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Stephen Krashen, professor and linguist, developed the Input Hypothesis, which was really a combination of 5 different hypotheses about second language acquisition. These hypotheses asserted that the first step to second language acquisition was that students receive comprehensible input (CI). Makes sense, right? In order for students to learn, they would first need to be able to understand the speech of their instructors, readings from class, etc. The 5 hypotheses in the encompassing Input Hypothesis address the various ways that language learners can be aided in achieving CI. One of the most intriguing, the Affective Filter Hypothesis, revolves around the attitude and emotions of the learner towards you as an educator, the materials, its relevance to their lives, and even language learning in general.
What is the Affective Filter and How does it Impact Students?
The Affective Filter (AF) Hypothesis states that a students’ emotional state can impede their ability to receive comprehensible input, aka understand what is being taught to them. For example, test anxiety is said to lower otherwise high-performing students’ test scores. The AF theory applies that logic to all learning in the classroom. For example, if a student is so worried or anxious that they might be called on unexpectedly and/or embarrassed of their pronunciation or speaking skills, they could experience tunnel vision; staring intently on only one word on the page in front of them to seem as though they are paying attention… all the while mentally praying they are not called on. All possible learning is being blocked out by their extreme fear of being called on. It is impossible to know the inner-workings of each student’s mind or who maybe be having this experience if the student does not discuss it with you. However, it is possible to employ some general teaching practices that can hopefully alleviate or at least help to mitigate the effects of some of the negative emotions students experience in the classroom.
Making Students Feel Comfortable
The Affective Filter Hypothesis makes clear the need for developing positive rapport with your students, but how exactly do you address the issue? The easiest way to help mitigate negative emotions like anxiety in your classroom is to make your students feel comfortable both with you as an educator and with the material. Below are just a few of the ways educators can help to make their students feel comfortable in the classroom:
Be Open for Communication
Students like to feel heard. They like to know that they have a voice and that that voice is valued by their teacher. Be open for communication and feedback. Ask your students what works for them and what doesn’t? Most programs provide end of course evaluation forms for students to complete. Go one step further. At the halfway point of your course ask your students to anonymously answer two questions: What do you like about this course so far? What could your teacher do differently/more of? Asking these questions at the halfway mark still leaves you time to address them head-on and create a more meaningful learning experience for your students.
Have Clear Expectations
One of the easiest ways to lessen student anxiety in your classroom is to have clear expectations. For example, you are going to be covering a selected reading in class today. Students will be asked to discuss comprehension and critical thinking questions related to the reading aloud. Setting this expectation before the reading, and also previewing the exact questions they will be asked, gives an anxious student time to mentally prepare for being called upon, and also lets them know exactly the information they should be on the lookout for during the reading. In short, you are eliminating the chance for surprises, something that arguably has no place in the classroom anyway –unless it’s the unexpected and always pleasant cancelled class on a beautiful spring day.
Incorporate Students’ Interests/Hobbies/Fields of Study
Just as students like to feel heard, they like to feel valued. Some educators are choosing to have students complete a questionnaire at the beginning of the course asking what their interests, hobbies, and/or fields of interest are. Choosing to incorporate this information about your students not only makes them feel valued, but also makes the content infinitely more engaging. This can be done in a full classroom with many students, but is probably better suited to small group classes and/or tutoring. For example, when tutoring a student in grammar, who was a dermatologist in her home country before moving to the U.S., you could provide her with example sentences and activities revolving around the field of dermatology.
Make your Instruction Relevant to their Goals
Why are your students here? Do they need academic English skills to get into a university program? Do they need survival English because they are refugees in a new country surrounded by a new language they don’t understand? Do they need professional English skills for their jobs or trade? Understanding your students’ goals, and helping them achieve them, is a sure fire way to make them feel comfortable in your classroom.
Acknowledge the Life Experiences & Background Knowledge They Bring with Them
Your students had a life before your class. They continue that life when they leave your doors every day. Perhaps they’re parents or grandparents, employees or employers, or even someone who hasn’t been fortunate enough to ever receive a formal education before. Perhaps they’ve lived in refugee settlements, travelled the world, or even had to be evacuated due to natural or man0mad disasters in their country. Whatever their individual stories may be, the one thing they all have in common is that there is definitely a story for each of them. Acknowledging these life experiences or prior knowledge is yet another way to make them feel comfortable in your classroom. One way to do this is to ask open ended questions. Give your students the chance to share their story in relation to class materials. You may find that these experiences change not only the classroom culture, but also the course of your lesson –and sometimes that’s OK!
The Affective Filter Hypothesis posits that the emotional state of your students has a direct impact on their ability to learn. While you cannot be a mind reader, you can try your best to build an environment that is conducive to learning by making your students comfortable in your classroom. This can be done from a variety of ways: being open to communication and feedback from your students, having clear expectations, incorporating their skills/hobbies/interests, including their goals into your instructional design, and finally by acknowledging their life experiences and prior knowledge. All of these methods are sure to build a strong rapport with your students.