Learning English is a daunting task for many students, especially in an EFL setting. So teachers need to contemplate how to promote learners’ well-being in language learning. Experts believe that teachers must maintain a positive attitude in teaching – from designing instructional materials for learners to giving feedback after a given task. In line with 21st-century skills, Mercer et al (2018) believe that learners’ well-being should be promoted alongside linguistic development. Well-being, herein, narrowly refers to positive feelings or emotions when learning the English language. Through positive psychology interventions (PPIs), programmes or activities can be intentionally designed (Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009) to cultivate positivity in cognition and affective aspects of language learning. In the same vein, in teaching, I believe that PPIs could help teachers become aware of learner issues, such as those with low well-being.

The experiment

The floating egg experiment was conducted during a forum entitled ‘Positive Psychology in SLA: Pedagogical and Research Implications’ in a reputable university in Thailand. Data were collected during the activity by using an open-ended questionnaire. The question was, ‘Suppose your students have low well-being in English language learning (for example, low motivation, high anxiety, among others, what actions would you take?’ The participants in the forum were graduate students and lecturers in the English language department. In the activity, the participants were asked to group themselves voluntarily. Eleven groups with two to three members volunteered to partake in the study. Each group was given a half-full glass of water, a jar of salt and an egg. They were told that the egg symbolises a student with low well-being, the half-full glass of water as the learning environment, and the salt denotes a positive action designed by the teacher to help the students flourish. Under normal circumstances, if the egg is put in a glass of water, it will sink to the bottom. However, when enough salt is added to the water, the egg floats. The participants were asked to do the activity for up to 15 minutes then share their responses in the big group.

To analyse the data, the action of adding salt into the half-full glass of water was counted to know the frequency of positive actions done by each group. Meanwhile, the responses from the open-ended questionnaire were coded inductively to generate specific actions to answer the question.

 

Outcomes of the experiment

To answer the question in the questionnaire, the specific actions are illustrated in Table 1. It highlights the multiplicity of positive actions taken by the teachers. The varying frequency, for example, n=12, could show how the teacher must take numerous considerations into account to facilitate positivity in English language learning. For instance, in group 1, specific actions have considered the learner’s first language, the lesson’s goal, the purpose of learning and the teacher’s attitude toward learner mistakes or errors.

 

Table 1. Frequency and list of specific actions

 

 

The specific actions were categorised into twelve aspects of positivity in English language teaching, including approach in teaching (i.e. using a humanistic approach), assessment (i.e. negotiating with students), good language teacher (i.e. being sensitive to learner needs), ideology in teaching (i.e. being positive in teaching), learner’s culture (i.e. respecting learner culture), learner’s needs (i.e. surveying learner needs), learning goals (i.e. negotiating learning goals), norms in teaching (i.e. allowing learner mistakes), out-of-class activity (i.e. providing real-world tasks), teacher feedback (i.e. reducing corrective feedback), teaching environment (i.e. relaxing learning environment), and use of L1 (i.e. allowing use of L1).

Interestingly, the act of giving feedback was the most frequent keyword. This is very interesting as it serves as a caution for English teachers. Giving feedback, if not handled appropriately, could be detrimental to low-proficient students. Hattie & Timperley (2007) suggest that providing corrective feedback may enhance new skills and tasks. Moreover, learners appreciate feedback with specific written comments that are given individually.

 

“Experts believe that teachers must maintain a positive attitude in teaching – from designing instructional materials for learners to giving feedback after a given task.”

 

Implications for (online) teaching

Multiple challenges have been reported since the shift from face-to-face to online teaching. One of which is the learner’s low engagement. This could be a result of high anxiety or low motivation in English language learning. To increase learner engagement, the teacher can consider using specific acts to alleviate stress and increase motivation. In this case, the 12 particular actions listed by Group 6 are demonstrated below to show how they could help improve the engagement of learners with low well-being.

The first focuses on allowing the use of L1 when necessary as it may help learners comprehend the lesson, thereby allowing them to become more confident and respond to questions. In many cases, learners are unwilling to communicate their ideas in L2 as they are afraid to make mistakes and to ‘lose’ face. Another action is to set specific and attainable goals. Knowing the challenges of online learning, teachers may have to lower their expectations concerning the lesson’s outcome. The third action focuses on giving different students different goals and is related to the fourth action, knowing individual differences. Accordingly, knowing learner limitations can help teachers design the ‘right’ scaffold to encourage class engagement. The next action is being flexible. If the class is passive, the teacher can encourage learners, whether verbally or written. If some learners are not comfortable turning on their videos while speaking, allow them not to do so. Due to proximity in online teaching, teachers may have to possess a ‘pleasing’ persona, such as having the right image, being friendly, being open-minded and being kind. For example, showing concern to learners’ language difficulties may increase their participation. Another action that creates a relaxing environment may include randomly asking questions to learners or asking for volunteers before calling out names. Lastly, believing in positivity in teaching may help increase learner participation in online learning settings.

Final thoughts

A positive approach to English language teaching involves a multiplicity of positive actions including but not limited to adopting a humanistic approach, negotiating learning goals and assessment, being sensitive to learner needs, allowing learner mistakes, providing real-world tasks, reducing corrective (negative) feedback, creating a relaxing learning environment, and allowing the use of L1 in the classroom. It can be concluded that a single positive action may not be enough to help a low well-being student to ‘flourish’ in English language learning.

References

Hattie J & Timperley H (2007) The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research 77 81–112.

Mercer S, MacIntyre P, Gregersen T & Talbot K (2018) Positive language education: combining positive education and language education. Theory and Practice of Second Language Acquisition 4 (2) 11–31.

Sin NL & Lyubomirsky S (2009) Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: a practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology 65 (5) 467–487.

Jeffrey Dawala Wilang hails from Dilong, Tubo, Abra. He recently moved from a university in Bangkok to the School of Foreign Languages, Institute of Social Technology, Suranaree University of Technology, Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand. His research interests include psycholinguistics and English as a lingua franca. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send an email to wilang@g.sut.ac.th.