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Creating pupil agency in foreign language classes eases learning anxiety

22 November 2023

A report co-led by Professor Eleanore Hargreaves outlines recommendations to give children a sense of control during lessons to reduce anxiety when learning English as a foreign language (EFL).

Teacher standing in front of primary class. Image: Phil Meech for UCL Institute of Education

Together with Dalia Elhawary of Alexandria University, Professor Hargreaves looked at under-resourced schools in Egypt to investigate students’ feelings of anxiety during English language lessons. 

They worked with three government primary classrooms in Alexandria for six months to develop guidelines around teaching EFL, tailored to their specific needs. 

They found that children’s anxiety when learning English was particularly substantial in girls, while feelings of autonomy were more apparent in boys. Reduced agency over learning made children more anxious, which in turn made learning to speak English more difficult. 

However, children felt the most control over their learning and the least anxious when pair work was introduced during speaking lessons, in contrast to traditional learning methods. 

Quantitative and qualitative data were collected through sentence starters, questionnaires, drawings and interviews with selected pupils. The findings emphasised the significance of student autonomy in language learning under the Self-Determination Theory. 

Following the results of the study, some of the recommendations include: 

  • Teachers act as models themselves by showing that they enjoy the challenge of trying to speak English, rather than correcting how children speak;
  • Encourage children by engaging in English conversations with them, when possible;
  • Avoid threats of punishment if children make mistakes when speaking;
  • Treat all children as enthusiastic learners, and not label them according to ability;
  • Use open-ended questions and tasks, so teacher feedback can focus on content and ideas rather than standardised answers or grammar.

These recommendations are featured in a teacher guidance booklet available in both English and Arabic. It is the only one of its kind available to low-resourced teachers in Egypt or elsewhere in the region.

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Image

Phil Meech for UCL IOE.