#ELTChat Summary (7/5/2014) – “How we deal with passive learners”

#ELTchat discussions take place once a week, on Wednesdays, at 12.00 or 21.00 each week, on a rotating basis. (To find out more about #ELTchat and these weekly discussions, please visit the #ELTchat site.) On the 7th May the chat took place at 12.00 and the topic was ‘how we deal with passive learners’ – though as @teflgeek pointed out, shouldn’t that be…

the topic for #eltchat is how passive learners are dealt with

Hmmm! (image taken from pixabay.org via google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification)

Hmmm! (image taken from pixabay.org via google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification)

@Marisa_C, however,  suggested that this recast sounded a bit threatening and started the ball rolling by suggesting we start with a definition of “passive learner”. This opened up a can of worms that turned out to be larger than expected.

What is a passive learner?

I think the most important thing is to highlight they do learn, just they are not active in class…as a result they might seem quieter, less ready to participate, but things are still going in. (@ashowski)

Prefer working silently, on their own. No discussion. No group work. DEF no role play! (@BobK99)

Are these not just introverted quiet learners, are they necessarily passive? (@LizziePinard)

I think we can tend to assume wrongly that passive = not learning (@OUPELTglobal)

At this point we started to realise what we had unleashed…

As @Teflgeek pointed out, “there’s a difference between introverted and passive, but easy to confuse the two!” I suggested that “‘passive’ has negative connotations of disengagement and should be distinct from quiet/introverted” but @ashowski) argued the exact opposite – “I’d rather be called a passive learner than introverted – for me ‘introverted’ has more negative connotations” (which I found very interesting! With some words connotations are more fluid than we might realise…).

So, when at 11.14, we still hadn’t really decided just which learners the discussion was to target, I made a suggestion:

Maybe we need to ditch the labels and describe the behaviour we are tackling? 

and @Marisa_C offered us the following ballpark to play in:

I presume then we want to talk about Ss who do not respond/participate/interact ?

@OUPELTglobal suggested that “this lack of response/ participation/ interaction would be not be good behaviour in a language class where the point is to communicate” but I argued that we “need to remember the quiet ones can still be learning, the loud ones aren’t necessarily learning…”, adding that  we “can communicate by writing, communication isn’t by definition noisy”. @OUPELTglobal explained that he/she “wouldn’t equate activity with noisy”  but I suggested that “if learners aren’t communicating when we think they should, then we often consider them passive”  and @robertmclarty chipped in with “I’m being passive but I wouldn’t say I wasn’t engaged in this chat”

However, @OUPELTglobal was not alone in thinking lack of response/participation/interaction could be problematic – @Marisa_C stepped in to argue that the “point of language learning is language using not just exposure – so what would you do about it?”  and then @teflgeek threw in an interesting spanner:

Maybe a passive learner is one who takes more time to process the input and arrive at their own conclusions, thus seem less engaged

and @OUPELTglobal wondered if there wasn’t “a time to reflect (e.g. be passive) and a time to be more active”, with @Shaunwilden concurring: “Agreed, I think sometimes in ELT lessons are too focused on being active”. Meanwhile @ashowski gave us an example of one of his learners who might be mistaken for “passive”: 

I have a learner who gets 100% and writes English like a native but she won’t say a thing in class – learning is taking place…

and continued by arguing that “we wouldn’t a learner to feel uncomfortable by pushing them further than they want”. @Shaunwilden objected to this, asking “but isn’t our job to push them?” to which @OUPELTglobal agreed, making the important point that “we need to offer challenge. That doesn’t have to be scary.” 

At this point, @Marisa_C reminded us all of the many ideas that arose in a previous #ELTchat on team building and cohesion, “to help learners feel easier/less afraid to participate” and OUPELTglobal pointed out that lack of participation “could be fear. Our job is to help reduce it. Also could be cultural?”, and @Ashowski gave us an example of this:

 in Poland the culture is definitely to be a passive learner – teacher does all talking. Nightmare for #elt

I agreed with the cultural issue and the fear issue, suggesting that “we can work on providing a conducive atmosphere, motivation, opportunities etc.”


