Shy Learners

Shy students

Can shy learners learn foreign languages? They are as intelligent as anyone else but do their personalities limit their potential as foreign language learners? Our teaching methodology, particularly since communicative language teaching, seems to favour brave, out-going, risk-taking performers. Can we make our teaching methodology more favourable to quieter, shyer, more introspective learners? Do shy students have strengths which are not shared by noisier extroverts? Can our teaching methodology be made more inclusive, not demanding that all learners should be extrovert performers?

Characteristics of shy learners

Do you agree with the following statements?

Shy learners:

are easily embarrassed.

do not participate in discussions.

are less likely to initiate conversations.

have smaller, but closer networks of friends.

prefer reading, listening and writing to speaking.

can concentrate for longer periods.

are less easily distracted.

are often good at grammar, vocabulary, spelling and writing.

are often ‘perfectionists’, preferring silence to inaccurate language production.

Since the time that the ideas of Sigmund Freud became popular, we have labelled our friends as introverts or extroverts. Introverts think more and are more reflective. Introverts are better at coping with loneliness and do not require constant contact and interaction with other people. Shy people are usually introverts. Shy people may appear to lack self-confidence but they are often more self-sufficient than extroverts, because they are not constantly seeking approval from others. Introverts may dress in less bright or dramatic colours, because they don’t want to ‘stand out’ in a crowd. They are happiest when other people do not notice their presence.

Introverts and extroverts have equally strong opinions, but introverts are less eager to express their opinions. They want to be ‘part of the crowd’ rather than ‘standing out’ in the crowd. Shy students are often very good observers. They sit quietly and learn by listening, looking and watching.

Shy foreign language learners

Shy foreign language learners have many advantages. They usually listen carefully and learn from the teacher. They read carefully, listen carefully and write carefully. They can concentrate on language study for long periods, because they are not constantly seeking the attention of others. Their attention to detail helps them to learn the systems of language and memorise vocabulary. They are often very good at writing because they can concentrate and they are very careful about avoiding errors.

However, shy learners have some disadvantages. Many of our learning procedures are based on pair work, group work, role play and ‘performance’ in English in front of the class. In these contexts, the shy learner is likely to blush, freeze and be silent. Any ‘exposure’ makes the shy learner feel embarrassed. This feeling of discomfort and stress makes communication very difficult.

How can we help shy learners?

Our current teaching methodology emphasises oral communication. We need to recognise that oral communication = exposure, which = embarrassment. We need to recognise these difficulties for the shy learner and grade the shy learners’ exposure.

Obviously, we cannot avoid oral communication because this is the primary use of the foreign language, but we can choose learning contexts in which the shy learners will feel more comfortable.

Learning to be less shy

Shyness is a normal personality trait. As learners mature, they normally learn to cope with their shyness. Learners who are shy in English are likely also to be shy in their L1. As learners gradually gain mastery in English, they will gain in confidence and become less shy.

Management techniques

The origin of the shyness in English is partly caused by the learners’ lack of confidence in their linguistic ability but also their lack of trust in the person they are speaking with. Shy learners are likely to have a few close and trusted friends. When they are at beginner or elementary level, let them choose their own partners for pair work, do not force them to work with strangers. When they are doing group work, let them choose the group they will join. Do not force shy students to perform in front of the whole class, when speaking, doing oral composition, or reading aloud.

Learners could also do pair work by passing written notes, or communicating with their partners through SMS text messages. These techniques should be used with the whole class, not just the shy learners. Microsoft Messenger and other similar programs allow learners to have online interactions and discussions through short written utterances. Skills in using Microsoft Messenger will be useful for all learners, but will be particularly user-friendly for shy learners.

Of course, learners will have to learn how to communicate with strangers and in unfamiliar circumstances, but we should allow them the time to gain language competence and confidence before they are confronted with these challenges.

Confidence building

We can build confidence by using techniques which do not require any [TPR /Listen and draw] or much linguistic output from learners. We can use choral singing, speech and recitation activities, because these allow the shy learners’ attempts at production to be ‘hidden’ in the noise of the whole class. All these tasks are easy, but generate real learning. The shy learner’s ‘exposure’ is limited, and so the shy learner is able to participate in a less stressful task.

TPR, [Total Physical Response] is the name given to a range of activities in which the learner is able to demonstrate comprehension through a physical gesture. It can start with a simple pointing activity: Point at the window, point at the door, point at the ceiling, point at the floor. The class demonstrate their understanding by performing the correct action.

