How can I help my students break down the barriers of their anxiety to enable them to learn their second language?

Miss Education says:

I really enjoyed last week’s presentation on language and place, particularly the activity we discussed in groups at the end of class. The whole concept of anxiety and (second or foreign) language learning really interests me and so, I decided to do a little research in regards to this. There is one article in particular that I read and feel is worth sharing because it made me realise how important it is to take the time to address anxiety issues in order to break down the barriers that some of our students put up because of this.

Ariza (2002) writes a very touching story about the struggles she faced when having to teach “a group of terrified children, angry at the prospect of being forced to learn [a foreign language]” (p.719). Her students were American boys that were relocated to Puerto Rico due to several factors mainly linked to family issues. All of her students had very solid “affective filters” (Krashen, 1983; as cited in Ariza (2002) p. 719) which got in the way of them processing the foreign language. So, she turned to CLL (Community Language Learning) to potentially reduce the effects of these filters and get her students learning. She explains that her approach as a “counselor” (instead of teacher) was a key solution to the problem that she, but more importantly her students, was facing.

So, how is a counselor different from a teacher?  The CLL approach defines a counselor as someone who is “in support of the student’s personal comfort [and] demonstrates understanding of the learner’s anxiety” (Curran, 1976; as cited in Ariza (2002) p.718). In sum, a counselor shows empathy to the language learners when they are negatively influenced by how they are linked to the second or foreign language they are learning. Ariza (2002) took up the role of counselor since day 1 with her students and was able to lower the effects of her students’ affective filters. Her next strategy was to build a relationship of trust with her students, thus create a sense of community. So, she would bring in cookies and have students do easy ice-breakers in English and simply have fun with each other. I believe this is key when working with students with or without the barriers of affective filters, but I feel it to be a little difficult for an ESL specialist due to time constraints.

Next, she attempted to use the “Human Computer” technique that is basically student-generated conversations that allows the speaker to say what they want in their L1 and then is translated by the teacher, and then repeated by the student while being recorded. The recordings are listened to afterwards. I laughed when I read the transcript of the first conversation attempt (and I think you will too!) which she then transcribed to teach students about grammatical notions. When I read about this “Human Computer” technique, I was really impressed by how easily it brought laughter into her classroom. I believe there is something special about hearing yourself speak in another language, it just puts a smile on your face. However, I do find it difficult to do this activity with groups of 27 students, I will attempt it as a remedial activity for my struggling students.

As the year progressed, the students associated happier experiences with the foreign language and moved from stage 1 of the CLL stages, to stage 2 (Ariza, 2002, p. 721). Their barriers were taken down and the students were starting to use the language they feared with more ease. I strongly suggest that you look at the different stages of CLL and try to situate you students in regards to this, it will somewhat pave a clear way to which approaches you can use (they are briefly describe in Ariza’s (2002) article).

This article might not have given me all the answers to how to lower the anxiety some of my students exhibit while in my classes, however, it does provide a tool and a framework to better cater to the needs of my students. And it did indeed remind me that we should try every technique/approach possible, even the ones that do not work in theory, to address some of the issues in our classrooms. We never know for sure what will or will not work because there are many factors that come into play. I thank Ariza (2002) for reminding me that we should never give up, no matter how impossible our job may seem at times. As an ESL specialist, I have over 300 students a year and many of them are stressed and afraid of English, but I will cater to their need to the best of my abilities, and I think we should all do the same.

That being said, what has worked with you in terms of addressing anxiety in your classes? What have been your experiences? I am interested in learning about your ways of dealing with this common issue in classrooms all over the world.


Ariza, E.N. (2002). Resurrecting “Old” Langauge Learning Methods to Reduce Anxiety for New Language Learners: Community Language Learning to the Rescue. Bilingual Research Jounal, 26 (3), p.717-726.

What is the affective Filter?



8 thoughts on “How can I help my students break down the barriers of their anxiety to enable them to learn their second language?”

