Building confidence in our students

Charlie Ellis

Let’s be honest. Lack of confidence is one of the biggest barriers to language acquisition that we face in our classrooms. And it is not confidence in the language that is the only problem. It is the confidence of the learner in themselves.  These leaner insecurities start surprisingly (and heartbreakingly) young and are there in some of the most experienced professional students I have taught, but for the purposes of this article and for my workshops in the IPs I’d like to focus on secondary school students. This age-group is where some of these insecurities are most pronounced and where personalities, hormones and commitments are all jostling to get to the fore and where students can be most vulnerable.

I am not a psychologist, therapist or expert in behaviour but I am a teacher and I have seen what an impediment low self-esteem can be in my students’ progress. It is impossible to draw a line and say ‘I am only here to teach English – if they are lacking confidence that’s not my problem’. It most certainly is my problem, and I have spent time trying to understand how classes can at once unlock this confidence and with it the key to communicating in and enjoying a foreign language.

What a lot of these insecurities seem to stem from is one key element. Fear. The fear of getting something wrong. The fear of appearing stupid in front of your peers. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of letting parents or teachers down. And fear is an extremely powerful negative emotion and a huge barrier to progress – especially in the context of a language classroom.

We have to find ways to break the negative cycle of low self-esteem and create a more positive way of thinking in our students. Positivity breeds positivity and is a virtuous cycle. And we need to do this all at the same time as building confidence in the language. Easy huh?!

There are several very good titles that approach this theme and that have inspired me to look further into this topic (listed at the bottom) and I wanted to share three of the ideas I’ve pulled together here. I will be elaborating on these and other key areas in my workshops at the IP conferences this autumn.


One of the first things is to create a ‘safe’ environment in the classroom. Obviously physical safety is non-negotiable but here I am really referring to making the students feel secure so that some of those fears mentioned above are diminished. Essentially this is creating an environment where it is ok to fail. Making mistakes and learning from them is a vital part of developing language and students need to be reassured that they can make these mistakes without worrying about being laughed at, being told off or thinking that they’ll never get it right. This can be done in several ways but one idea is to meet it head on and actually create a lesson based on ‘mistakes’ and opening up the conversation about attitudes to not getting it right. This can encourage some really interesting discussion but more importantly it may be the first time the students have ever really thought about this subject. It also allows you as the teacher and ‘guide’ of the class to send the message ‘Here it is ok to get it wrong and to learn from that’.


The second thing is something I must admit I had not taken into consideration until I read Marjorie Rosenberg’s title ‘Spotlight on Learning Styles’. In this title Marjorie investigates different styles of learning (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic etc) and suggests we look at our own teaching styles to see if we are catering for all our students’ learning styles and challenging them at the same time. For example I know my teaching leans towards the visual because that is how I best learn and I may be frustrating learners who have a more auditory approach to learning. One way to combat this is to ask the students to do a ‘learning style’ self-assessment questionnaire. (For example this one: )  Not only will this help you to ensure you are aware of your students’ preferences but again it may be the first time the students have ever thought about it and that process of self-analysis can be very empowering. Not only does it encourage students to think about themselves as active participants in their own learning (rather than the onus being only on the teacher and them as a passive receptor of language) but it also highlights that they are in a class environment that will support them on that. Both of these can inspire confidence that they will be more successful in their language acquisition.


The third is building the confidence to express opinions on complex issues. One of the first times I was ever asked to think critically about homelessness was in a French language class at secondary school. The next week was a discussion about whether we should ditch the Pound and join the Euro (this was a long time ago!). I was completely at a loss. In none of my other classes, subjects or conversations had I been challenged to think about topics like these. There were no black and white answers, there were shades of ambiguity that meant that I could have a different opinion from my classmate but that we could both be right. I had to (and felt compelled to) answer in sentences more than one word long (at the time I favoured ‘yeah’, ‘no’, and ‘dunno’). It was a mind-boggling experience and I remember feeling frustrated and let down that I hadn’t been prepared for this in another ‘more suitable’ class. This was a language class wasn’t it – not a social studies class? But the more I thought about it the more grateful I was to my language class for bringing this up. When did the people who didn’t study French think about these things and form their opinions? Thinking about and exploring the topics in this ‘safe’ environment built my confidence not just in the language but in my beliefs around the important social issues of the day. I hadn’t known it then but my French teacher had been laying the groundwork for me to go to into further education and to have the skills and strategies of life-long learning. Those classes helped me establish the roots of who I wanted to be in the world and how I wanted to participate in it. Without those classes and without that teacher I am not sure I would be in the position I am now.

All of which is proof that a language class is much more than a language class.   


Arnolds, J, & de Andres, V, 2009, Seeds of Confidence, Helbling

Rosenberg, M, 2013, Spotlight on Learning Styles, Delta


Charlie Ellis became a committed hellenophile at her first taste of boureki, aged 4, and went on, several years later, to study Modern Greek and French Philology at the University of Oxford (Wadham College). She was also lucky enough to spend a year with the Philology department at the University of Rethymno. After university she gained her CELTA qualification in Cambridge and, after a spell of teaching, entered the world of ELT publishing where she has been ever since. A love of languages and their acquisition has motivated much research into the practicalities of teaching and the implementation of linguistic methodology. Charlotte is still a practising teacher with private students and currently works as the Head of Strategic Marketing at National Geographic Learning. In 2013 she achieved a Professional Diploma in Marketing from the Chartered Institute of Marketing.