Today on Get Into English we’ll take a look at tips on how teachers can manage better lessons for language learners who are introverted.
Originally I’d wanted to write this specifically for learners themselves – and there is definitely a lot below for you to consider – but ultimately it’s directed more towards teachers.
However, I know some readers are both teachers and students – would you like to add anything to the ideas below? If so, please do!
What’s An Introvert?
There are plenty of articles out there on introversion so to be brief, an introvert is someone with these characteristics or tendencies:
- A quiet and reflective temperament
- A need to be on their own for some time in order to recharge their energies: being too long with others can drain them
- A lower desire to be in a high-stimulation environment compared to extroverts (eg an introvert can get enough stimulation from a nice chat with friends whereas an extrovert might seek more stimulation by going to a big party). They each seek different levels of outside stimulation.
- Introverts are drawn to their own internal world of thoughts and ideas, and many famous thinkers, artists and writers have been introverted
- A desire to spend time with one or a few friends compared to seeking out larger groups
- According to some researchers, introverts process information quicker in the brain, which is why they might become more over-whelmed in a high-stimulus environment
Please note that shyness and social anxiety are separate issues.
Believe it or not, I’m an introvert myself! In fact, I think most teachers are. I’ve been teaching English for more than 15 years and it’s helped me create a positive, inclusive learning atmosphere. For example, I’ve heard a few teachers say “I can’t get them to speak!” but I’ve rarely had this. So I think my growing understanding of myself and other introverts has helped in this regard.
I’ve also learnt a lot from my experience of learning Czech, French or Spanish, both in bigger groups and one-to-one classes.
Finally, please note that the following ideas should probably be considered regardless of someone’s level of introversion or extraversion, but there is evidence that they should be especially considered for those who are more introverted.
1. Warm Up Without Worrying About Mistakes
Introverts generally feel more comfortable and relaxed interacting in smaller groups. For group classes, some kind of pairwork activity (speaking to a partner) is a nice way to start the lesson and get into the mood for English. After all, students might be coming to class from a busy day at work or school, and so this gives them some space to ease into the lesson with less pressure.
Compare this to what I’ve seen in some French or Spanish classes I’ve attended over the years, where the teacher stands up at the front of the class and then asks each student in turn a question, such as how their weekend was. The problem here is that introverts might not want to tell 10 other people how their weekend was, especially if it’s a new class and they don’t yet know the group. Added to this is sheer efficiency – if one person is speaking and 9 listening with no real task, people get distracted and even bored. A few might also get nervous while waiting for their turn to speak in front of everyone.
On the other hand, if 5 pairs of people are all speaking and interacting at once, there is a more positive atmosphere and real sharing going on. You’ll also hear more laughter and interesting stories!
In individual classes I often start off with regular conversation, asking how things are, and I won’t usually make a note of mistakes. It’s just to get students in the mood, catch up on what’s been happening, and maybe to lead into the main part of the lesson.
I’ve also found that for students who make a lot of mistakes when speaking, this opening activity actually helps them speak more accurately later on in the lesson, perhaps because they’re more focussed and relaxed.
2. Add More Meaning To Activities
Some introverts feel uncomfortable with superficial small talk or activities that lack meaning or purpose. Think of a typical information-swapping activity in class which is just to practise a grammar point, but other than that seems quite pointless.
An easy way to respond to this is to add an extra focus or task to the activities you’re already doing. The idea here is to add meaning to the interaction. If they’re doing an exercise to practise the present perfect (eg ‘Which countries have you been to?’), encourage them to ask follow up questions:
- Why did you go to ..(Spain)..? Was it what you’d expected?
- Why do you think people really travel?
- Is travel challenging? How come?
- Can you travel without moving?
- What ideas about travel do you share with your partner?
Encourage real communication and interaction.
Likewise, if they’re reading an article or doing a class listening activity, instead of just going through the questions and then moving on, pause for a sec and see if there are any interesting themes to expand on. Even an article that seems boring can have exciting or interesting themes within it!
Of course it’ll be easier if the original material (eg an article from the coursebook) is colourful and interesting, so choosing materials that say something in the first place will help a lot.
3. Add A Bit Of Quiet Brainstorming Time Before Group Work
We live in a culture that promotes nonstop teamwork, being together and coming up with ideas in groups. This is the ‘extroverted way’ especially encouraged in many American and Australian companies. However some people feel stifled by this and prefer to work alone. Not only that, but there is some discussion that introverts make better decisions when they have this ‘self-time’.
Therefore maybe there’s some space (say 2-4 minutes) for learners to work on their own first before coming together and presenting their ideas to the group?
