Reducing Classroom Anxiety for ESL Students

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Recently, the world has become “smaller” as a result of technology advancement. The world has become a “global village” as a result of technology advancement. Technology has increased the connectivity of every part of the world. As a result, the number of international and foreign students has increased. The US Department of Education recorded a steady increase in the number of ESL students since 2006 when they were quantified to about 5.4 million.

It is projected that the number will increase to one ESL student in every four students ten years from now (Williams, 2001). This steady rise successfully attracted my attraction. I started noticing the number of ESL students in my class and my school at large. This was when I realized the number is indeed increasing. My main concern became how they manage to integrate themselves into a system that does not use their first language in casual communication.

I was particularly drawn to one of my colleagues of Mexican origin. She is a very quiet girl during class. In fact, she does not utter a word in class or actively participates in discussions unless requested. Ironically, she always gives correct responses when she is called upon to give one. Further interest made me know her origin and the duration of her stay in the US; two and a half years. I later started asking myself what I would do to ensure such students are comfortable if I were a teacher. This inspired me to do this research study.

Research Question

The ESL students will soon form a very significant portion of the students in our classrooms very soon. Their needs ought to be addressed for them to boost the general academic performance of the educational institutions in the US. Therefore, institutions and those teaching standard English should strive and develop a plan through which this will be done. I decided to take the first step towards this. Guided with questions like, what adjustments are required when the mainstreamed ESL are being taught? What plan can be developed to help ESL students smoothly integrate themselves into the system? How can this plan undergo implementation? I embarked on this study aimed at providing a strategic plan to reduce the classroom anxiety ESL students have and show how it can be implemented.

For my report to be factual, I had to get information from the grassroots level. Since charity begins at home, my school was the most suitable place to start. Like most schools in the US, my school has a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity. It also has a substantial number of immigrant students. These students taught language in a development program to facilitate their transition from their first language to English. Classes are shifted from mainstream classes, where the native students are, and ESL classes where immigrant students are taught how to develop English proficiency (Williams, 2001). These two classes, and an interview on several teachers on how they curb anxiety of the ESL students during class, formed the source of data for my study.

With permission from relevant authorities, I attended several ESL classes as I keenly observed my Mexican colleague. Even though native languages are prohibited in the ESL classes, my colleague’s character in this class was very different from what I was used to from our mainstream class. She was jovial, well-adjusted, participatory and inquisitive. Further research, though interviewing some of the ESL and mainstream teachers, made me realize that this is the behavioral pattern followed by most immigrant students. They are more acquainted with fellow immigrant students compared to native students hence are more comfortable around them than English-speaking students. The feelings reflect the general attitude they portray during the two classes (Pappamihiel, 2001).

Presentation of the Research

My Mexican colleague was very comfortable with working in a group during the ESL classes. She has a generally positive attitude towards classwork and assignments. Her presence was felt since she laughs loudly during her ESL classes; the most flabbergasting thing I came to discover. The positivity she has in this class automatically leads to good academic performance hence she is graded as an advanced student.

The complete opposite happened during the mainstream class; she kept to herself, she was very silent and never took part in any discussion unless compelled to. She did not answer questions in class and her loud laughter was gone. In fact, what was regarded as humorous in our class was nothing close to making her smile. Nevertheless, she demonstrated all the qualities of a good student like taking small notes, listening attentively and giving correct responses to questions when called upon to (Pappamihiel, 2001). With regard to performance, she was doing well, but with more comfort during class, this could be exemplary.

This, according to my observation, was not a behavior particular to her but to all the ESL students. Their character shifts from completely active and jovial to reserved and quiet as they move from the ESL classes to the mainstream class. The major reason, as I learned from a teacher who was once an ESL student, was as a result of how they sound as they struggle to articulate English words. College is not the place anyone wants to give others a reason to make fun of them; they, therefore, keep what they know to themselves and wait for ESL classes where no one will judge their pronunciation or make fun of them (Lucas and Fredson-Gonzalez, 2008).

