If shy kids find MFL torture, something is wrong

I came across a tweet recently which saddened me. “For shy kids, MFL can feel like torture”. This was then used as an argument for ditching the opportunity to learn a second foreign language in school and for making/keeping MFL optional at KS4.

As someone who was and is fairly shy, who nevertheless went on to specialise in languages, I could not disagree more. My take on this is that what shy people find torture is being laughed at, or being made to feel a fool. Unfortunately, this can happen in MFL classes, or indeed in classes of any subject.

I learnt a lot from watching teachers deliver MFL lessons abroad in three different countries. Despite the differences in methodology, I noticed one thing in every lesson and it was this. An absence of sniggering. It was quite remarkable. Here is one example:

The class had to prepare 2 minute presentations on New York. Certain pupils were selected and had to come to the front. The first pupil selected was very confident and well prepared and delivered his speech with scarcely an error. The class listened. Not a grin, a wink, or a snigger in sight. I was impressed. The pupil received a good mark.

The second speaker had not prepared well, was nervous and stumbled. But again, my attention was on the rest of the class. At one point he was erring and umming and I noticed a couple start sniggering to each other. The teacher also noticed and wordlessly raised a finger at the sniggerers, without stopping the boy who was speaking. The sniggers stopped immediately. The boy continued, with factual and grammatical errors, but he was listened to respectfully, with the class facing the front. His speech barely lasted a minute and he was given a low mark

The third speaker was obviously also nervous, yet well prepared. However she spoke so quietly she could barely be heard. No sniggering this time in the audience, but a lot of whispering broke out. This time the teacher stopped the speech and admonished the numerous whisperers who stopped immediately. But equally, she then turned to the presenter and reminded her of the need for voice projection and speaking up, otherwise it would be boring for the audience, who would then start whispering to each other. Although nervous, she finished with much better voice projection. Again, following the admonition, there was no more whispering or sniggering among the rest of the class.

So I have to ask myself now two questions:

1) Was it “torture” for the teacher to make pupils come and speak at the front of the class, some of whom were obviously shy and nervous?

2) Did it “feel like torture” for those pupils who were speaking?

I suppose the simple answer is “I don’t know.” I did not know what was going on in the heads of the pupils at that point. It was a test and they were being given marks for it, so they probably were not enjoying it. All I could do was think about how respectfully the speakers were listened to and how any attempt at winking, whispering or sniggering was stopped.

Now, I know many people reading this will be thinking, ” well that’s just good class management and I would not allow laughing at mistakes in my class,”  but please bear with me. Over 30 years I have watched numerous lessons (not just MFL), where a teacher will be asking questions to the whole class. Some pupils will volunteer answers, at which point the rest of the class turn to look at that pupil who is answering. As a shy person, I remember finding that very off-putting. yet this is tolerated, even by those who would admonish sniggering. When watching lessons abroad, I did not see pupils turning round nearly so often. Anecdotal but it got me thinking.

I like my classes to sit in rows facing the front. This certainly does not mean, as some “progressives” might have you think, that I would obviously never do pair work, group work or games and am some kind of Victorian reactionary. Nevertheless, the bulk of my teaching is whole class teaching, involving me

a) asking questions to the whole class and looking for hands up (with occasional prompting for those who rarely volunteer)

b) going round the class with pupils answering in turn ( my very old fashioned version of no hands up questioning – I’m not really into lolly sticks)

To give the shy pupils confidence, I enforce a “no turning round to look at someone answering” rule. It takes a class a while to get used to it and I periodically have to point or click fingers at someone attempting to turn and look at the person answering. My view is that speaking a foreign language is difficult and I want my pupils do be able to do it without fear, not just of being laughed at, but also of having people turn and look at them while they are answering. A teacher cannot be sure that, among those turning round, there will not be someone with a leering expression or a snigger.  In imho that is what shy people do not like. On the other hand, shy people still have to do presentations in front of the class, with everyone looking at them. Nevertheless, in those situations, the teacher can monitor easily any attempts at sniggering or whispering. The shy person, however, also has a responsibility to deploy voice projection, which they have usually done in drama.

Do my shy pupils like speaking up in class or doing presentations? No they don’t from what they tell me. But they also tell me they appreciate not having to worry about others in the class sniggering. They also tell me they appreciate my not allowing others to turn round and look at them when they are trying to formulate sentences in a foreign language. And in the past some very shy pupils have gone on to do the language at A level. We don’t all like games. We don’t all like speaking. But shy people can and do succeed in MFL.




About fish64

Full time teacher for over 30 years - last 9 years as Head of Department. Broadly traditional - I support the idea of core knowledge - but disagree with scripted lessons! All views my own
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1 Response to If shy kids find MFL torture, something is wrong

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