LLT.jpg (6325 bytes)

Practical Ways to Help Anxious Learners

by Renata Maria Moschen Nascente, December 2001
Cultura Inglesa de Sao Carlos, Brazil
UNESP - Araraquara, Brazil


The role of emotional variables in foreign language teaching and learning has been studied extensively for the last three decades by several authors, such as: Scovel (1978), Shumman (1975, 1998), Krashen (1985) and MacIntyre and Gardner (1991, 1992 and 1994). Among other affective variables, anxiety stands out as one of the main blocking factors for effective language learning. Its damaging effects have been found in all phases of this process, Input, Processing and Output and through the four skills, becoming a barrier for successful performance in all of them.

The relevance of students’ anxiety as an educational problem made some researchers enquire about the fact that the kind of anxiety which affects foreign language learners is of a special kind, stated by Horwitz et all (1991, p.27) as Foreign Language Anxiety, which is defined by the authors as “a feeling of tension, apprehension and nervousness associated with the situation of learning a foreign language”.

Therefore, the aim of this article is to bridge the gap between research findings and classroom practice by enabling teachers to identify the sources and manifestations of their students’ Foreign Language Anxiety (FLA). This text is also aimed at helping teachers to find suitable ways of handling this educational problem within the limits of their classrooms. 



1) Do you like English?      

2) What do you learn English for?

3) Have you tried to learn English before coming to this school? How was this experience?

4) Before starting at this school did you think that  learning English would be easier or more difficult than actually it is?

5) How do you feel about your teachers? What do you like or dislike about them? Give an example of a situation in which the teacher made you feel comfortable or uncomfortable in the classroom.

6) In class do you like learning individually, in pairs, in small groups, in one large group?

7) How do you feel about homework?

8) In the classroom, do you want to be corrected immediately, in front of everyone?

9) Do you mind if other students sometimes correct your written work? Do you mind if the teacher sometimes asks you to correct your own work?

10) Think about your English lessons. Do you feel:

happy when...; angry when....; anxious when...; uncomfortable when...; comfortable when....

11) Think about oral/written tests, do you feel:

afraid when...; insecure when...; secure when....;


According to Bailey (1983), Samimy and Rardin (1994), Allwright and Bailey (1991), diaries are efficient instruments to access students’ feelings regarding language learning. Some sample questions could be:

1.      What did you like/dislike about the last lesson?

2.      How did you feel about the last activity?

3.      What could be done for you to feel more comfortable during classroom activities?

4.      How do you see your own learning of English? Are you making progress in it? What are your main difficulties?

5.      Have you ever thought of quitting this course?

6.      Are you afraid of failure? Do you fear not being successful in your attempts to learn English?

When students get acquainted with the process of writing diaries, teachers can vary approaches in the following ways:

1.      There can be a unique notebook, where, once in a while, the teacher asks the students to give some kind of emotional feedback on the lessons and classroom atmosphere.

2.      The writing can be done in pairs or groups, so students can discuss among themselves about their feelings and then write about them.

3.      Students can be asked to write one or two sentences about how they felt about a lesson or a particular activity. 

Diaries are:

·        Useful tools to make a diagnosis of student’s anxieties

·        Helpful in leading students to grasp a more realistic view of the process of learning English and develop a positive sense of their progress.

·        Efficient in making students to set realistic communication goals, recognising their language learning needs, weaknesses and strengths.

·        Practical, because they enable each student to establish his/her own priorities in terms of extra work to be done out of the classroom. 


ACTIVITY 1 - THE AGONY COLUMN (adapted from: Crookall and Oxford: 1991) 

AIMS:          a) To build an atmosphere of trust and friendship among the students and the teacher, so the learners might feel they are part of a learning community.  

b) To spot sources of anxiety in individual basis in order to approach each student’s anxiety particularly. 



·        Do a brainstorming session with students in order to elicit their problems or difficulties regarding language learning.


·        Tell them that they should write a short letter to Ms Abby, who is an expert in second language learning and might help them with any problem or difficulty that might be hampering their learning.




·        Students write the letters with the help of the teacher if necessary. They should sign them.




·        Teacher tells the students that they are going to change roles now. They are going to be Ms Abby and will give their classmates pieces of advice on their problems. If the activity takes place in basic or pre-intermediate levels, the teacher can give students some key sentences for advice, such as, I understand your problems...; I agree with you...; I think you should..., It’s a good idea...; If I were you, I would...