  1. I think it’s great that you’re drawing inspiration for your own teaching practice from other approaches, in this case, CLL. It really highlights the importance of establishing a safe environment in the classroom for learners. The foundation of this is relationships and trust. I hesitate a little bit to refer to teachers as counsellors, however, because these are very different kinds of training and different expectations. Maybe we just need to change the way we understand teacher (that is, teacher is a caring, compassionate person who shows empathy). What do you think?


    1. Miss Education says:

      I see your point that a teacher needs to have all these qualities. In this particular case, I really felt it was important for the author to take off her teacher cap for a while and put on her counsellor suit. I guess we can say that there are different levels or stages of empathy that we can situate ourselves at as teachers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. By Jia Pu
    Hi Miss Education,
    Thank you for sharing your opinion about relieving students’ anxiety when learning a second language. As for me, group discussion and peer feedback may be effective ways to make students less anxious. Like you mentioned in your post, teachers should be “in support of the student’s personal comfort”. Therefore, making students involve in a group discussion instead of asking them to answer questions individually is a way to relax them. In addition, giving peer feedback can help to cultivate the collaborative communication among students, thus enable them to enjoy this process of using the second language without feeling anxious. That’s what I may do in my class.


    1. Miss Education says:
      Hi Jia Pu,
      I think pairing up students for group discussions is a great way to get them to engage more “comfortably” in learning a language. Group discussions often result in laughter (sometimes too much!:P) and in turn, make students forget about their anxiety.


    2. Miss Education says:
      Hi Jia Pu,
      I often make my students work intro groups. Like you , I feel it creates a less stressful environment. Group discussions provide students the opportunity to use the language they are learning and they create an opportunity to have fun with their peers. Often times, these discussions result in laughter (sometimes too much!), but hey, if it lowers their anxiety, it’s worth it!


  3. Hello Miss Education,

    As an EFL teacher in China, I had some experiences dealing with language anxiety, and my strategy is to connect to students with foreign culture: to build a bridge between the foreign and local culture. I support that building a relationship of trust with students is vital and I think that cultural difference is the key to build up a solid teacher-student relationship. In my opinion, most students have the language anxiety in that they feel being excluded by the foreign culture. They afraid of making mistakes and being laughed at because what they are learning is another language and its culture, which they are not familiar with. They need to be admitted by the language they are learning and be involved in the culture they are approaching.

    When I taught English in China, I asked my students do not treat me as a language teacher. Instead, as a culture counselor. In China, lots of students learn English as test-oriented. The purpose of their language learning is to get a higher grade in English exams. Thus, students feel that English is a stranger, and they are afraid of taking about it. However, when they contact the English culture, they feel like being included. When they listen to English songs, watch English movies, and learn English idioms and the English texting mentioned at the previous post, students would feel that it’s not only about learning a language, but about how to learn and live in another interesting world with brilliant cultures. I would also share my embarrassing stories that I also made mistakes in learning this language and the cultural shock that I suffered. In this way, student would like to share their language attitudes with you: whether they like it, feel anxious about it, or afraid of speaking it. And language anxiety would be overcome gradually.



  4. Hi Miss Education,

    Your mentioning about how teachers name themselves reminded me of my previous working experience. I used to
    What I cannot agree with is the “Human Computer” concept. Let’s take the young children as an example, they would keep asking whys and hows about almost everything. It takes time for them to adjust to the totally-accept mode. Let alone teenagers or adults who have rich background knowledge and will further casting doubt on the irregularities and anything not conforming to norms. Therefore, my colleagues kept saying to themselves :” We are not teachers, we are facilitators” when they cannot help correcting students’ mistakes during conversations. It also reveals another still not fully tackled problem – How much attention should be allocated to form and how much to content. Do we value the quality of communication over accuracy or the opposite? So many questions remain for us to answer!

    Liting Liu


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