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Some Textbook Cases of Student Confidence (Or Lack Thereof)

I never fail to be surprised by students, and it’s always striking when a couple of cases can illustrate in practice something I’ve mostly just assumed to be true.

The Case of Student N: big vocabulary, low confidence

Student N started out by informing me in great detail about his lack of confidence in his English. He wasn’t that bad – in fact his vocabulary was probably better than that of 95% of the students I’ve worked with in more than three years – but he felt that he couldn’t speak. I tried to work in some practice of functional language or rehearsing the situations he said he was likely to need English in, but he didn’t really go for it. He wanted to practice spontaneously so we did several Breaking News English stories and a few crossword puzzles. After about six weeks, I don’t think his level had changed much, but it seemed his confidence had. I came to believe though that part of the issue was just his personality: I don’t know that any level of improvement would have really “made him into” the speaker he wanted to be.

The Case of Student M: excellent confidence and fluency, “medium” vocabulary

Student M was woman with a professional job who told me she knew her English was good and she wasn’t sure if we even had a level appropriate for her. [How can you not love a student who says this?] I reassured her that this would not stop me from finding challenging and useful material, even if it didn’t come pre-packaged in a book. We did a few of the same crossword puzzles, and it turned out that she genuinely didn’t know up to half of the words sometimes. It wasn’t just an issue of lack of context to remind her – these were generally new words for her.

She also requested correction, and had the great habit of saying “exactly” after I corrected her. It was kind of funny, actually, but not a bad tactic. It’s hard to put into words exactly why it was so effective, but I felt like it had the result of turning the tables somewhat. Instead of me correcting her, it seemed I was more offering her something she had temporarily forgotten.

Teaching these two around the same time made me realize that a) confidence is such a huge part of using a language successfully. Sure, she had a higher level of fluency than he, but in absolute terms she “knew” less, maybe even a lot less. Yet she came across as “better” at English. Also b) success in foreign language about a lot more than building up the words you know. I think it’s common to talk about this, but it was really striking to see it in action.