Skip to main content


Ask a TESOL Leader

How Can I Build Rapport With My Multicultural Students?

by Luis Javier Pentón Herrera |

Question: “My college-level students are very hesitant to speak. They are at an intermediate level of English proficiency, so I know they can converse, but they only speak when called upon. How can I get them to open up?”

Picture it! You’ve spent the whole night preparing your lesson plan, arrived early to school to set up your classroom, and you enthusiastically begin teaching as soon as students arrive. Students seem interested in the information you are teaching and are actively taking notes, but there’s just one issue: When you prompt the class to answer a question aloud, an unsettling silence hangs over the room. If this sounds familiar, know that you’re not alone.

At some point in our careers, we’ve all faced it—a classroom filled with students eager to learn, but hesitant to speak. As teachers, when confronted with such an experience, we begin to doubt ourselves and our abilities. We may wonder “Why aren’t students speaking?” and “How can I transform this quiet room into a lively, interactive learning environment?”

In this column, we’ll dive deep into the roots of student silence and equip you with effective strategies for turning that silence into speech.

First, Understand the Source of Hesitance

Although multiple factors may be at play, there are usually two primary reasons for students’ hesitance to speak in class: (1) fear, or (2) lack of interest. Fear might include 

    • social factors, like the fear of making mistakes and being judged; 
    • cultural factors that make students less likely to speak out; 
    • psychological factors, such as anxiety and low self-confidence; or 
    • even past learning experiences that have left students scarred. 

Lack of interest could include issues like 

    • demotivation, 
    • fatigue, or 
    • cognitive overload. 

Whatever the reason, understanding the underlying affective concerns is critical; without it, nothing will change.

To find the source of my students’ silence in class, I’ve used activities such as anonymous surveys, one-on-one conversations, and class discussions about the importance of speaking and the fears associated with it. The more we know, as teachers, the better we can address these concerns.

In combination with these strategies, I flip the script of my classes by creating many different kinds of opportunities for my students to speak through either pair or group activities, role-plays, debates, or interactive games that require active participation. The key is to set up situations where students are encouraged to talk, pushing them out of their comfort zones in a supportive environment.

Then, Equip Students With Practical Strategies

One of the activities I enjoy the most with my students is a whole-class discussion where I ask, “What is the worst thing that can happen if you make a mistake in English?” As soon as students begin to answer, I write down their responses. Then, I provide solutions to these potential challenges. For instance, if a student says, “The worst that can happen is that someone might not understand what I am saying,” then I provide communication strategies to overcome this challenge.

In this case of a listener possibly not understanding the speaker, I recommend my students practice the following steps to Clarify and Rephrase:

    • Step 1: The first step for speaking is “prespeaking” (or preparation). I tell my students that to increase understanding in speaking, we need to equip ourselves with a handful of phrases that can help us clarify or rephrase what we are saying. Phrases like “What I mean is...” “In other words...” or “Let me rephrase that...” can be helpful. Also, if we know that we have some issues at this stage of our learning with certain vocabulary items, we can use synonyms to increase our confidence.

    • Step 2: Practice, practice, practice. The four language domains, and in particular speaking, only improve through repetition and practice. If we practice the statements and phrases that we want to say in advance, we’ll notice how fluently we can speak them in conversation.

    • Step 3: Pay close attention to the listener’s body language. When speaking, if the listener’s face appears to be confused, or the body language becomes tense or changes to a position of withdrawal, take the initiative to rephrase what you said or ask for feedback.

    • Step 4: Ask for feedback. To overcome our fear of misunderstanding, we need to become proactive in our speaking. We do so by directly asking the listener if they understood us. Some phrases we can use while speaking to ask for feedback are: “Does that make sense?” “Do you understand me?” and “Is there anything you’d like me to clarify?”

    • Step 5: Be patient and open, and ask the listener to show the same courtesy. As a speaker, remember to remain open to questions and be patient if the other person needs some clarification or repetition to understand you. At the same time, ask the listener to do the same; that is, to be patient if they do not understand something, and to ask questions if they need further clarification.

Final Thoughts

Throughout my years of teaching, I’ve learned that overcoming hesitance to speak in the classroom begins by building a safe space for students and by establishing trust. Only then will they feel motivated to speak. Incorporating some of the strategies I shared, specifically the whole-class discussion where we dissect fears associated with speaking and equip students with speaking strategies to overcome these fears, has proved highly effective for me and my learners.

Remember, every student’s journey to fluency is unique. Your role as a facilitator is not to have them speak perfectly, but to speak willingly. By fostering a safe, inclusive environment and equipping your students with practical strategies they can use in their conversations, you can help them conquer their fears and find their voices. After all, language is more than just a tool for communication—it’s a gateway to a wider world, and every voice enriches the conversation.

About the author

Luis Javier Pentón Herrera

Luis Javier Pentón Herrera is a full professor at Akademia Ekonomiczno-Humanistyczna w Warszawie, Poland. He also serves as coordinator of the Graduate TESOL Certificate at The George Washington University and is coeditor of Tapestry: A Multimedia Journal for Teachers and English Learners. In addition, he is a Fulbright specialist and an English language specialist with the U.S. Department of State. Dr. Pentón Herrera’s current teaching and research projects are situated at the intersection of identity, emotions, and well-being in language and literacy education, social-emotional learning (SEL), autoethnography and storytelling, and refugee education. His books have been published by Routledge, Springer, Brill/Sense, De Gruyter, TESOL Press, Bucharest University Press, and Rowman & Littlefield.

This website uses cookies. A cookie is a small piece of code that gives your computer a unique identity, but it does not contain any information that allows us to identify you personally. For more information on how TESOL International Association uses cookies, please read our privacy policy. Most browsers automatically accept cookies, but if you prefer, you can opt out by changing your browser settings.