Why won't they speak English?

This report investigates children's anxiety and autonomy during English lessons through the lens of Self Determination Theory and suggests ways to improve learning experiences.

This report draws on the framework of Self Determination Theory to investigate primary-school children’s anxiety and autonomy/agency during lessons for speaking English. An intervention was carried out by introducing pairwork into the classes of 281 children in three government primary schools in Alexandria, Egypt. Their teachers were introduced to Self Determination Theory and supported to use pairwork for English speaking lessons. The aim was to help implement Self Determination Theory, potentially leading to improved English-speaking learning; and wellbeing. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected through sentence starters, questionnaires, drawings, and in-depth semi-structured interviews with selected pupils.

The research sought out students’ suggestions on how to create enhanced opportunities for young learners to learn spoken English, with special focus on reducing anxiety and increasing autonomy/agency.

Findings indicated that children’s levels of anxiety when speaking English in class were substantial, especially girls’; and autonomy/agency was felt higher by boys.

However, classroom observations and individual interviews revealed limited levels of autonomy/agency in the classroom. There was a negative correlation between anxiety experienced and sense of agency/autonomy. Children who were most anxious felt reduced agency/autonomy, which made learning to speak English more difficult. However, children felt least anxious and most autonomous when doing pairwork (if it was well managed) in contrast to traditional learning methods.

As a result of these findings, some of the authors' recommendations include that teachers:

  • act as models themselves of enjoying the challenge of trying to speak, rather than correcting how children speak, even if their English is not fluent;
  • encourage children by seeing them as fellow-English speakers and engaging in English conversation with them when possible;
  • avoid threats of punishment for children making mistakes in speaking;
  • avoid labelling children as ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ and instead treat all children as enthusiastic learners;
  • use open-ended questions and tasks that require more than one correct/ acceptable answer. This will allow teachers to give feedback on content and ideas rather than focussing on grammatically correct language and standardised answers.

The full report by Dalia Elhawary (Alexandria University) and Eleanore Hargreaves (University College London) is available below in both English and Arabic.

Guidelines for teachers in using pairwork with children have been developed by the authors as a result of the research and are also available below to download.

Citation: Elhawary, D., & Hargreaves, E. (2023). Why won’t they speak English? An investigation into how young learners perceive and negotiate anxiety and autonomy in the EFL classroom. British Council. https://doi.org/10.57884/C14K-HG72

Watch a webinar by the co-author Dalia Elhawary about this research.

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