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Graeme Harrison, head of impact operations in our English language learning team, looks at how confidence and motivation can make all the difference when learning a language.
“I’m not good at languages” or “I’m stressed about my exams” are phrases that every English teacher will have heard many times.
However, as our impact study in Latin America found out, it doesn’t have to be this way.
I was part of a team in Cambridge that set out to measure the impact of preparing for Cambridge English exams for young learners. We looked at data from 130 11–15-year-olds in schools in Peru and Argentina who were all preparing for Cambridge English A2 Key for Schools or B1 Preliminary for Schools. Some had taken a Cambridge English Young Learners exam before, whereas others hadn’t. What we found out was really encouraging.
The study found many Cambridge English students in Latin America were motivated to learn and used English outside the classroom. 94% of students believed they could improve their English through hard work, revealing that students had what is termed a growth mindset. This positive attitude to learning is found in many high-performing school systems around the world.
Our study also discovered that many students were relaxed about their forthcoming exams, which is an interesting finding, but why did they feel this way? We learned that there were two important factors that affected how relaxed they felt: firstly, students were more relaxed about their upcoming exam if they had taken Cambridge English exams before, and secondly, perhaps unsurprisingly, they were less anxious if they were confident speakers of English.
These findings are really positive as our exams and learning resources for young learners are designed to motivate, build confidence, and foster a positive attitude to learning. Below, we suggest some things parents and teachers can do to help unlock a growth mindset. My colleague Amy Devine, who worked on the study explains:
“Our study highlights the importance of developing classroom activities that have achievable goals, which give feedback, reward progress and encourage students to ask for help. We saw fantastic examples of schools which have really developed their pupils’ confidence and motivation, which makes all the difference in language learning. They used techniques which reinforce the positive can-do approach which underlies all Cambridge learning resources and assessments for English language learning.”
Classroom activities should:
Devine suggests that building confidence is key to low test anxiety.
“The fact that the majority of pupils were relaxed about their forthcoming exams was really encouraging because test anxiety is a concern for teachers not just in Latin America but all over the world. We’d recommend teachers build on these findings by developing classroom activities that focus on communication and help students not to worry too much about their mistakes.”
We found that familiarising students with the exam is also a good way to reduce test anxiety. Students who had taken a Cambridge exam before were, on average, less anxious than those who hadn’t. Other strategies include familiarising students with test format and encouraging English practice in different contexts such as role plays, games, digital media and face-to-face interaction. Teachers should also gradually encourage shy students to take part in classroom activities by starting with solo practice and building up to small group work.
Teachers can encourage low anxiety levels by:
Engaging students is key to maintaining interest and motivation. Our study identified the importance students place on activities outside the classroom to help them learn English. The most popular was listening to music with 87% of students saying they use this activity. This was closely followed by 80% of students saying they watch TV or videos. Teachers can use this insight to help develop immersive classroom activities.
“We looked at what engages students outside the classroom and top of the charts was listening to music, closely followed by watching films in English,” explains Devine. “This is a really great insight for teachers because it can give them the inspiration they need to develop creative and effective activities for learning. For example they could develop activities around discussing students’ favourite movies and songs in the classroom. Parents can also make use of this information by encouraging students to participate more in their favourite English learning activities outside the classroom.”
Measuring the impact of our work and proving the value of what we do is something we take very seriously. Further information about this study can be found in Research Notes 80: Context and quality assurance in language testing.