It’s a risk worth taking: Helping students overcome their fear of mistakes

By Elena Spathis

As a high school Spanish teacher I often ask myself: would my students feel comfortable using the target language with a complete stranger in a foreign country? Or would they feel paralyzed by their fear of saying something incorrectly? As a perfectionist myself, I can relate to many of my students who hesitate or who always “play it safe” in fear of making a mistake. But in order to see our students really use the language successfully and authentically, we must encourage risk-taking in our world language classrooms. We need to put the right supports in place and equip our students with the ability and willingness to use the language in real contexts—errors and all.

So how can we encourage risk-taking?

Foster a positive environment

Students won’t become risk-takers overnight. But if we create a positive classroom environment from day one, we are more likely to see increased risk-taking. Taking the time to chat with students, greet them, and laugh with them shows that you’re not just a teacher, but a human, too! It is critical to establish a rapport with each class, as this helps to create a safe, accepting, upbeat classroom environment in which students feel they are allowed to make mistakes.

Encourage critical thinking

Creating tasks that require critical thinking and problem solving is key to encouraging risk-taking. We all strive to place culture at the core of every lesson; take this as an opportunity for inquiry. Allow students to brainstorm and make cultural comparisons and connections. Assist and guide them along the way, but let them make their own observations. When our students have the freedom to think independently, they are taking risks by forming their own thoughts and taking ownership of their own learning. They are thinking deeply and critically, and are developing a greater understanding of the world.

Allow for collaboration

When students are working in pairs and small groups, using the target language is far less intimidating than doing so in front of the class. While it is necessary to use the target language in whole-class discussions or in presentations, many students need time to develop confidence prior to taking that step. Practicing how to use the language with peers requires students to take risks on a smaller scale, and will set them up to be comfortable with greater risks in the classroom and out in the world. Practice goes a long way.

Implement authentic tasks

Designing authentic tasks helps students feel more comfortable when they encounter these real-life situations out in the world . Asking for directions, requesting help or further information, and ordering at a restaurant are all example tasks that we complete in our everyday lives. A student who has participated in such classroom activities and is familiar with them is more likely to take risks using the language beyond the classroom walls.

Elena Spathis is a Spanish teacher in New Jersey, and currently works at the high school level. She earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Spanish and Modern Greek Studies, as well as a Master’s of Education Degree in Language Education from Rutgers University. She is pursuing a second Master’s Degree in Teacher Leadership, with a concentration in English as a second language. Elena also enjoys writing and blogging about her teaching experiences via Edutopia and Wayside Publishing’s Proficiency Talks.

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