Working with Quiet ESL Students

In many classes, there are always one or more students who are quiet and do not want to speak in class. This is often even more common in an ESL class, which adds the additional challenge for students speaking in a different language. Despite these challenges, there are several ways that a teacher can deal with this. Among them includes the following…

  • Preparation time
  • Repetition
  • Adjust group size
  • Understanding the role of the teacher

Preparation Time

Speaking spontaneously is difficult for many ESL students. Part of the challenge is not having time think about what they want to say and determining how to say it in English. Sometimes quiet students will share if they have time to think in advanced.  This can happen through the teacher prompting the students and giving them time to formulate an answer.

A teacher can ask the students any question, such as, “What is the best mall in town?”. Give the students a few minute to think and then call on students. Perhaps not all will share but the preparation time greatly reduces stress.


Repeating the same speaking experience often helps students to improve. This depends greatly on whether they receive feedback each time. Students also need to reflect upon how they did themselves. The combination of feedback and reflection often leads to improvement.

For example, if we ask the students about the “best mall in town” students share their answer and are given feedback from peers as well as a chance to think about their performance. The next day the teacher could ask this question again allowing the students to demonstrate how they have improved.

Adjust Group Size

Often, students do not share because of shyness. Speaking in front of the whole class is scary even for some adults. To deal with this, the teacher needs to try different groups sizes. Some students will never speak in a group but will speak if they are paired with someone. The reason being it is really hard to hide when a quiet student is a partner.

Understanding the Role of the Teacher

The teacher, in addition to applying strategies such as the ones above, also can provide support to quiet students. For example, the teacher can encourage the students to speak by providing suggestions for what the students may want to say.

Another approach would be to have the teacher participate in the discussion. Through this, the teacher can guide the discussion. The downside to this is that it is easy for the teacher to take over and dominate the discussion.


Quiet students in ESL classrooms have many reasons for choosing not to share. Whatever the case, there are ways and strategies to deal with this. It is up to the teacher to find ways that are appropriate for their students.

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