--or give. However, there are certain things to keep m mind if you want to "gift" it to others.

Begin your sentence with "I' statements instead of "you" statements.

State how the behavior affects you. "I get frustrated and angry, when you ignore me," vs. You always ignore me! You make me so angry!"

Make your criticism specific.

Write it down if you forget the specifics of situations. Mention the time, place and  frequency of behavior/language in question. "During this last week alone, I have picked up your books and pencils four times...," vs."You are a complete slob!" (I didnít say we donít think these thoughts, itís just best not to repeat them this way)

Don't exaggerate the problem.

Avoid "always" and "never" language. Since exaggerated language is rarely true, the whole statement is negated by the listener. ''You always leave a disaster behind you." ''You never get your homework in on time."

Watch the adjectives you use to describe the thinking/behavior/situation you are criticizing.

Some are loaded with venom and anger that won't enable your criticism to be heard. Instead of saying, "If you can't learn to do things like the other children, I'll keep you after school every day!,"...try, " Will you do something for me, please?"  Of course, commens have to be in a language that is appropriate for the age and comprehension level in your class.

When offering criticism, itís wise to also suggest a solution.

Even if someone is willing to change, they may have no idea where to start or confidence to pursue a better solution- "How about if we meet for 5 minutes on Monday mornings, and you can show me your projects?"

Sarcasm is the cowardís way of expressing negative feelings or criticism. It is lost on children in any event. It is much better to be direct.  Donít assume that a student "will get the gist" of your comments and accordingly make changes.

Or, better yet, ask for a solution!

Try stating the problem, and encourage your student to suggest some possible solutions.  Help them to select one which is agreeable to both of you.  Children will often surprise you with their creativity and lateral thinking.  Student generated solutions are more likely to be carried out earnestly and successfully than teacher imposed ones.  Encouraging kids to seek their own solutions also teaches self-responsibility, and is a positively empowering experience.  ChildrensĀEself esteem receives an internal boost when theyíre given opportunities to demonstrate their free-goodwill.

ďYour table is very messy.  Thatís the third time this week you have left it that way.  I feel frustrated and angry when you donít clean up your table after art.  I want you to come and clean it before you go for lunch.ĀEamp;nbsp; Yes, that has all the correct ďpositiveĀE ingredients, but is still going to leave a child feeling worth less.

 ďOh look, I can see a messy table!ĀEis guaranteed to get kids racing each other with offers to tidy it up, and feeling great about their willingness.

Believe it or not, kids want to be helpful, co-operative and good.
They also want to be independent, so the trick is to work with their natural impulses, and allow them to be both at once.

Where possible, keep it simple.  Draw your studentís attention to the problem in neutral language and wait to see what comes up.

Save the heavy conversations for serious or chronic, recurring problems, ie: CONFLICT situations.

Conflict Resolution ĀEThe DESC Script

Is it a problem?
Is it MY problem (Are there tangible negative consequences for myself?)
Have I tried simple statements of the problem without success?

If the answer to these if ďyesĀE then you have a confict of needs.

Hereís a useful tool for clarifying and positively stating a request for change.

D ĀE Describe            Describe the specific problem in neutral language.
                              ďToday you hit Mandy in the eye and hurt her.ĀElt;/FONT>

E ĀE Express             Express how you feel/how the problem affects you,
                             using ďIĀEstatements.
                             ďMy job is to keep Mandy safe while sheís at

S ĀE Specify              Specify what you want in concrete terms (This
                              could be your own solution, or a request for a
                              mutually agreeable solution Ėď I want to sit down
                              today and decide what to do next.ĀE
                              ďIf you feel angry with Mandy I want you to tell
                              me insteadĀElt;/FONT>

C - Consequences     State the consequences, preferably in positive
                              terms.  (If you do this, I will feel much happier /
                              letyou... /help you... etc)  Use negative
                              consequences (If you donít do this....) only as last
                              ďThen I can help you and the children will feel

Choose your time and place, prepare yourself beforehand, (write it down first if you need to) then keep it brief and stick to your script.

With practice, this script can be simplified down to one or two sentences, and be easily trotted out in place of more volatile explosions.

ďI feel so tired when I have to clean up the room all by myself. Letís do it together and then Iíll have time to tell you a story.ĀElt;/FONT>

Ask for feedback.

Clarify that the student hearing your criticism heard what you meant, not what you said. Have them repeat back what they think you said needed work and the suggested solution. "You want me to see you on Monday mornings to look at my projects, right?"

Ask if there are any limitations or obstacles keeping them from doing something about their troublesome area.

(For instance, do they agree with your criticism? Do they have a different point of view that will influence your opinion about how it should be handled?)

Chapter 24
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