Feeling Safe Enough to Learn

Updated: Apr 26

Trauma Informed Practices in English Language Teaching


Recently, staff at Duke University found itself in a controversial situation that resulted in the departure of their Graduate Studies Director, after it emerged it that Chinese students in Duke’s International program were admonished to “speak English 100% of the time.”


This unfortunate incident rightly put focus on the ways in which universities in the US treat international students, and prompts an examination of practices in ESL classrooms.

Consider the common practice of enforcing English Only spaces in schools and classrooms. Many English language teaching professionals will agree that encouraging students to speak in the target language as much as possible will benefit their learning. But should we really enforce a ban on students’ first language?



For low level learners, this simply may not be realistic. Imagine being forced to spend up to three hours attempting to speak only a language you had almost no experience with. Would you really be able to avoid your first language completely for that entire time period? What if everybody else had the same first language?

And what kind of message are we sending to our students by forbidding them from speaking their native tongue? Bans tend to be associated with things that are harmful or otherwise considered “bad.” Is this really what instructors should be implying about their students’ first language?



In considering how we can best create an environment in which students feel safe and supported in their learning, applying Trauma Informed Practices to English language teaching might be significant positive development.


Trauma informed practices place the well-being of learners at the center of everything that takes place in the classroom. It is a teaching practice that is gaining traction in general education, and has the potential to applied to the ELT classroom.


It’s worth considering how typical practices in the ELT classroom as described above might be inflicting trauma on our students.



For example, do strict attendance rules truly motivate students and encourage learning?


Or might they possibly discourage students who have already missed class (for whatever reason) from turning up?

Perhaps we should instead welcome each tardy and chronically absent student to our class when they arrive, treating their presence in our classroom as a gift. (As was recently suggested in presentation I attended on Trauma informed Teaching.)


In a similar vein, maybe we can also view learners’ use of their native language in the classroom as a gift that can be leveraged in their English language learning? The research certainly agrees with this idea!


The principles of trauma informed care absolutely resonate with my teaching practices.

But what’s your opinion? Should we celebrate our students’ presence more than we scold them for tardiness? Should teachers enforce an English only policy in their classrooms?

Let us know your opinion in the comments!

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