This problem begs for a permanent solution in the field of education. It directly relates to most of the principles outlined in education and literature studies. For instance one of the courses in education studies in language acquisition. This looks into the natural processes through which language is acquired and how factors like first language, environment and social conditions affect the whole process.

Constraints faced by people acquiring second languages in bilingual and multilingual environments majorly originate from the first language and the constraints it presents (Lucas and Fredson-Gonzalez, 2008). Most people interpret new languages directly in relation to their first language. This presents a problem in the field of education hence forms a fundamental study point for developing teachers. Communication is fundamental in the classroom environment hence directly affects the teacher-student relationship. Therefore, solutions to any problem presented to communication should be developed to result in optimum results from the education process.

As of 2012, the global population stood at numbers more than six and a half billion. All these people occupy 193 countries and communicate in 6,912 languages. This creates the notion of making more countries that are dominated by a single language to create unbreakable harmony. This bizarre considering we have about 200 countries and close to 7,000 languages (Duff, 2001). Nevertheless, most of these languages are spoken by minority groups.

However, most countries, even in Europe and America, which are the continents with the least number of languages, have citizens who use more than one language. The impact of modern migration has on this situation is very significant. The rate of migration in itself has been on the rise in the recent past. International migration resulted in 56% population growth; 75% in the US (Duff, 2001). The migration created new types of multilingualism.

The direct effect is felt in the US which is home to about 20% of the migrants in the world. Census reports show that by 2000 US residents who speak other languages on top of English increased from 32 million in the 90s to about 60 million today. This has shifted the focus of education from addressing the needs of native students who use English as their first language to the inclusion of the rapidly growing population of immigrants from different lingual and cultural backgrounds.

As statistics indicate, there is the rapid growth of the immigrants in the US. These people have children who need to go to school and study. This has, consequently, resulted in an increase in the number of immigrants or foreign students. The growth in numbers of this special group necessitates a higher level of concern. This is because the students affect the overall GPA of the institutions. How they perform affects how the educational sector of the whole nation appears generally at a glance. Understanding the challenges they face in the classroom is, therefore, very vital.

It is increasingly important to satisfy the needs of this growing ESL population in the sector of education. This creates a global concern in relation to the policies and curriculums being set up to facilitate education. They are now required to consider the fact that there is a significant portion of the students that do not use English as their first language (Duff, 2001).

Moreover, a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that immigrant students have a higher susceptibility to dropping out of school compared to native students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008).

The study specifically compares the rates of school dropouts among the Hispanic students and compares them to the rates of school dropouts recorded among students of the black and white race affiliations. It discovered that the number of Hispanic students dropping out of school surpasses that of the black and/or white students. This is a point of concern since it indicates that the conditions set in the educational systems create a challenge for the immigrant students. The policymakers, educators and relevant authorities ought to thoroughly examine the belief systems of the native students and determine how the values in the mainstream classes affect the fairness of educational opportunities for immigrant students. Understanding the challenges ESL students are faced with is a very great step towards sound education planning that is all-comprehensive and does not seclude the needs of any students regardless of their first language, origin or race (Drucker, 2003).

The main aim of this report was to find out ways through which teachers can reduce the anxiety of ESL students in the mainstream classroom environment. For the solution to be relevant, the cause of the problem ought to be looked into. What causes this anxiety? Judging by the fact that my colleague and I could communicate perfectly in English, her oral skills were adequate. This logically meant that her academic performance should be on par with the rest of the native students. The assumption here is that if she could adequately communicate through English, she can perfectly understand the instructions given to her in English hence her performance should be excellent.

This is, however, not the case since the performance of my colleague was not exemplary. This can be attributed to the concept of cognitive academic language (CALP). The type of CALP a student needs to succeed in the mainstream class is the root cause of the anxiety ESL students experience in the mainstream classrooms. CALP is obtained in the first seven years of a child from the age in which they start learning; normally five years old (Drucker, 2003). The fundamentals created in the child’s brain sustain the child into adulthood.

