Teach to tolerate ambiguity to achieve effective spontaneous communication

Teach to tolerate ambiguity to achieve effective spontaneous communication

Have your met students who studied hard for the whole course and then during a trip abroad discovered their inability to communicate spontaneously and effectively with native speakers? Why do they fail? That happens because students have a low tolerance of ambiguity.

Tolerance of Ambiguity (TA)  is considered to be a KEY quality of a successful language learner.

What is Tolerance of Ambiguity?

Tolerance for ambiguity can be defined as the degree to which an individual is comfortable with uncertainty, unpredictability, conflicting directions, and multiple demands.

Level of TA may influence the use of certain language learning strategies. Learners with intuitive types of personalities who have relatively higher levels of TA are more likely to guess from context whereas sensing type of personalities with lower TA dislike guessing from context. What is more, the first type of learners who are comfortable with ambiguity don’t want to use a dictionary in extensive reading and want to carry on without looking up unknown words. However, students of  the second type, who are not so tolerant, check the meanings of unknown words and then translate it into their native language.

Therefore students with higher TA are quite comfortable dealing with contradictory and not easily categorized meanings and structures as well as with completely new and unfamiliar situations. Simply saying they are easy going when it comes to not knowing, their willingness to communicate and move forward is above their fear to make mistakes.

These students will often explode with laughter discovering themselves embarrassed by lexical and structural ambiguity of the English language in situations like this one:  

“You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen; it said, ‘Parking Fine.’ So that was nice.”

                                                                               (English comedian Tim Vine)

Whereas students with low tolerance of ambiguity will demonstrate:

  • the need for a constant categorization and certainty,  
  • attitude statements representing a black and white view of life,
  • preference for familiar over the unfamiliar,  
  • rejection of the unknown or different.

These students can opt to study all the vocabulary and grammar before trying to speak up. Low tolerance attitude is only an impediment in second language learning.

How to help low TA students to master in such an ambiguous situation as a second language?

First, identify the level of tolerance in your classroom by asking yourself the questions below:

Do my students argue about the contradictory meanings or structures?

Do they demonstrate black and white thinking?

Are they not willing to express their opinions because of a lack of profound understanding of how to formulate?

Then start stretching students` limits of tolerance gently by using some of the techniques below.

  • Present uncertainty as a magic kick and a good momentum of knowledge transformation and as a valuable moment for brainstorming and developing new thinking. Suggest embracing not knowing as an inseparable part of lifetime language learning. Advice your students to go for the content first and let the forms be taught later on – on the basis of discovered and spoken content.
  • Teach students to quickly access and retrieve new information in English by listening and reading slightly above their comprehensible level. News and actual social events,  you can take articles and videos here: News in levels, Guardians, Great Big Stories.
  • Teach them to tolerate not knowing something for a longer period of time and find a suitable explanation while sharing with a group or a teacher.

Practice group story building games where the students are given a set of incidents or a story with the end undisclosed. Students are asked to find out the logical connection between the events and thinking of ways to extend it.

  • Transform black and white thinking into dialectical and adaptive one. Motivate them to express their opinions and hold the space for other students` opinions. Perception discussion games are good for this purpose. The opinions that two people have about certain current event may be completely different.Teach your students to identify different attitudes to facts and events. Promote many correct answers attitude vs only one correct answer one.

e.g. Students get familiar with some exciting events. Students discuss both facts and opinions about it. They are asked to identify and separate different opinions from facts in a group discussion.

  • Think of mapping the ambiguous words and structures for discovering a difference in their meanings.

Parking fine vs Weather is fine.

While teaching new vocabulary to a low  TA students think of taking time to let your students discover other meanings by providing example sentences. You can create your class ambiguous dictionary and revise ambiguous words and structure from to time.

  • Celebrate and praise taking risks in uncertain situations in order to promote constant socializing, sharing and developing cross-cultural skills.
  • Create a supportive and welcoming environment. Nothing happens if you are wrong. You are finally right. As from now on, there is not only one right answer and our effective, enjoyable communication is a priority, is our initial desirable GOAL.  
  • Explain to your low TA students that we don’t have years to achieve their goal which is effective communication in English. In order to succeed fast, we need something that works faster than conscientious finely-tuned study.
  • Train your low TA students to get out of their comfort zones by organizing outside of the classroom activities. Such as interviewing people in the streets as well as online. Here is the link for free communication with students all over the world  (121 countries) – Speak in Levels platform.
  • Think about the possibility to organize quick Zoom sessions with your students to let them talk together and give each other feedback on their progress:)
  • Try reading together – teachers can create a shared GoogleDoc for students to regularly share their thoughts and feelings about chapters they are reading at the moment.
  • Play games in English together with your students.
  • Organize ambiguous vocabulary revision quizzes between your students online on free learning platforms like Socrative and Quizzlet.

Give your support and win their trust. As a teacher, you take responsibility for organizing their learning trip. You are the captain,  your students are already onboard, ask them to fasten their belts and participate in your experiments in order to discover different learning, better progress and greater opportunities.

Яна Бойко

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