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Affectivity in Language Learning

First published in ETP in 2005 Under the Title: Real Humanism

It is relatively rare that articles advising teachers on the emotional aspects and components of teaching and learning (affectivity) refer directly to research studies in support of their case; is this because there are none or because writers prefer, for whatever reason, to ignore them? Or is it because we assume that everyone agrees and there is no need to support our position?

It seems natural and ‘right’ to wish to enhance classroom communications and thus create an affective environment; it is after all the culmination of a hundred years of movement towards more sympathetic education isn’t it? But a few short years ago we were convinced that language learning was a matter of habit formation and if we could eliminate ‘bad habits’, i.e. ‘wrong language’, all would be well! Subsequently it became normal to have students sitting in rows, plugged into machines, listening and repeating!

Those language laboratories were the result of research which became applied research – part of a feedback loop which supplied practitioners.

The Learner in Control

But research certainly doesn’t have all the answers. Rod Ellis’ response to an interviewer in 1993 would be enough to dissuade anyone foolhardy enough to imagine that research can solve all our problems. Asked what the keys ideas from half a century of Second Language Acquisition research were, he replied:

“.. ultimately, what is learned is controlled by the learner and not the teacher, not the text books and not the syllabus.”

This tells us simultaneously that years of research have not produced the definitive answers and, of relevance here, that what we teach is of less importance than the context in which we do it. Ellis offers indirect support for the notion that we should be focussing our energies on creating the optimum conditions for learning / acquisition to take place since a teacher’s direct influence on student learning is clearly minimal. We teach but learning may not take place – or at least not as we plan it to.

In fact we have had indications for a very long time (relative to the modern history of ELT) regarding the validity of a positive environment, as a quick review of the literature will show. Françoise Cormon (1986) notes:

“language learning is at its best when teachers teach the students, not the syllabus.”

This comment too indicates that we would do well to focus on the character and humanity of our students do rather than the next item in some arbitrarily organised structural, functional or lexical sequence.

John Schumann (1999) argues a neurobiological view of affect in learning through stimulus appraisal – the electro-chemical reaction of the brain to a given situation and a subsequent avoidance or approach mechanism. If a learning environment is unpleasant, learners will react negatively to it. They are more likely to ‘approach’ when the environment is pleasing.

Intolerance of Ambiguity

Naiman’s 1978 research into the Good Language Learner included Budner’s (1962) Intolerance of Ambiguity (I of A) scale and the results suggest that learners who are anxious about ‘what might happen next’ (a high I of A) are less likely to be successful language learners. They are, for example, more likely to be quickly irritated by a teacher speaking only in the target language.

Learners with a low I of A score, on the other hand, are more likely to ‘go with the flow’, demonstrating lower levels of anxiety; an attitude more conducive to success in language learning. I suggest that an affective environment can assist in reducing I of A by encouraging and supporting anxious learners.

While a number of studies on motivation (c.f. Covington 1992, Bandura 1977, Hastings 1992) conclude that learners’ perception and reaction to challenge, success and failure differ (depending on what is sometimes known as ‘motivational style’) there is common agreement that motivation is an essential component of successful language learning. That the environment can play an essential role in developing and nurturing or destroying motivation in students is surely beyond doubt. Parental pressure, the anti-study culture of some teens, an unsympathetic teacher or cold and un-stimulating classrooms all form part of the environment and can have disastrous effects on learners in reducing or eliminating motivation.

We need therefore to search for educational solutions which will offer further support for our attempts to create a positive environment.

Humanism in Education

Humanism in education may be a good place to look and Carl Rogers an authoritative guide to finding a source of much genuine human and humanistic thinking.

"Perhaps the most basic of …. essential attitudes is realness or genuineness. When the facilitator is a real person being what he is, entering into a relationship with the learner without presenting a front or façade, he is much more likely to be effective."

(Rogers.1983, p:106)

Rogers is noting that falsifying mood, reaction or interaction is ineffective as a device. Perhaps then a first principle for the teacher wishing to create a positive atmosphere might be this: be yourself, use the bits that work, leave outside the door the bits that don’t, above all: don’t pretend! Rogers goes on:

"Some teachers raise the question, `But what if I am not feeling empathic, do not, at this moment, prize or accept or like my students. What then?' My response is that realness is the most important of the attitudes mentioned. […] So if one haslittle understanding of the student's inner world, and a dislike for his students or their behaviour, it is almost certainly more constructive to be real than to be pseudo-empathic, or to put on a façade of caring."


He is not suggesting that it is desirable to dislike our students but all of us who have spent more than a few weeks in a classroom know that we react with our students just as we do with any other human beings with whom we must have long-term contact; they will be distributed along a continuum from 'extremely fond of' to 'thoroughly dislike' with all stages in between. Students may not like you either but you can still form a professional relationship and given time and genuine, communication you might both change your minds.

Even if we don’t like our students, we can at least be interested in them. Gaining insight into how our students think, work and react in the classroom will augment our ability to react to and with them. One might then aspire to a more humanistic environment in which conditions foster a desire and motivation to acquire knowledge. And since humanistic education is about attitude and philosophical belief systems, it’s worth noting that one can't divorce the application from its context because to 'do' a humanistic lesson or ‘adopt’ a humanistic technique would result in a spectator event with few genuine consequences for students.

Adrian Underhill (1989. p:1) makes the point clearly:

"Our appetite for technique has led us to try some of their (the Humanistic Approaches’) novel and colourful classroom practices, without serious attention to the values, attitudes and awarenesses that inform those practices."

(Italics are mine.)