The change of CALP is, therefore, the root cause for the anxiety the students have in the mainstream classroom where the language used in English and most of the people around use it as their first language. This creates a sense of intimidation. On the other hand, the students in the mainstream class try their best to remain as normal as they could. They, therefore, do not use simple language or even put in an effort to help the ESL students learn the best they can, and this cannot be blamed on them since everyone is trying to be best they can.

Their motives are pure but the effect is still detrimental to the confidence level of the ESL students (Chamot and O’malley, 2004). The fact that the teachers are the ESL classes are not the same ones that move to the mainstream classes when the students are in transit creates another problem since the “new” teachers apply the strategies they have been applying with the native students; creating an imbalanced ground. For instance, my Mexican colleague struggled with instructions that were given continuously without emphasis and repetition.

Some of the mainstream teachers assume the students have comprehended the instruction given to them the first time hence do not repeat them in a paraphrased manner. The teachers might be doing this to make the environment of the classroom as natural as possible; by treating everyone equally since the ESL has graduated. They, however, end up creating a problem for the immigrant students without knowing. There is a very pronounced cultural diversity in the US. This creates a challenge to the mainstream teachers in the sense that they lack the capacity to fully comprehend the significance of the cultural differences that occur when ESL students adapt to the mainstream class. Moreover, they do not normally know what to do on a personal level.


The study shows that English as a Second Language (ESL) students experience universal difficulty and discomfort when they move to the mainstream classes. There is a very crucial need for immigrant students to interact comfortably and normally in the mainstream classrooms. This is because they are normally seen as jovial and active students in the ESL classrooms but their character changes to quiet, reserved and inactive when they move to the mainstream class. This is as a result of their discomfort in articulating English the way it is supposed to and the fact that they are not ready to have people make fun of them.

Anxiety, whether social or academic, is the main obstacle to performance (Braine, 2003). This is because it distorts the process of adaptation into the mainstream classroom hence hindering comfort in learning. It is therefore up to the teachers to ensure they address the anxiety of the students. Teachers should make communication as open as it can be so that the students in hardships can freely consult them. They should also give the students some of the experiences they went through as they studied to make the students more comfortable.

The teachers should also grade effort in a similar way to results. The ESL students might put in a lot of effort but due to the challenges they face, they might not have exemplary grades. Teachers should strive to find ways of rewarding effort as much as a grade. Policies like awarding the most improved students regardless of whether they have a C or a D should be implemented.

The teachers should also make their ESL students see the bigger picture. Immigrant students will often try their best to prove they are worth it. This makes them highly vulnerable to discouragement when they fail. Teachers should always make them see that the assignment they failed in is very small compared to the life they are yet to experience. Teachers should also put into consideration the struggles the ESL students go through when they are drafting exams. Where possible a multi-faceted exam should be done where all scopes of academics are tested; creativity, verbal competence, writing skills and so on. This will encourage the students who might be good in verbal English but poor in written English. For instance, my Mexican Colleague is very proficient in verbal English but in written tasks, spelling has always been challenging to her.


Braine, G. (2003). ESL students in first-year writing courses: ESL versus mainstream classes. Journal of Second Language Writing, 5(2), 91-107.

Chamot, A. U., & O'malley, J. M. (2004). The cognitive academic language learning approach: A bridge to the mainstream. TESOL Quarterly, 21(2), 227-249.

Drucker, M. J. (2003). What reading teachers should know about ESL learners. The Reading Teacher, 57(1), 22-29.

Duff, P. A. (2001). Language, literacy, content, and (pop) culture: Challenges for ESL students in mainstream courses. Canadian Modern Language Review/La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes, 58(1), 103-132.

Lucas, T., Villegas, A. M., & Freedson-Gonzalez, M. (2008). Linguistically responsive teacher education preparing classroom teachers to teach English language learners. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(4), 361-373.

National Center for Education Statistics, (2008). US Department of Education. Retrieved from

Pappamihiel, N. E. (2001). Moving from the ESL classroom into the mainstream: An investigation of English language anxiety in Mexican girls. Bilingual Research Journal, 25(1-2), 31-38.

Williams, J. A. (2001). Classroom conversations: Opportunities to learn for ESL students in mainstream classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 54(8), 750-757.