Student participation: How do you get everyone to comfortably participate in class?

Diary submitted by Corina, Madrid, 2020

Increasing and improving students participation

How do you get everyone to comfortably participate in class?

While teaching small groups, it is easy to notice who is willing to participate and who is not. When I was doing my TEFL Internship, I came across a student around 22 years old that I won’t forget. We are going to name him Luke.

Luke was similar to other students I have met. He never participated voluntarily and he used to get very nervous when he had to speak in front of the class. I mean he did participate, but it seemed very difficult for him, he looked tense, apprehensive and nervous. While he wasn’t asked to participate, he would also look a bit lost or uncomfortable. 

There are a few things that concerned me a lot from this situation, but particularly: how he feels about ESL and how to change his attitude towards it.

In the article Low Students’ Participation in EFL Classrooms: Causes and Solutions by Aziz Ghannaj he points at four possible reasons of low participation in the classroom, these being:

  1. They Find hard to expressed in English/ They aren’t linguistically prepared
  1. “…the teacher’s use of elicitation or questioning” and the students don’t understand the question, so “they play it safe and abstain from participating in the classroom”.
  2. Shyness, which could include any of these factors “social introversion, lacking confidence in the subject matter, and/or communication apprehension”. It also could be defined as “the level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person’’ 
  3. Poor Pronunciation “When you sense somebody does not understand you(…) 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 more self-conscious about their pronunciation when they speak in the class…”

In this particular case, I believe Luke had a combination of all four, but what I think he struggled the most was with 1 and 3. He found it really difficult to find the words, but it also seemed that he was so anxious that it was even harder for him. 

In another article named Increasing student participation by the “Washington University of St. Louis: Center for teaching and learning” provides ways to make it easier for the students to feel comfortable with class participation, The article proposes these three strategies: Shaping the Environment, Planning and Listening and Responding. We will talk about them below. 

Shaping the environment: the article gives some very good advice to shape the environment, like the following:

  • Arrange the environment in a “way that encourages active engagement” (U shape for discussions, auditorium if it’s a lecture). 
  • Let the students know that their participation is expected, everyone in the classroom. Explain what participation means and prepare them for the usual type of class they will have, make it clear from day one. 
  • Learn your students names and encourage them to learn each other’s names. This will increase the possibility that they will address each other, instead of just you. 

Planning: when it comes to planning, they suggest a great number of key points, among them:

  • Assign your students part of the responsibility for increasing participation. E.g. ask them to come up with guidelines to reach the class goal, this being participation. “Students who feel invested from the beginning in making the discussions successful will be more likely to work together to increase participation.”
  • “Use a variety of teaching methods, including lectures, discussions, and small-group work”. If you give a lecture, pause every 15 to 20 minutes to ask questions. This may lead your students to be prepared to answer or ask question relation to the information shared.

Listening and responding: the following are some of the recommendations to increase participation by listening and responding:

  • Use verbal and no verbal communication to encourage participation
  • Don’t rely on the same volunteers over and over.
  • Create “ an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable “thinking out-loud,” taking intellectual risks, asking questions, and admitting when they do not know something
  • “Give students time to think before they respond to your questions. Do not be afraid of silence. Give students 5-10 seconds to think and formulate a response. If 10-15 seconds pass without anyone volunteering an answer and the students are giving you puzzled looks, rephrase your question.”
  • Avoid interrupting
  • Provide diverse and specific ways of encouraging and praisal 
  • “Repeat student responses to summarize or clarify ideas”
  • Limit your own comments and encourage students to respond to one another
  • Refer back to students comments or ideas

At the end the article finishes sayin that active participation by students must be planned and encouraged. They recommend setting time to strategize, develop and improve student participation , ask colleagues to observe your class and take notes to reflect on them.  

After going through all this information, we have some great suggestions for an ideal class environment for a shy student.  However, for specific shy students I am going to rely as well in a couple of articles that follow:

In the article How Do I Teach a Very Shy Private Student?, Claudia Pesce presents several tips from which I will comment on one that I think would be a great tool for Luke and any other student. She suggests “Give Them a Strategy”, for students that can answer but can’t speak freely. She says that after they have shared the answer, we can guide them to a more detailed or complete sentence with this three-step approach

“Answer the question

Give some detail about the answer.


For example, ask: What did you do last weekend?

I went to a friend’s house.

We played video games.

Later, we watched a movie.”

She also suggests practicing this approach in writing, until they feel comfortable enough to read it out loud, and finally to say it out loud.

Emily Monaco, in her article 9 Fail-proof Tips to Get Shy ESL Students Out of Their Shells provides 9 tips also for shy students. I will share them below:

  1. Do Harness the Power of Pair Work: it helps to have a buddy to share your ideas before sharing them with the class.  
  2. Do Your ESL Homework: Plan out the questions you intend to ask them. Prepare your lessons fully. 
  3. Do Call on Your Shy Student…Second: instead of shining the spotlight right in their face, let them stand in the shadows, at least at first.
  4. Do Call on ESL Students at Random: predetermined order could be detrimental for a shy or anxious student. 
  5. Don’t shine the spotlight on them: if they don’t know move on smoothly without making a big deal 
  6. Don’t call on them for challenging questions: try to call them for brainstorming or less demanding questions, eventually, when they are out of the shell, then do call them for the challenging ones. 
  7. Don’t over-correct: “if you’re working on an oral participation exercise it’s best to concentrate on the topic you’re covering and not on topics you aren’t”
  8. Don’t go outside the lesson plan: when you are giving a lesson about “x” don’t try to cover “y”,another grammar point, tense ,etc. Focus on your lesson. 
  9. Don’t get too complex: try to use close ended questions with a shy student, maybe even with the whole class. Little by little, you’ll be able to increase the difficulty of the questions.

I think there is not one tip that I wouldn’t be putting in practice with Luke or any other (shy) student in the future. However in this case, I think I would start giving my best shot to procure working in pairs, practice the three step approach and avoid falling in the ‘getting too complex’ vortex. 

These approaches and tips might not be like a magic spell, it is a process, and even though the results are going to take some time, I think if one follows all these suggestions, it will increase the participation of the (shy) students. 


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