The kind of ‘off the shelf’ constructions that are sometimes recommended to teachers in the name of creating a positive environment are similarly divorced from their sources and so, unlikely to create the desired effect. Behavioural deception is almost always unconsciously or consciously transparent to another human being and such deception will be noted as an incongruent event. Telling your learners that you 'love them all', in the overblown style of a Hollywood starlet will probably make them laugh (as it should) but they won't believe you (as they shouldn’t) because of the incongruity of the idea and the inappropriateness of the context. What they will know in this case however, is that you are relaxed enough to have a joke with them.

The problem is that often simplistic and atomistic representations of broad ideals on teaching and learning are sometimes presented to teachers: how to make your students more ‘this’ or less ‘that’ and these should be treated with suspicion at best and complete disregard at worst.

It is degrading for both students and teachers alike to believe that one can adopt a technique and thereby have more intelligent (multiple or traditional) students, or students who automatically acquire the subject matter more rapidly.

A presentation at a conference some years ago advised on how to make our students more intelligent! We can’t make our students more intelligent and I would argue that we shouldn’t even be trying for two important reasons: such matters are not only beyond our competence but also outside our remit. When did you last meet a language student who said “I’d like to enrol for the 1st Certificate group and I’d like you to raise my IQ (or my emotional intelligence level) too please.” Secondly: there is hardly any evidence that success in second language learning is intelligence-linked. Certainly the major good language learner studies (c.f. Rubin, Naiman etc) have not noted a significant correlation between language learning success and high intelligence. If there were such a connection, we could do nothing but have pity on our students who are not fortunate enough to be ‘bright’; in effect, we probably don’t even notice because it’s as irrelevant as it should be.

The Empathetic Teacher

To further assist my thesis that we can go back a relatively long way to find support for the idea of the value of a positive educational environment, in the 1970s, Aspy and Roebuck conducted a number of research studies to examine how teaching style and teacher attitude may effect students. One of their studies demonstrated that school children who had empathetic and facilitative teachers had, in general, a better attendance record, higher academic achievement scores, presented fewer disciplinary problems and were more spontaneous than those who did not. This will not cause any raising of eyebrows amongst the teaching community but we do need that sort of study to support our affective movement.

But you can’t buy Essence of Empathy or Fragrance of Facilitation from a stall. Showing empathy for your students is something that you either do or don’t do. And if you don't, I suggest that you can't learn to do it since it is outside your terms of reference.

Learning and teaching are natural human events and if Rogers is right then we should be focussing our energies on developing our own awareness of the fellow human beings who just happen to be in our classrooms. Patronising our students by pretending to like them or by tryingto dominate their cognitive processes with unsubstantiated mind games won’t get us very far at all. But to start with, we could check out the vast amount of research into learning strategies andmotivational styles (far too much to cite here) to help us to gain an insight into what good language learners do differently from their apparently less able colleagues. This might give us an indication of how we can maximise the effect of our class time. The next step would be to find out if it’s possible or desirable to teach learning strategies - to whom, when and with what outcome in mind. On a personal and professional level we can surely train ourselves to become ever more responsive to individuals in our classes in an attempt to engage different learners with a variety of stimuli. We can also examine and interrogate the strategies we use to maintain and foster motivation, curiosity and interest

No New Methodology

We, as learners, practitioners and trainers are, it seems to me, becalmed. All appears quiet, there are no fantastic new methods or approaches on the horizon (leaving aside the rapid growth of MOOCs for the moment), applicable research is swinging gently in the breeze and we are becoming more reflective as we realise that at least some of the answers to long-standing questions are probably to be found in our own classrooms. But answers are not definitive as indeed, neither are the questions, we may have to learn to live with a little mist and fog with only occasional pinpoints of clarity. One of those pinpoints is that to adopt a false profile or treat our students as though they were in any way different from ourselves will not be useful to them or us. Instead, if we are drawn towards the important notions of humanistic education, let us examine them unsentimentally, capitalising on that which is congruent to our professionality and that which is likely to create the most viable educative atmosphere for our students. Let us avoid the trap of adopting ‘two-for the-price-of-one’ techniques in the misplaced belief that we are 'doing something useful' but instead take a broad and informed view of a rich and fertile territory. There is much to be gained here but we need to plant the seeds and cultivate them rather than buying plastic flowers in plastic pots.


Aspy, D. & Roebuck,F.Kids don't learn from people they don't like1977 Human Resources Development Press
Bandura, A.R.Self-Efficacy: towards a unifying1977 Psychological Review, 41 theory of behavioural change
Cormon, F.Humanistic Activities and Teacher Motivation1986 ELTJ 40/4 OUP
Covington, M.Making the Grade: a self perspective on Motivation and School Reform 1992CUP
Ellis, R.Talking Shop1993ELTJ 47/1 OUP
Hastings, N. J.Questions of Motivation1992 Support for Learning, 7 (3)
Naiman, N. et. al.The Good Language Learner1978 Ontario Institute for Language Education
Rogers, C.Empathic: an unappreciated way of being. In A Way of being1980 Houghton Mifflin
Rogers, C.Freedom to Learn for the 80s1983 Macmillan/Merrill
Rubin, JWhat the good language learner can teach us1975 TESOL Quarterly
Schumann, J. (in Arnold, J. ed)Affect in Language Learning1999 CUP
Spolsky, B.Conditions for Second Language Learning1989 OUP
Underhill, AProcess in Humanistic Education1989 ELTJ 43/4 OUP
Wingate, JThe Power of Good Teaching2003 ETP


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