Why We Filter Out: Understanding the Affective Filter

AUTHOR: Seth Herrington, Bilingual/ESL Education Specialist

Educators spend countless hours developing engaging and interactive lessons for students. They pour over curriculum, participate in PLC’s, refine lesson plans through peer-review, and scour the internet for resources that will make the content delivery comprehensible for their students. Despite the deep level of care taken to plan a lesson, there are external factors that can hijack the learning process, rendering the countless hours of preparation useless. This is a phenomenon experienced by all learners and isn’t confined to education. It’s the basketball player that performs well during practice but freezes on the free-throw line under pressure. The business executive who fits the job description for an exciting new position perfectly, but doesn’t interview well due to social anxiety. The English Language Learner who sees themselves as intellectually inferior as a result of repeated failures in mastering academic content in English.

This imaginary barrier is called the Affective Filter. It’s a term developed by Stephen Krashen as part of his “Affective Filter Hypothesis” (Krashen, 1982). According to Krashen, there are three main sources of a raised affective filter.

  • Motivation: Learners who are highly motivated tend to acquire new content more quickly. When it comes to English Language Learners (ELLs), fostering motivation to acquire English is at times a difficult task, especially when a lack of motivation stems from an incongruence in the cause/effect relationship between content mastery and personal success.
  • Self-Confidence: Damaged self-confidence comes almost exclusively from repeated failures in mastering the English language for ELLs or from damaging experiences in attempting to master English. 
  • Anxiety: Stemming from circumstances inside the classroom or out, anxiety has an adverse effect on the acquisition of content. Students suffering from anxiety in the classroom experience triggers that render them emotionally hijacked and unable to truly process information presented, let alone demonstrate their comprehension of previously mastered material.

Students can suffer from an affective filter coming from more than one of the above sources. For example, an ELL with damaged self-confidence can also suffer from high levels of performance anxiety. Regardless of the source, a raised affective filter can diminish comprehensible input to the extent of eliminating it altogether.

Minimizing the Affective Filter

Maintaining a friendly, comfortable environment is ultimately the single most effective way to minimize the prevalence of a raised affective filter in ELLs. However, there are a number of additional practices that can help educators ensure that the lessons, units, and/or activities they plan for students result in content and language acquisition. Here are a few:

  • Elicit student performance only at the appropriate level.
  • Avoid public error correction and focus on the message being communicated rather than correct grammar.
  • Increase wait time and include “think time” for ELLs who are devoting an extraordinary amount of cognitive capacity to translating material delivered from English to their native language.
  • Allow for ample rehearsal time before student performance.

By implementing these and other strategies, educators can foster an environment where their students can easily acquire language and content — making the countless hours spent in planning instruction worth the effort.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Pergamon Press.


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