More than just fluency

How can English teachers help students overcome Communication Apprehension (CA)?

June 26, 2021 01:17 pm | Updated 01:17 pm IST

All successful public speakers need not be good conversationalists and vice versa.

All successful public speakers need not be good conversationalists and vice versa.

At a recent webinar, I had the opportunity to discuss ‘communication apprehension’ (CA) with teachers of English. The focus was on why many experience CA and how teachers can help students overcome it.

What is CA?

James McCroskey defines communication apprehension as “the fear or anxiety an individual experiences as a result of either real or anticipated communication with another individual or group of people”. It is purely psychological. Such people are not comfortable communicating with people in groups or speaking in public due to various reasons. Not everyone who has communication apprehension is skill deficient. Even those who have excellent language skills may experience CA and may have any or some of these symptoms: dryness in the mouth, clammy hands, sweating, faster heartbeats, quivering voices, and butterflies in the stomach.

In The Challenge of Effective Speaking , by Rudolph F. Verderber, et al. states that “as many as 76% of experienced public speakers feel fearful before presenting a speech”. Billionaire Richard Branson, one of the highest-paid speakers in the world, says that he gets nervous before he goes onto a stage but is quite comfortable during the Q&A session. Such speakers try to avoid this part of public speaking Some are comfortable addressing a big gathering but not so comfortable in one-to-one communication or in small groups. All successful public speakers need not be good conversationalists and vice versa.

Most English language teachers think that they can make students effective communicators by helping learners develop their language skills, rather than focusing on the psychological aspects. As a result, they are unable to help students overcome CA. Thus, there is a need to redefine the role of English language teachers (ELTrs).

ELTrs not mere teachers but are counsellors too. Besides helping students develop their proficiency in the language, they should also help students become aware of their strengths, think positively, believe in their abilities, talents and skills, strike conversations with strangers, know their rights as speakers, identify their irrational beliefs/thoughts and enable them to rewrite their scripts.

Any irrational thought will result in unpleasant emotions and unproductive behaviour. If a teacher asks a student to speak before the class, the student might hesitate because of a previous experience of not speaking well or being ridiculed by classmates. The student has a script that has many irrational statements such as “Only if I have the ability to speak fluently, should I speak in front of the class.” By helping the student realise that this thought is irrational and making him/her alter the script, the teacher can help the student fight his/her apprehension.

Here are some of the most common irrational beliefs that many students have: I am not ok; others are ok; I didn’t study in an English-medium school. So, I can’t speak English fluently; I am not creative enough to prepare a good PPT; I have never scored good marks in English. So, I won’t be able to crack the English test; My previous presentation didn’t go well. I don’t think it will go well this time; Making a presentation is not my cup of tea.

A good teacher can help students realise that the above are irrational thoughts and make them rewrite their scripts.

Overcoming their issues

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), introduced by Dr Albert Ellis in the 1950s, is a form of psychotherapy that can be used to help people overcome a variety of issues including anxiety and fear associated with communication. REBT helps people identify self-defeating thoughts and feelings, challenge the rationality of those feelings and replace them with more productive beliefs. If English language teachers have knowledge of REBT, they can apply it to help students identify their irrational thoughts and rewrite the scripts registered in their mind.

Our beliefs and thoughts control our emotions and decisions. By constantly checking whether our thoughts are rational, we can have control over our emotions and change our behaviour. As educators, it is our moral responsibility to help our students identify their self-defeating beliefs and help them develop their rational thoughts. By doing so, we can help them overcome their communication apprehension.

The author is an academic, columnist and teacher educator. Email

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