This thinking time also gives them a few moments to relax a bit, reflect on what they’ve been doing in class, and recharge.
The other point on this is that some companies might make a decision based on the best-presented idea, which is often from a persuasive extrovert, but such a group might overlook the best ideas from introverts because they might not have been as well-presented.
Preparation time can in fact help all learners and mimic real world tasks. Some extroverts could benefit from slowing down and listening to other’s ideas before making decisions, whereas some introverts could also benefit from practising how to present their ideas to larger groups.
4. Discuss Ideas, Not Just Facts, Rules And Information
Some introverts are dreamers, artists, musicians, poets, and writers. They have a whole world of thoughts and ideas inside them! However, if you’re using a very boring book or dull materials, they might not show this side of themselves.
So especially for this kind of learner, bring in big picture ideas.
Prepare topics that inspire, perhaps have a philosophical discussion, and encourage free thought.
What meaning do they see in their favourite book or film? What’s wrong with the world? What do they want to create? How do they want to make the world a better place?
What zany ideas do they have?!
And of course don’t be afraid to deviate from your plan of teaching the present perfect if there is a lively conversation taking place!
5. Let Introverts Read An Article On Their Own First
Some teachers ask their students to read out aloud in class, or to take it in turns with classmates. As a language learner I have a pet peeve about this for two main reasons:
First up, reading out aloud is not good for comprehension, nor is it good if you’re in an exam class. In an exam, for instance, you’re going to get a time-limit to carry out a special reading skill (eg skimming and scanning, reading for gist, reading for specific information) and reading out aloud simply does not help prepare for this. In fact, it becomes an exercise for pronunciation, and quite often the article chosen is not suitable for spoken speech.
If you really want students to practise speaking out aloud to help them with pronunciation, choose a text which is something you’d find in spoken language (eg compare reading a dialogue from ‘Friends’ with an article on a news website).
Second, if there’s already been a lot of speaking in class, reading alone allows an introvert to gather their thoughts and have some space to answer any follow up comprehension questions, as well as to check any unfamiliar vocabulary.
6. Say Why You’re Doing An Activity
This was the main take-away for me from the Cambridge DELTA training course for teachers. Can you answer the question: “Why are we doing this?”
As many introverts like to do meaningful activities, they will be more likely to take part in class if they can see the point of doing something.
7. Resist The Urge Speak Too Soon – Be Ok With Pockets Of Silence
As a language learner, I’ve had quite a few teachers over the years ask the class a question, and then when no one answers it straight away, they answer it themselves!
It’s a bit like a guy who meets a pretty girl, asks her a question and then after a second or two of silence, he keeps talking, and this makes her speak even less. And then there’s nervousness all around.
Instead, give the class a bit of time to answer. Maybe they need to reflect a bit first. If they’re a bit reluctant to answer, you can always ask them to discuss the answer in pairs first. Usually that does the trick, and each pair can then present their best ideas to the whole group.
8. Teach Some Rules & Patterns – Because It Can Be Useful..And Fun!
Some introverts love working out how things work. They’re your engineers, IT specialists, scientists and strategic thinkers. Compared to the dreamer, these introverts want to see the logical side of things.
Some introverts need a map, and analysing language and working out ‘the puzzle‘ helps them find their way!
Of course you can encourage them to look at the other ways of learning a language and not to be dependent on grammar and rules – sometimes they could do well to focus on building a conversation and keeping interactions going.
Sometimes they might in fact need a break from grammar if their fluency is down – but I’ve had students who were more fluent once they felt better about where they were (they had their ‘map’).
The main point is that some learners find it fun to look at language and work out how it all comes together. This is an area I’ve been able to help them with as I’m also interested in teaching English through not just ‘traditional grammar’ but by looking at patterns and collocations.
It’s something which is becoming an exiting area of academic research and there’s still much to know about how words interact with each other.
Particularly for this kind of learner, you could present more examples of a pattern or structure – and ask them to figure out the rules before you give your take.
And it might be the same fun for them as it is when a dreamer closes their eyes and thinks of the character in the book they’re reading.
9. Go Outside For A Walk Or To A Cafe (If You Can)
Let’s go outside! This is something I offer as part of my own English classes, and I’ve found it fantastic for my own learning of French, Spanish and Czech.
If you’re teaching on your own or have some autonomy, why always stay in a stuffy office or classroom..?
Instead, being outside in the real world allows you to interact with the real world. Language comes to life. You can go for an ice-cream and then have a conversation with your teacher about all the flavours.
If you’re in an English-speaking environment, you can practise being a customer with your teacher right beside you!
