IATEFL 2017 - Day Three: 'Empathy in Language Teaching'

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Empathy may be one of the qualities which distinguishes an average teacher from an excellent teacher in the eyes of the student. In this session, Kieran Donaghy (Film English) examines the importance of empathy in language education and proposes practical activities to encourage teachers, teacher trainers and students to be more empathetic.

Kieran opens the session by playing the following clip from the movie, Funny Face (1957)


Audrey Hepburn’s character gives a good defnition: 

‘It goes beyond sympathy – sympathy is to understand what someone feels.  Empathy is to project your imagination so that you actually feel what the other person is feeling.  Put yourself in the other person’s place’

So why is empathy important in language education?

Kieran explains how CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) asks students to reveal a lot of information about themselves and doing so in their second language makes it even more difficult and so we must constantly put ourselves in the shoes of our students.

As Doglas Brown stated (1973) ‘Language is one of the primary means of empathizing.’

How can we become more empathetic?

  • Have a growth mindset (be open to becoming more empathetic and learning how to do so)
  • Make a mental note everytime you see an instance of empathetic inking or action in yourself or others.
  • Gain as much experience as possible (don’t lose touch with students)
  • Be bilingual, tri-lingual or polyglot (deeper understanding from a language learner’s point of view)
  • Find out as much as possible about students and remember it (use it to converse with them)
  • Get students to write a biography about themselves, describing their past, present and future ambitions (you will find out things they won’t necessarily tell you in class such as learning difficulties, personal difficulties etc which can inform your teaching and help you plan with your students in mind.
  • Reveal information about yourself (but not too much)
  • Use self-depreciating humour with students (let them know you too had/have difficulties)
  • Smile and make eye contact
  • Allow judicious use of their mother tongue (L1) when studenst want to tell you something important

Activities to help students be more empathetic?

  • Learn and use the names of the other students in the class.
  • Encourage your students to ask each other empathetic questions (below)










Empathy Roleplays: 

Give students a lot of questions to help them empathize with their character:

  • What is this person like?
  • What age are they?
  • What are they like physically?
  • What would their house be like?
  • What do they do?
  • What kinds of things do you think they like and dislike?
  • What sort of things do they know about?
  • What and who do they care or worry about?
  • What do they believe in?


Jill Hadfield in her book Classroom Dynamics provides two activities to encourage empathy:

  1. I were you which encourages students to think about their responses from their partner’s point of view









2) You imagine you are your partner and answer the questions:










Another idea is to ask students to write a biography in first person point of view about their partner.

Empathic Listening: 

Your partner will tell you a short anecdote.  Listen carefully.  Show you are interested and encourage your partner to continue by using phrases like:

  • Go on!
  • What happened next?
  • What did you do then?
  • So what did you do?
  • Really?
  • How did you feel then?


Another activity is to listen to your partner tell you something about his/her feelings.  To your surprise he/she is describing exactly how you feel about the subject too.  Join in and agree with him/her.  You can use phrases like: 7

  • Oh yes!
  • Me too!
  • I feel just the same
  • I know just how you feel
  • I know what you mean
  • That’s how I feel too

Listening Circles:

Put students into a circle.  Give them prompts such as:

  • What is something you’re passionate about?
  • What is your favourite place to relax?
  • Who has had the most influence on your life?
  • What has been a pivotal event in your life?

One student talks for one minute.  The other students just listen.

Empathic Reading: 

Encourage your students to read about marginalised people in novels like ‘Refugee Boy’ or ‘The Curious Incident of the Boy in the Night-time.’

Literary fiction focuses on the psychology of characters and their relationships, and helps to expand empathy.

Try these empathy reading questions with your students:










Using Film:

Roger Ebert said

‘The movies are like a machine that generates empathy.  It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.  It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.’

We as teachers should encourage students to watch films about people who are very different from us and about marginalised people.

A nice activity to really expand your students’ levels of empathy is to watch this video by The National Autistic Society in the UK. Afterwards, ask students to write a composition from the point of the view of the boy.  What was his experience?


StoryCorps is a website dedicated to providing stories of people all around the world with diverse backgrounds.  Show your students a video and have them ‘feel’ what the people are feeling, write stories and bios about their lives.

Another great session and one which has given me lots to consider in relation to my interaction and level of empathy with the students I meet everyday.




3 Responses

  1. Colette Diamond

    Another great post, Aoife from IATEFL 2017. I really enjoyed reading this and the little film clips. This contains such practical and down to earth advice. It’s interesting how some of the things we might overlook can be extremely valuable in the classroom. I also think we might be surprised at the level of empathy that exists among students in class and you really only see it when something happens.
    Yes, of course, it’s important for teachers to be empathetic but we have to be careful about the line in showing empathy and putting ourselves in their shoes and the student thinking we’re their new best friend. Plenty to think about.

    • Thanks Colette. Especially valuable to acknowledge that all our students have background stories and it’s always worthwhile finding out these things to guide the lesson . This would make a great CPD sharing session actually to hear different teachers ideas on how they are empathetic in their classroom and share how they encourage students to be too.

  2. Well, happy to say I do all this automatically 🙂 Nice to see it flagged!

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