Volume VII - 2002-03

The Role of Emotions in Language Teaching
     by Nuray Luk

     Nurray Luk has a BA in TEFL from Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey, and a MA in TEFL from Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey. She is currently pursuing a Ph. D. at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She has taught EFL, ESL reading, and Cross-Cultural Communication at The American Language Institute, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her major interest areas are the role of affect in the teaching of writing, sociolinguistics and teacher development.


     Many years ago, I took a course in the history of art. I passed by memorizing everything, and today I do not remember anything except one class meeting. Our teacher was usually very serious and did whatever the textbook called for. One day, however, she took a black vinyl record album from her briefcase and carefully put it on the record player she had carted into the classroom. She told us to listen carefully, and when she said, “Begin writing, ” we were to write about anything we had studied in the course. We could describe a painting, the way we were feeling when we had discussed some art movement, the way we reacted to the story of the life of an artist. Anything. Anything we did would be correct. I remember that I was overjoyed. I remember my sudden and surprising discovery of meaning in music. I remember what I wrote, and I remember the soothing music. That one class is etched in my memory.

     As a non-native speaker of English, when I look back into my second-language learning experience, I see that my emotions have had a significant impact on my learning, and I see that “Emotions are markers. Emotions lend significance to situations ” (Brand and Graves, 1994). I can see that a great deal of my motivation to learn has emerged from my emotions. Having discovered their importance in my personal learning experience, I began exploring the importance of emotions in my own classes.

     My exploration of the role of emotions in teaching continued with a paper I presented —my first academic presentation —in Three Rivers TESOL in Pittsburgh in 1996. I had thirty people in my audience, and during my workshop I saw three people crying and after the workshop many people came and talked to me about their reactions. This was a great encouragement for me to go further in my exploration. I had to learn more. As Guild (1994)states:

Knowledge is power. For teachers, learning more about the complexities of learning, both cognitive and affective, can only help our professional growth and personal satisfaction. A teacher who truly understands the importance of affect in the classroom, and who believes that all students can learn, can offer opportunities for success to all students (cited in Reid, 1999, p. 305)

Writing with Passion

     In my pursuit of personal satisfaction as a teacher, I have realized that in our teaching experience we are alone. One can read many books on teaching English, and go to many conferences to get ideas, but it is only in class that we really realize that we have to make our own decisions. It is like reading about how to bathe a baby. The written instructions are easy. It is only when you hold that tiny little body in your inexperienced hands that you realize that you have to find the right way yourself. John Fanselow quotes Whitman: “You must travel it for yourself. ”While looking for the “right way, ” I came across Romano 's book Writing with Passion (1996). I read this book with more than passion. As I read it I lived the “flow ” (Optimal psychological experience)that Csikszentmihayli (1990)describes. Flow is the state when the individuals' performance level is compatible with the level of the task or material. In such a situation the individual is totally absorbed in the task or material regardless of any extrinsic or intrinsic motivation. As a teacher, I was at the right level of experience to understand Romano. As a teacher, it was important for me to discover that —as Romano says, “the intellectual and emotional are knotted ” and that “Intellect enables emotion; emotion intensifies intellect. ” Romano believes in the power of emotions to motivate students and involve them in writing. He also says that we have to motivate our students not only to complete an activity but also to take the responsibility and initiative to seek, discover and respect themselves as learners, as individuals. How do we achieve this? One solution is to trigger students' emotions.

What is an emotion?

     In this article, I use the term affect to cover emotion, feeling, and mood, as Damasio states, “As for the word affect it should be used only to designate the entire topic of emotion and feeling …” (p. 16). I will use the terms affect and emotions interchangeably. Since it is beyond this article to define what emotions are, I will refer to Gordon H. Bower 's article entitled “How Might Emotions Affect Learning? ” in The Handbook of Emotion and Memory: Research and Theory (Christianson, 1992). According to Bower, emotions are reactions that are triggered by “computational demons ” in the brain that monitor our actions, plans and goals. Emotions are activated by external situations, have reflex-like quality and are cross-cultural. They can be classified as basic emotions (presumably universal)and subordinate emotions that are more socially constructed.

     In the same vein, Damasio (2000)defines emotions as “specific and consistent collections of physiological responses triggered by certain brain systems when the organism represents certain objects or situations (e. g. , a change in its own tissues such as that which produces pain, or an external entity such as a person seen or heard; or the representation of a person, or object, or situation, conjured up from memory into the thought process)” (p. 15).