·        Teacher collects and redistributes the letters, which are replied by Ms Abby and returned to their original authors.


·        Students read the pieces of advice and answer if they were:

(   ) helpful

(   ) satisfactory

(   ) unsatisfactory

·        They should write the feedback on the pieces of advice received.


·        Teacher collects the letters and give individual feedback on each of them. Students who found the pieces of advice given helpful will be encouraged to build on them. The ones who find their classmates’ advice unsatisfactory will have their doubts and anxieties clarified by the teacher, who can make some recommendations as well.



ACTIVITY 2 - ANXIETY RAISING SITUATIONS (adapted from: Crookall and Oxford: 1991)

AIMS:             To identify the most anxiety raising situations to a certain group.

To make students aware that it is quite normal and acceptable to feel anxious in these situations.

To rank the most anxiety raising situations and help students build strategies to cope with such situations.



·    In small groups and/or pairs students should be instructed to brainstormb anxiety-raising situations regarding learning and performing in English, in and out of the classroom.


·     They should rank the situations according to the level of anxiety they raise.




·        Just one student remains in the group, the others walk around the room seeing the ranks. The student who remains in the group should explain the reasons why the ranks were built in a certain way.


·        They form new groups and brainstorm practical ways to cope with these situations, so their anxiety level can be diminished, and consequently, their performance improve.




·        Each new group builds a table in the following way: 


Anxiety raising situations

Ways to cope with such situations

e.g. Talk in English to a large audience

·        Prepare the presentation carefully; ask a fluent speaker or teacher to correct it.

·        Rehearse it until you know it almost by heart.



·        Teacher monitors the groups for proper phrasing.


·        The tables can be exposed in the classroom for a certain time, so students may absorb some of the strategies.



Allwright, D. & Baley, K. (1991) Focus on the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP

Campbell, C. & Moritz, J., Helping Students Overcome Foreign Language Anxiety: A Foreign Language Anxiety Workshop. In: Language Anxiety. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, p.153-168.

Campbell, C., Language Anxiety in Men and Women: Dealing with Gender Difference in the Language Classroom. In YOUNG, D. J. (Ed) (1999) Affect in Foreign Language and Second Language Learning: A practical guide to creating a low-anxiety classroom atmosphere. Boston: McGraw-Hill College, p. 191-215.

Crookall, D. & Oxford, R., Dealing with Anxiety: Some Practical Activities for Language Learners and Teacher Trainees. In: Language Anxiety (1991), New Jersey: Prentice Hall, p.141-150.

Foss, K. A. & Reitzel A. C., A Relational Model for Managing Second Language Anxiety. In: Language Anxiety (1991) New Jersey: Prentice Hall, p.129-140.

Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B. & Cope, J. (1986) Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, v. 70, p125-132.

Powell, J. A. C., Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety: Institutional Responses. In: Horwitz, E. K. & Young,  D. J. (1991) Language Anxiety. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, p. 169-176.

Price, M. L., The Subjective Experience of Foreign Language Anxiety: Interviews with Highly Anxious Students. In: Horwitz, E. K. & Young, D. J. (1991) Language Anxiety. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, p.101-108.

Samimy, K. K, (1994) Teaching Japanese: Consideration of Learner’s Affective Variables. Theory Into Practice, v. 33, p.30-33.

Samimy, K. K. & Rardin, J. N. (1994) Adult Language Learner’s Affective Reactions to Community Language Learning: A Descriptive Study. Foreign Language Annals, v.27, p. 379-389.

Young,  J. D., The Relationship Between Anxiety and Foreign Language Oral Proficiency Ratings. In: Horwitz, E. K. & Young, D. J. (1991) Language Anxiety. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, p. 57-63.

Young,  J. D. (1991) Creating a Low-Anxiety Classroom Environment: What Does Language Anxiety Research Suggest? The Modern Language Journal, v.75, p. 426-439.

Young, D. J. (1992) Language Anxiety from Foreign Language Specialist’s Perspective: Interviews with Krashen, Omaggio Hadley, Terrell, and Rardin. Foreign Language Annals, v. 25, p.157-172.

BIODATA: Renata Moschen Nascente is a teacher at Cultura Inglesa São Carlos in Brazil. She has been teaching English as a Foreign Language for the last ten years. She has also got an MA in Education from UNESP – Araraquara, and she is currently enrolled in a doctoral programme at the same university.

Back to Top
Back to Articles on Language Teaching