What is an affective filter and how to reduce its impact in the class?

An Affective Filter in Language Learning

An Affective Filter in Language Learning


  • Teaching qualifications
  • Methodology

As a teacher, you may have noticed that there are learners who fail to master the language no matter how hard they try. Another common example is the learner who did quite well during the semester, but struggled to pass the final test or even failed it. In all these situations, learners seem to have a mental block that prevents them from making good progress in learning a language. This mental block is called an affective filter.

In this article, we are going to discuss what the affective filter is. Moreover, we are going to pay extra attention to its characteristics. Finally, we are going to learn how it might be revealed and most importantly, how it can be lowered.

An affective filter theory

The term "affective filter" was suggested by Stephen Krashen as a part of his research into second language acquisition and the factors that either contribute to it or impede it, known as emotional variables. Basically, an affective filter can be defined as a psychological construct that can either facilitate or hinder language learning.

According to Krashen, such factors as motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety play an essential role in learning a language. Therefore, negative feelings like fear, anxiety or shame, which the learner can experience, are likely to activate this filter. 

As a result, an invisible block is created that prevents the input of the lesson from being acquired and generally, acts as a mental block in cognitive processes.

As we can see, an affective filter can be high or low. Interestingly, the affective filter is not static; it can fluctuate based on various factors such as:

  • the learner's mood,
  • confidence, 
  • and the teaching methods employed, 

emphasizing the dynamic interplay between emotions and language acquisition. 

Needless to say that it is crucial to understand how both high and low filters influence learners' progress to help them solve their problems effectively. 

High and low filters in the classroom

When the filter is activated and high, learners usually experience stress, they feel worried or anxious. They lack self-confidence, may be afraid of making mistakes and, consequently, they are less willing to participate actively in the lesson. The learners are not motivated to study, may feel disinterested and even bored. As a result, they do not acquire the input of the lesson and overall, language acquisition is impeded.

During assessments, the impact of a high affective filter becomes even more pronounced: 

some learners become poor test takers, and, no matter how hard they tried to prepare, they find themselves in a situation where their mind goes blank. 

This is mainly due to the fear of making mistakes and feeling ashamed of it. As a consequence, such learners do not take risks to manipulate with the language during the test.

On the other hand, when the affective filter is low, learners are usually confident and highly motivated in their studies, and they take responsibility for their learning. They feel safe to make mistakes and feel free from being judged. As a result, they are more likely to take risks and experiment with the language. 

The learners are more willing to cooperate with their peers and take an active part in pair and group activities, sharing their opinions and thoughts. 

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How to lower the affective filter

Imagine a learner is a guest at your place. If the visitor is welcomed, you are likely to create a nice environment, a comforting atmosphere, cater for your guest's needs, and help them feel at ease. 

Teachers can create similar conditions that are conducive to learning and help to lower the filter. We will look at how it can be done in the classroom in terms of the emotional variables mentioned earlier, namely, motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety.

Though motivation is often seen as an internal factor in second language learning, teachers' role is crucial in maintaining it high in learners.

Here are some practical steps that can allow teachers to do it:

  • Cater for learners' needs, for instance, by letting them choose the topics for discussion which are interesting for them. By discussing them, learners will be more motivated during the lesson;
  • Create space and allocate time for learners to share their thoughts or simply to be heard. Such learning conditions are sure to inspire them to learn;
  • Share with learners some control and responsibility for their learning trajectory. This enables them to invest more time and effort in studies and makes them more meaningful.

As we can see, keeping learners engaged and providing them with meaningful learning that matches their personal interests can be inspiring and highly motivating for them.

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Another emotional variable is self-confidence. Apart from maintaining high motivation, learners need to be respected, valued and feel a sense of belonging. A warm learning environment where learners' individuality is accepted and respected helps to boost their self-confidence and facilitates language learning. In terms of practical steps, it can be achieved by:

  • addressing learners by their names,
  • remembering some personal details, 
  • personalising the tasks,
  • organising icebreaker 
  • and team building activities.

The last but not least emotional variable is anxiety. In the classroom, learners may feel embarrassed and ashamed when they make a mistake or do not know something. As a result, they may feel anxious which can lead to a higher affective filter. 

There are several ways to help learners reduce anxiety in the classroom. 

First of all, it can be done by setting up the physical features of the classroom, e.g. by arranging the tables so that the learners can sit next to each other and work in pairs, small groups or teams. Avoid arranging tables in rows when learners face each other, as it can trigger a confrontation. 

Talking about the lesson itself, it is important to make sure the input is comprehensive for the learners or scaffolded so that the learners can have a sense of achievement. It is also worth paying attention to the ways of error correction when learners are not afraid of making mistakes and could learn from them.

So we believe it is obvious now why it is important to lower the affective filter. When the affective filter is elevated, the learners are less likely to process the input delivered in the lesson, and as a result, language acquisition is impeded. Once the filter is lowered, learners can acquire more lesson input. 

This can be achieved when learners are in a safe learning environment: they feel confident and motivated and are open to new input in the lesson. 

Teachers sometimes do not realise that their words or actions can build an invisible wall in the minds of their learners, which will prevent them from making progress. Therefore, being aware of the affective filter, why it can be activated, and how it can be lowered provides learners with the room to bloom.

Is it true that self-confidence plays no role in the language acquisition process?

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Article authors & editors
  • Olena Bochkarova

    Olena Bochkarova


    DELTA, CELTA certified teacher of General & Business English, IELTS Prep, International Speaking Examiner



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