So we seem to have moved to ideas for helping learners be more confident? (@LizziePinard)

Plus participate/interact more, yes (@Marisa_C)

The remainder of the talk was a glorious brainstorming of ideas, which took in various elements of teaching – how we structure activities, teacher role in the classroom, dealing with errors, generating motivation, providing scaffolding, ensuring learners feel supported, the importance of planning time and readiness…and more…:

  • “Could look at role of mistakes in learning and raise awareness of value of making them n learning from them. in supportive atmosphere” (@LizziePinard)
  • “Appreciate their character and encourage participation” (@ashowski)
  • “It would very much depend on the age for me  – more play and chances to shine for YL’s show areas of strength” (@Marisa_C)
  • “It also depends when in the course, if early on could be initial shyness. Edmodo etc could help build confidence/rapport” (@LizziePinard)
  • “Maybe find ways to participate that fit their personality. EG if not groups, then 1:1” (@OUPELTglobal)
  • “With adults i usually end up talking about L2 acquisition and how it works best” (@Marisa_C)
  • “Extensive reading helped a quiet learner of mine to blossom – she’s much more confident now…more self-belief – she’s done well with the reading, done lots, never thought she could before” (@LizziePinard)
  • “One of mine won’t speak unless she feels comfortable/forced. I let her speak she wants but I do encourage it *no force” (@Ashowski)
  • “I usually use Tic tac toe choice board .Ss have the right to choose the activity first that fit their character” (@SalehiHosna)
  • “I had a student who barely said a word, but took a lot in. He barely said a word in his own lang, too. felt more felt more comfortable with online chat and discussion boards” (@OUPELTglobal)
  • “Can position ‘peer push’ too, maybe less ‘forceful’; ultimately more fruitful if we want passive L to take models for active ness” (@NewbieCELTA)
  • “I found one of my Pass Ss responded well to online platforms. Maybe it helps having a different online ‘persona'” (@GarethSears)
  • “I ask learners to talk to themselves, record it, and self-correct. Confidence goes up and class participation improves!…I bring in class audio clips of me talking to myself! When they understand that it is ok, they do it all the time!” (@angelos_bollas)
  • “I would say then help them discover things they *can* do in English – e.g. extensive reading, listening, sharing on Edmodo etc to help build up their confidence.” (@LizziePinard)
  • “Teacher personality can draw students out of shell, too. strict but fair and encouraging. also willing to admit when wrong or make mistakes” (@OUPELTglobal)
  • “Also create a balance in the class of reflective activities and active ones. Experiential learning (Kolb cycle) requires both” (@OUPELTglobal)
  • “Maybe better to focus on ‘passivity’ as condition/response not ‘passive’ as trait” (@NewbieCELTA)
  • “Let them teach you something in their language, and try it, be willing to make mistakes and have fun with it, so they see it’s ok” (@LizziePinard)
  • “Create balance between collaborative tasks and individual ones to suit different learning styles.…” (@OUPELTglobal)
  • I think we try to push learners to THEIR line of challenge, not ours. also, I focus on ‘result active motivation’ rather than intrinsic/extrinsic: motivated by recent, felt success learning = desire for more, implicated more metacognition & knowing what/how learning is happening. (@NewbieCELTA)
  • “Students are often afraid of making mistake. For building confidence I prefer to start with Tiered activities.”(@SalehiHosna)
  • “I have also found that talking about how important making mistakes is changes Students’ attitudes – we need to ENCOURAGE mistakes” (@Marisa_C)
  • “Students I’ve had in mind during this chat rarely join in spontaneously but do when given planning time.” (@mattkendrickelt)
  • “Ensure that group work is more structured sometimes, so that students have clear roles” (@LizziePinard)
  • Students are often unconfident, because teachers don’t take into consideration the readiness level of them (@SalehiHosna)
  • With regard to mistakes I find language ‘play’ helps, e.g. have Ss pick and repeat 1 mistake in conversation and until the other finds it. (@GarethSears)

Thank you to all who participated, it was a most interesting discussion! I hope I have summarised it reasonably accurately – please let me know if you feel I have misrepresented anything you said, so that I can make appropriate changes.