You can chat in the park and talk about the world and all your plans.
You can speculate about the two people sitting on the other bench. Are they together? Or maybe he wants her more..? Hmm, maybe she already has someone..
You can still get feedback on your mistakes, pronunciation and other aspects of English so it’s not ‘speaking for nothing’.
You can even bring an article or the coursebook with you.
And your teacher can still make notes on your progress.
The advantages are many:
- Some introverts love being in nature and get energy from interacting with it
- You can talk about the whole world beyond the school
- It’s a good way to manage energy – we get energy from being in natural light and moving can be a way for some people to learn (especially for ‘dancer’ types of introverts).
10. Bring In Songs, Music, Culture & The Arts To Class
As I mentioned above, some introverts are artists and dreamers: they love to look at the world around them and see the bigger picture. They’re not so interested in rules and logical thinking – they’re more into feeling and creating harmony around them.
They are driven by their values, they’re imaginative, musical, and creative.
Bringing in an interesting piece of art, such as a song or articles on paintings, can be a good springboard for discussion.
Some introverts are especially musical, and listening to songs can help them pick up patterns in a language, as well as notice aspects of pronunciation.
Others might appreciate creative writing activities.
Introverts like this are less likely to do homework if they don’t see the meaning behind it. So something that’s particularly targeted to their world will be more successful than filling grammar exercises (on this note, when I have a new student I often give them two types of homework, one traditional and one more creative, and then see which one grabs their attention).
For introverts who like to dance, activities that get them to move in some way will help them.
Finally, taking some time away from speaking and looking at a song or other aspect of culture can help give an introvert a much-needed break and help them manage their energy. I’ve found that for myself if I listen to my favourite songs for a short time, I have so much more energy after!
11. Link The Task You’re Doing To Real Life
It was Paul Kirk, a former manager of mine, who first recommended this specifically for a class I was teaching.
Students preparing for an exam might believe that an activity is just for an exam and isn’t ‘real English’ (in fact, some teachers also think this!). This may affect their motivation, especially if they are the artist or dreamer type of introvert.
So what I do, and based on Paul’s recommendation, is to highlight that what we’re doing mirrors real life and it’s something they can use with their friends or at work or university.
For example, if the activity is to prepare a short talk of one or two minutes (such as in the Cambridge First, Advanced, and BEC exams), this is something that they will benefit from in real life. Because speaking for a minute or two involves the following skills:
- Organising your ideas in a logical coherent way
- Presenting an argument
- Giving your opinion
Practising speaking for a minute can also help develop fluency, and by allowing students to prepare especially in the Business English Certificate, they become more relaxed and confident speakers (introverts will feel more comfortable if they can prepare in some way).
Speaking for a minute is definitely useful at work, such as in an interview or preparing a presentation for visitors to the company.
And with smart phones the way they are these days, describing photos (such as in the Cambridge First, Advanced, and Proficiency Exams) is probably even more a real world activity than it used to be.
The main point is that even if the exam materials seem dry, there is a link to real life. Introverts will appreciate seeing this!
12. Encourage Introverts To Take Small Steps Out Of Their Comfort Zone!
This involves working out where a learner is and then inviting them to take a small step forward.
It could just be asking them to focus on one specific thing. For example, if a learner is usually very quiet, their task could be to chat to their partner on a topic and interrupt at least once to give their opinion.
Once they do that, they can follow up and ask their partner a question based on what they’ve said.
This is based on the theory of progressive desensitization.
This is about finding the balance between offering a supportive learning environment and preparing them for the real world where they’ll have all kinds of people to deal with, including outgoing extroverts.
With time they’ll benefit from growing as a person, in a sincere and genuine way, and not in the potentially damaging way that you see sometimes in ‘positivity seminars.’
People have different levels of introversion and extraversion, and all learners should benefit from the ideas in today’s article. However, I’ve written these tips with introverts especially in mind as they tend to need time to themselves as a way to think and re-charge their energy. They tend to particularly benefit from having space to reflect and to be in their own world, and thrive in a creative environment. However, please keep in mind that some introverts are very logically-minded and may need encouragement to mix comfortably with others.
What about you? There’s so much more that we can write on this topic so if you have any comments based on your own teaching and learning, please feel free to write them below!
Follow Up Reading
I’ve read this book by Susan Cain and would like to write a second part to this article later on with specific comments, quotes or research taken from her work and from other books I’ve recently bought. Today’s article was more from my own perspective but I feel her book has been helpful in addressing a need in education to discuss introversion among educators.
Her website includes a blog with articles on this topic: Quiet Rev
Interview with Susan Cain: Click here.
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