Emotions and Memory

     Damasio (1999)states that “There is nothing distinctively about human emotions since it is clear that so many nonhuman creatures have emotions in abundance; and yet there is something quite distinctive about the way in which emotions have become connected to the complex ideas, values, principles, and judgements that only humans can have ” (p. 35). He has shown in his works that from a neuropsychological perspective, emotions are very important: they exist in our brain and are biological. In the same vein Oatley and Jenkins (1996)see emotions as based on biological processes, and elaborated by culture.

     Bower argues that when individuals store memory for an event, their emotional reaction to it could serve as a useful index and that events associated with strong emotional reactions tend to be well learned. He states that, “the memory advantage for highly affective material was the same for negative as for positive reactions to the material ” (p. 15). However, Alice M. Isen (1993)claims that, “whereas positive affect was found to be an effective retrieval cue for positive material in memory, induced negative affect was not found to be an effective cue for negative material, or was seen to be less effective as a cue for negative material than was positive affect for positive material ” (p. 261). Isen also asserts that “the material in mind is organized and accessible in terms of its positive affect tone, and that people spontaneously use positive affect as a way to organize their thoughts …and common positive feelings are fundamentally involved in cognitive organization and processing ” (p. 261).

     Jensen (1998) goes further and suggests that emotions not only help us remember things that are most emotionally laden, but that emotions “give us a more activated and chemically stimulated brain. The more intense the amygdala arousal, the stronger the imprint ” (p. 79). He also quotes Squire to support the view that emotions are so important that they have their own memory “pathways ”. He also points out that “Good learning does not avoid emotions, it embraces them ” (p. 80).

Emotions in ESL

     The field of teaching English as a Second Language also embraced the role of affect in learning. In the late 1970 's and 1980's concern to look for ways to incorporate the affective dimension of the learner into language learning began with writers like Stevick, Rinvolucri, Moskowitz, and Galyean (Arnold, 1999).

     In learning a second language, we encounter anxiety, fear, and other negative emotions. These have been of great interest to many researchers, especially in teaching ESL writing. Thomas (1992)has explored the affective experience of ESL writers and concluded that affect can have either a “facilitative or debilitative ” influence on the writing process of ESL students. However, triggering positive emotions has not been elaborated on in teaching methods, except for Lozanov 's Suggestopedia. Lozanov claims that increased memory power is not an isolated skill but is a result of “positive, comprehensive stimulation of personality (quoted in Richards &Rodgers, 1998, p. 147).

     Positive affect has been studied by Alice Isen since 1970 's. In her article, “Positive Affect ” (2000), based on her own research and other studies, she strongly argues that positive affect has a powerful, and facilitating effect on thinking, creativity, decision making and risk taking. Her work has shown that an event such as unexpectedly finding a coin in the return-slot of a public telephone, seeing a few minutes of a comedy film, receiving a small gift, or learning that one has performed well on a seemingly inconsequential task is sufficient to bring about significant changes in behavior and thinking.

     Two recent books, Affect in Language Learning (Arnold, 1999)and Schumann 's The Neurobiology of Affect in Language (1997) focus on the role of emotions in the field of ESL. The two dimensions of emotions they explore are the impact emotions have on creating an atmosphere conducive to learning and the interaction between emotions and memory. Arnold says in her preface that “there is a growing concern for humanistic approaches and for the affective side of life. Perhaps the common ground upon which we all rest —both in language learning and the greater whole of society —is a desire to contribute to the growth of human potential ” (p. xiii). In her book, the affective factors are dealt with from three perspectives: the learner, the teacher, and the interactional space. Indeed, only when we take all these into consideration can we reach a positive atmosphere of learning. As Earl Stevick says (1996, p. 12) the classroom should be an arena in which the students can feel they are “learning as a whole person, with body, mind, emotions in harmony with one another. ” I will only add to this that teachers also should be in the classroom with their body, mind, and emotions. One way to achieve this is through literature.

