They can fear making mistakes, failing to understand the person they’re speaking too, or simply drying up. So shouldn’t we try to make speaking activities as stress free as possible?
There are certainly benefits to making sure students are well prepared, that they have the necessary language, that they have a clear idea of what the task demands. However, there are also some good arguments for not trying to remove all stress, and even adding some pressure at times.
The first thing to say is that stress is in itself neither good or bad. We respond to external stressors with certain biological changes designed to help us cope with the situation. When we perceive that there is too much pressure, stress has a negative impact, but, equally, when there is no pressure at all, we can be demotivated. Good stress, or eustress, is that point when we feel challenged, but not overwhelmed.
Robert Bjork (1994) refers to this as ‘desirable difficulty’ and suggests that introducing an element of struggle or difficulty into the learning process can significantly improve long-term retention. It seems that it helps to form deeper neural connections.
It might be important, therefore, to encourage our students to recognise that a manageable amount of pressure and anxiety can actually be a positive thing. How much is manageable will be different for everyone, of course, but we can help our students to recognise an optimum level of stress as almost pleasurable, and definitely good for learning.
We can also create a classroom atmosphere where students feel safe enough to take risks, to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, knowing that there won’t be any negative consequences.
Knowing that they are going to have to present their conclusions in front of the class, can really motivate students in a discussion, or you could encourage your students to frequently give short (2-3 minutes is plenty) presentations to the class or to a small group. When they are working in groups to make a decision, throw in a ‘curveball’ that means they have to rethink their options on the spot. Or why not try something like the technique 4/3/2, created by Paul Nation (1989). Students work in pairs to prepare a 4-minute talk on a particular topic. They aren’t allowed to make notes but they can discuss what they are going to say. They then form a new pair and deliver the talk in 4 minutes. They then find a third partner and deliver the talk again, this time in just 3 minutes, and then to another new partner in 2 minutes. There’s quite a bit of pressure in this activity- both in terms of delivering something without that much preparation, and in terms of time, but Nation found that between the first and the third delivery students’ presentations became much more fluent, accurate and complex.
This was almost certainly partly due to repetition- we know how good this is for students’ language- but the right amount of pressure also gets the adrenalin flowing in a good way. Making things too safe and easy for students is, I would suggest, not always in their best interests and nor does it prepare them for the unpredictability and complexity of real-life interactions.