Digital Age Teaching and Learning

How to Help Shy ESL Students Overcome Their Fear of Speaking

How to Help Shy ESL Students Overcome Their Fear of Speaking

We all have students who simply won’t speak in class. Some of these students are embarrassed to admit they don’t know an answer; others are conscious of their accents or pronunciation. As a teacher, you know that the students need to speak and make mistakes in order to improve.

So, how do you draw your shy students out of their shells? How do you encourage them to speak when they’re terrified of doing so? How do you help them to develop self-confidence that extends beyond the language classroom?

Understand Shyness

Shyness induces feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, apprehension and even total panic. Some students will even blush, shake and perspire at just the thought of having to speak in front of others. It’s important not to underestimate the effects of shyness on students when calling on them in class. Similarly, ignoring shy students will only compound the problem. Understanding the cause of their shyness will help you to address it more effectively.

Know the Causes of shyness:

  • Culture: Some cultures do not encourage people to share opinions. Similarly, answering knowledge-based questions in class can be viewed as showing off in cultures that value collectivism and humility.
  • Learning Difficulties: Shyness can sometimes cover up a learning problem or speech impediment. Students may be scared to speak in front of others for fear for being ridiculed or looking stupid.
  • Conditioning: Students who are over-corrected or constantly criticized by their parents or teachers often learn to fear mistakes. Rather than put themselves in this situation, they try to avoid being called on at all in lessons.

Help Students Open Up and Gain Confidence

It’s essential to develop a relationship with the students. Equally important is creating a safe environment in which students learn to feel comfortable with making mistakes.

Students also need to be reminded that mistakes are part of learning. If students can answer every question in a lesson correctly, the lesson is probably too easy for them. We learn through mistakes. Many Asian cultures struggle with the idea of making mistakes in front of others because they lose face (i.e. status and respect).  Therefore, encourage mistakes—even praise them—as it helps to reduce the fear of this faceless monster.

In my experience, students become more relaxed about making mistakes when I point out my own errors in lessons. When a student questions my errors on the board, I make sure to praise them for their sharp eye. When I notice the mistake before they do, I encourage them to identify the error as a class. And when it’s an error that I know one of my shy students can correct easily, I call on them; asking them a question that you already know that they can answer correctly gives them a chance to speak without fear of being wrong.

8 Ways to Get Your Shy Students Talking

1. Acknowledge and Praise Their Efforts

Recognize the amount of effort it takes for shy students to contribute in lessons. I’m not saying you should have a parade and celebrate each time your shy students raise their hands (at least, not outwardly), but acknowledging their effort will help to boost the student’s self-confidence in speaking.

2. Praise Small Achievements

Similarly, be forthcoming with your praise. Let them know that they’re on the right track or that an idea is interesting. But, be sincere.

3. Pair Students Wisely

Pairs and small groups are a great way to lower the stakes of speaking in class. Try to pair shy students with friendly and sympathetic students. Avoid pairing them with someone who is a higher level though—this is more likely to increase their fear and shyness. Friendly and talkative students make the best partners for shy students. In small groups, be sure to assign students clear roles so that shy students can contribute to a specific goal.

4. Don’t Play Favorites

It’s easy to call on the same student lesson after lesson. Some students are just more talkative, more active, more interested or simply more prepared. However, this can make other students more hesitant to participate or even try to answer questions because they know they won’t be chosen to answer.

5. Call on Students Randomly

If we wait for shy students to volunteer to speak, they may never do so. Don’t hesitate to call on shy students for answers or contributions, but call on them after another student has contributed to the conversation.

6. Be Aware of the Spotlight

Again, depending on cultural backgrounds, calling on shy students can make them panic and feel like they’re holding up the entire lesson. Five seconds of thinking rapidly for an answer can feel like a lifetime for a shy student when the entire class is focused on them. If your shy student clearly can’t answer the question, move on and don’t draw further attention to them.

7. Keep it Simple 

Ask challenging or complex questions to the more outgoing students; keep your questions for shy students simple. This will give them time to adjust to speaking in class while increasing their chances of getting the answer right. Closed questions are also better for shy students.

8. Avoid Over-Correction

Because shy students tend to speak to little in class, it’s tempting to provide as much correction as you can when they do speak up. Remember that it’s quality over quantity. Focus on one correction and praise their contributions.


Drawing out shy students takes time and patience. By praising them when they do speak up, you’ll encourage them to do so more often—and they’ll bloom right before your eyes!