Literature and Transparent Language

     According to Collie and Slater (1987, p. 5), “literature can be helpful in the language learning process because of the involvement it fosters in readers …The reader is eager to find out what happens as events unfold; he or she feels close to certain characters and shares their emotional responses. The language becomes “? transparent '—the fiction summons the whole person into its own world …It is important to choose books. . . which are relevant to the life experiences, emotions, or dreams of the learner. ”By transparent, Collie and Slater seem to be referring to the fact that at one point of involvement in a story, the student is concerned not primarily with grammar and translation, but with the charged and immediate incident or narrative of the story itself. It is important, they point out, to note that literature “which speaks to the heart as to the mind, provides material with some emotional color, that can make fuller contact with the learner's own life …” (p. 2). The dynamic consideration of specific stories, they conclude, might be one of the most prevalent methods of creating a classroom environment in which students exist with their ideas and emotions simultaneously.


     It was when my daughter was about two years old. As a committed teacher I was in my office one evening grading papers. At some point, I felt exhausted and picked up a book randomly from the shelf. I started reading some short stories. It was peaceful. Quiet. The building was empty and it was dark outside. I read a few stories when I came to “Later. ” I read it. . I took my bag. Left my office and went home. It was a powerful story for me. I shared it with my students. I shared it not for the sake of grammar or teaching writing. I shared it with genuine feelings. And they responded with their genuine feelings. This was the story I also used in my workshop in Pittsburgh. Later on, I developed activities to use this story in my classes.

      First, I asked my students to read the story and asked them questions that elicited answers in which 51 they had to use adverbial clauses. Thus it became an introduction to a grammar class. It made it more meaningful for them.

     Secondly, I used it in my writing classes. I wrote the word ”“later ” on the blackboard and told my students to write down whatever they thought and felt about this word without stopping. Then they read what they have written and underlined what they considered the most important idea and shared it first with their friend and then all of us. After they read the story they write their feelings about it. Again, they are not to stop. With one class, I asked them to use all their free writing as notes and write a letter to me with the summary of the story and what they felt about it. Hopefully, they will achieve “transparency ” in both their reading and their writing.

      With another class, we just wrote the summary of the story. We lived the “flow ”. Finally, with one class, we did not write anything. We spoke. We pondered about “later ”. It was a magical moment. My point is, this story is only a means to create an “emotional ” atmosphere to make learning more meaningful and memorable.

by Michael Foster
     It 's strange, the things you remember. When life has crumbled suddenly, and left you standing there, alone. It s not the big important things that you remember when you come to that: not the plans of the years, not the love nor the hopes you 've worked so hard for. It 's the little things you
that you remember then: the little things you hadn 't noticed at the time. The way a hand touched yours, and you too busy to notice; the hopeful little inflection of a voice you didn 't really bother
to listen to.
      John Carmody found that out, staring through the living-room window at the cheerful Tuesday-afternoon life of the street. He kept trying to think about the big, important things, lost now —the years and the plans and the hopes. And the love. But he couldn't quite get them focused sharply in his mind just now Not this afternoon.
     They, those important things, were like a huge but nebulous background in his mind. All he could remember now was a strange little thing: nothing, really, if you stopped and thought about it in the light of the years and the plans and the great love. It was only something his little girl had said to him. One evening, two, perhaps three weeks ago, Nothing, if you looked at it rationally. The sort of thing that kids are always saying.
      But it was what he was remembering, now. That particular night, he had brought home from the office a finished draft of the annual stockholders ' report. Very important, it was.
Things being as they were, it meant a great deal —to his future, to the future of his wife and of his little girl. He sat down to re-read it before dinner. It had to be right: it meant so much.
     And just as he turned a page, Marge, his little girl, came with a book under her arm. It
was a green-covered book, with a fairy-tale picture pasted on it. And she said, “Look, Daddy. ”
    He glanced up and said, “Oh, fine. A new book, eh? ”
     “Yes, Daddy, ” she said. . “Will you read me a story in it? ”
     “No, dear. Not just now, ” he said. . Marge just stood there, and he read through a paragraph, which told the stockholders about certain replacements in the machinery of the factory.
      And Marge 's voice, with timid and hopeful little inflections, was saying, “But Mummy said
you probably would, Daddy. ”
     He looked over the top of the typescript. “I 'm sorry, ” he answered. . “Maybe Mummy
will read it to you. I 'm busy, Dear. ”
     “No, ” Marge said politely. . “Mummy is much busier, upstairs. Won 't you read me just this
on story? Look —it has a picture. See? Isn 't it a lovely picture, Daddy? ”
     “Oh, yes. Beautiful, ” he said. . “Now, that picture has class, hasn 't it? But I do have to
work tonight. Some other time. …”
After that, there was quite a long silence. Marge just stood there, with the book open at the lovely picture. It was a long time before she said anything else. He read through two more pages explaining in full detail, as he had directed, the shifts in markets over the past twelve months, the plans outlined by the sales department for meeting these problems which, after
all, could safely be ascribed to local conditions, and the advertising program which after weeks of conferences had been devised to stabilize and even increase the demand for their products.
“But it is a lovely picture, Daddy. And the story looks so exciting, ” Marge said. .
“I know, ” he said. . “Ah …mmmmmmmm. Some other time. Run along, now. ”
“I 'm sure you 'd enjoy it, Daddy, ” Marge said. .
“Eh? Yes, I know I would. But later. ”
“Oh, of course, ” she said. . “You bet. ”
But she didn 't go away. She still stood there quietly, like a good child. And after a long
time, she put the book down on the stool at his feet, and said, “Well, whenever you get ready, just read it to yourself. Only read it loud enough so I can hear, too. ”
“Sure, ” he said. . “Later. ”
And that was what John Carmody was remembering. Now. Not the long plans of love
and care for the years ahead. He was remembering the way a well-mannered child had touched his hand with timid fingers, and said, “Only read it loud enough so I can hear, too. ”
And that was why, now, he put his hand on the book. From the corner table where they had piled some of Marge 's playthings, picking them up from the floor where she had left them.
The book wasn 't new any more, and the green cover was dented and thumbed. He opened it to the lovely picture.
And reading that story, his lips moving stiffly with anguish to form the words, he didn 't
try to think any more, as he should be thinking, about the important things: about his careful and shrewd and loving plans for the years to come; and for a little while he forgot, even, the
horror and bitterness of his hate for the half-drunken punk kid who had careened down the street in a second-hand car and who was now in jail on manslaughter charges.
He didn 't even see his wife, white and silent, dressed for Marge 's funeral, standing in the doorway, trying to make her voice say calmly,
“I 'm ready, Dear. We must go. ”
“Because John Carmody was reading:
'Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a woodcutter 's hut, in the Black Forest. And she was so fair that the birds forgot their singing from the bough, looking at her. And there came a day when …'”