Sit down if …. starts with the whole class standing. the teacher gives a series of instructions which are within the comprehension capabilities of the class. After each of the teacher’s instructions, the learner sits down if he/she fits the description.

  1. Sit down, if you have green eyes.
  2. Sit down, if you have a dragon at home.
  3. Sit down, if your Dad has a red car.
  4. Sit down, if you don’t like chocolate ice-cream.
  5. Sit down, if you have flown in a helicopter.
  6. Sit down, if you have two sisters.
  7. Sit down, if you can swim.
  8. Sit down, if you had some fruit juice for breakfast.

The ‘winner’ is the last learner who is standing.

Some of TPR activities can be developed into ‘rap’-style poems.

Stand up, sit down,

Stand up, turn round,

Clap left, clap right,

Clap up, clap down,

Turn round, sit down,

Touch something …….. brown.

Listen and draw is a listening and dictation activity. The teacher describes a simple picture; a house, a monster, a robot, a plant, a person, or a room. The learners demonstrate their comprehension by producing a simple sketch.

Mime is a useful introduction to performance. Ask a learner to mime a simple action and then ask the class to guess the action.

  1. Wash your face.
  2. Clean your teeth.
  3. Brush your hair.
  4. Get on your bicycle.
  5. Eat an apple.
  6. Answer a telephone call.
  7. Choose and pick a nice flower.
  8. Open a bottle of cola.
  9. Drink some hot soup.

All these activities allow shy learners to use English (in the form of comprehension) and demonstrate their comprehension through physical actions.

Building confidence in speech

The use of songs is a good way to persuade shy learners to start producing spoken language. Learners can start by enjoying the music, they can ‘tap’ the rhythm of the song, then they can start singing some or all of the words.

What’s this?

Woof, woof, woof,

It’s a dog,

Woof, woof, woof,

It’s a dog, it’s a dog, it’s a dog,

Woof, woof, woof.

What’s this?

Tweet, tweet, tweet,

It’s a bird,

Tweet, tweet, tweet,

It’s a bird, it’s a bird, it’s a bird,

Tweet, tweet, tweet.

The song develops with more animals and more animal noises. The learners start by making the animal noises, later, they learn and perform the words. The shy learner can join in, because he/she is not being asked for an individual performance.

The song can develop with more complex structures:

What’s this?

Tweet, tweet, tweet,

Is it a dog?

Tweet, tweet, tweet,

No, it isn’t,

It’s a bird,

Tweet, tweet, tweet.

Songs can be performed by the whole class or, if you split the class into two groups, one group can sing the questions and the second group sing the answers.

Shy learners are often monosyllabic. They will say one word, but not a longer utterance. Or questions are useful for getting longer responses. If the teacher points to a picture and asks: “Is it an elephant or a horse?”, the shy learner will usually reply “HORSE”. The teacher can persuade the shy learner to reply “It’s a horse.” Later, the teacher may ask: “Is Tom washing his car, or doing his homework? to elicit “Tom’s doing his homework.” The ‘or question’ gives the learner the language he/she needs for the answer, so the task is easier and is more likely to generate a response.

Teacher behaviour with shy learners

Shy learners are often very quiet and hesitant in their speech. It is very important that the teacher should be patient and encouraging when trying to get a response. Be careful not to demonstrate impatience or anger in your voice or body language when waiting for the shy learner’s response. The teacher’s tension will be communicated to the learner and make him/her even more shy.

If shy learners are always slow to respond, should I ask them questions? Wouldn’t it be easier if I just ask the learners who will answer quickly and correctly?

Shy learners need to learn how to respond. The faster learners can already do it. So, shy learners need to be trained and encouraged in this task. If you only ask shy learners, the lesson will go very slowly and the faster learners will get bored, so ask both fast and shy learners. If you never ask shy learners, they will never learn.


Every group of students will contain some shy learners. When students are in the first stages of learning English, everyone will be shy. As learning develops, confidence will build, but we should not expect confidence to build at the same speed for all the learners. We can help shyer learners by [a] simplifying the tasks [b] reducing the level of ‘exposure’, [c] ensuring that learners have the language required to respond, [d] demonstrating patience and encouragement.

Shy learners usually make slower progress in oral communication because they ask fewer questions and rarely initiate interactions, but shy learners can often be good readers and writers. Our job is to match our teaching style to the needs of each individual learner so that every learner is getting better and better every day.

Nick Dawson 2013


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