Arnold, J. (1999). Affect in Language Learning . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brand, A. &Graves, R. (Eds. )(1994). Presence of Mind: Writing and the Domain Beyond the Cognitive . New York: Heine-

Brumfit, C. (1985). Language and Literature Teaching: from Practice to Principle . New York: Pergamon.

Collie, J. &Slater, S. (1987)Literature in the Language Classroom: A Resource Book of Ideas and Activities . Cambridge:
     Cambridge University Press.

Christianson, S. (Ed. )(1992). The Handbook of Emotion and Memory . NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Damasio, A. R. (2000). “A Second Chance for Emotion. ” in Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion . R. D. Lane &L. Nadel
     (Eds. )New York: Oxford University Press.

Damasio, A. R. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness . New York:
     Harcourt Brace.

Foster, Michael. (1995)Configurations, published by the United States Information Service in its Classroom Textbook
     Series entitled “American Literature and Culture. ”

Isen, A. (2000). “Positive affect. ” In Handbook of Cognition and Affect . T. &M. J. Power (Eds. )New York: Wiley, 1999.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind . VA: ASCD.

Maley, A. &Duff, A. (1989). The Inward Ear: Poetry in the Language Classroom . Cambridge: Cambridge University 53

McLeod, S. (1997). Notes on the Heart: Affective Issues in the Writing Classroom . Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois
     University Press.

Oatley, K. &J. M. Jenkins. (1996). Understanding Emotions . Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Oatley, K. (1992). Best Laid Schemes: The Psychology of Emotions . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J. C. &T. Rodgers. (1986). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching . New York: Cambridge University

Romano, T. (1995). Writing with Passion . Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Sage, H. (1987). Incorporating Literature in ESL Instruction . NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schumann, J. H. (1997). The Neurobiology of Affect in Language . MA : Blackwell Publishers.

Stevick, E. W. (1996). Memory, Meaning, &Method: A View of Language Teaching. Boston: Heinle &Heinle.

Weinstein, G. &Fantini, M. D. (1970). Toward Humanistic Education; A Curriculum of Affect . NY: Praeger.

back to content page