14 ESL Pair Work Speaking Activities That Get Students Psyched
You really must get your students to speak.
That’s the only way they’ll achieve English fluency and find their own voices in their new language.
It’s not good enough if it’s just in their heads.
It’s not good enough that they’re mumbling along while the whole class chants together.
You’ve got to get your ESL students in the zone.
You need to use pair work because:
- Individual students will be speaking out loud and getting a chance to exercise their English speaking skills.
- Working with a partner is less threatening for shy students.
- All students will be involved, not just a select few.
- While the students are all occupied with their partners, the teacher can walk around and observe.
- It can be a lot of fun, and the students will be motivated.
- It’s an opportunity for repetition without boredom, and as such is super useful for practicing grammar and vocab.
- It doesn’t need to go for very long. There could be several short sessions in one lesson.
This is the moment that can make or break your lesson. If you simply say, “Choose a Partner!” some students will excitedly grab their best friend, while others will slump in their seats feeling that no one will want to choose them. It’s time to be creative, have a bit of fun and take your students by surprise.
Take a look at the following ideas for assigning partners and letting students organize themselves. You’ll need to take into consideration the size of your class, the age of your students, how familiar they already are with each other and your teaching style.
- Sometimes let them just choose their own partners. They can work with the people they’re most comfortable with, and they can even work in threes if that makes them comfortable.
- Make it a lottery. Each student writes their name on a scrap of paper, puts their name in a container and then you—or they—pull out the names to decide who works with whom (this time).
- Have a different kind of lottery. Make a card for each student in your class. Half the deck of cards will have English words written on them, and the other half of the deck with have pictures which correspond to these words. Of course, this could relate to recent vocabulary they’ve learned. Pass out the cards and then let the students move around and find their partner (the student with the card that matches theirs).
- Have fun and practice language by getting them to pair off after lining up according to height, age, birthday or alphabetically by first (or last) name.
- Get them to pair up with someone who’s wearing a similar color shirt or shoes, or something that follows on from a vocabulary category that you’ve already been teaching. (Always allow leeway so that no one ends up feeling left out.)
- Prepare the classroom ahead of time sticking colored post-its under chairs or desks. There could be numbers, words or pictures to match up as with the lottery cards. (The surprise of looking for their sticker adds to the fun.)
The important thing is to make sure that no one dreads pair work (including the teacher)!
Pair and Share: 14 Ideas for ESL Pair Work Speaking Activities
1. Read a conversation script together
If you’re using a textbook or creating your own materials, you’ll often want students to practice a conversation to shake things up. To help them learn good spoken English and also use proper conversational intonation rather than a flat reading voice, give them these instructions:
“Always look at your partner when you speak.”
To achieve this they must first read the line they’re going to say, hold the words in their memory, look up at their partner and then say the line. When they’ve said their line(s), their partner can look down, read and prepare to say theirs.
This may seem slow, at first, but they’ll retain the language much more effectively and they can practice good English intonation (which is so different from many other languages).
2. Act out a drama or role play
This involves more action than just reading through a script. The students may or may not have prepared the words themselves—it’s up to you if you want them to draft a script together at some point.
They could be improvising or repeating learned words. They could be moving around and acting things out. They could even be using props! But the one thing that they’re not doing is reading. Students love being active, and this could be a good follow-up activity to the previous one. This really takes the speaking to another level.
This could also be a very quick activity for in-class review of recent lessons. For example, your students could quickly pair up and practice asking each other the time, complaining about the lateness of the bus or discussing something else involving vocabulary you’ve just been studying.
3. Information gap
This is often referred to as a “jigsaw” activity. It involves getting pairs to converse naturally about a topic. When you speak to someone in real life, you don’t know the whole story already—and a script will give away the whole story.
In this activity, you’ll be giving each student in a pair half of the information for the conversation. Then you’ll let them talk about it until they both have the complete story.
Many textbooks include information gap activities, and there are worksheets for this that you can take from ESL websites. However, you can also create your own worksheets and stories to suit what you’re presently teaching in class. Some examples are:
- A filled in crossword puzzle with each part missing different letters or words.
- A story or series of sentences with gaps for different words in each.
- Two pictures with different items or details removed from each.
4. Line up role plays
In this activity your students get to pair off several times with different people and have a similar conversation with each new partner. They get to practice improvising a little bit instead of just repeating the same things over and over. Students are divided into two groups and each group is assigned one of two roles, such as:
- Buyers and sellers
- Complainers and listeners
- Policemen and offenders
- Doctors and patients
Or anything else that you’ve been working on teaching in class.
Students in one group pair up with members of the other group, each for a few minutes, and then move on to another at your call. They could have specific guidance from the teacher about what to discuss at each position or they could improvise, depending on their level of ability.
For example, in a buying and selling role play each Seller could have a list (or pictures) of what they’re selling. This could either be devised by the teacher beforehand or created by them during the activity. The Buyers could each have a shopping list (words or pictures) also devised by the teacher or created by students. The Sellers could be seated, and the Buyers could each approach a Shop, ask about something(s) on their shopping list: do they have the item, how much is it, etc.
When the students hear the signal or call from the teacher, each Buyer moves on to another Seller’s table. It’s kind of like speed dating!
5. Getting to know each other
One of the first things that any ESL teacher does with a new class is have students introduce themselves to one another. This can be done in pairs to reduce the pressure and possible stress of being in a new group. You can even add new layers to the whole “getting to know you” phase, as students can swap partners and tell their new partner about their old partner.
With partner swapping activities, it often works to have the students sit in two circles, one inside the other. When a change is called, one circle can move to the next partner in a specified direction.
If this isn’t one of the very first lessons, the students can use the same partner swapping movement but instead ask about other topics such as hobbies, favorite foods, family. As before, have them move on to tell their next partner about their last partner (using appropriate pronouns and verb tenses).
6. Two team games
After pairing up, partners can compete against each other.
The class lines up in two lines, one from each pair in each line. As they arrive at the front of their lines, they’ll be competing with one another to answer a question, spell a word, write something on the board, fill in a blank or whatever competition you set up that’s relevant to your lesson at the time.
Alternatively, after pairing up each pair can be a team and work together. When their turn comes, they’ll approach the board and try to list the greatest number of food words beginning with the letter B. Of course, you’re welcome to change this up according to your recent lessons’ thematic focus.
You could also lead into this activity by having partners sit together momentarily to discuss options and ideas.
7. Picture dictation
After pairing up for this activity, partners will need to sit facing each other, one with a blank sheet of paper and the other with a simple picture held so that their partner can’t see it. (Make sure that the light doesn’t shine through so that their partner can see it.) The student with the picture dictates to their partner what to draw.
Dictation vocabulary will depend on what stage your students are at. If the picture is very simple then it can be described in terms of shapes (circle, line, straight, etc.), sizes and spatial relationships (next to, under, etc.). For a more complex picture, the elements could be described as they are (man, dog, house, hill, etc.)
To make it interesting, the students could both have the same background picture in front of them to start. One student in the pair will have simple stick figures or animals in the foreground that the other student doesn’t have. The student with the more elaborate illustration will then attempt to describe how to complete the drawing.
8. Rhythm games
Young students especially enjoy a sense of rhythm, and becoming aware of rhythm is actually an important part of their general language development, not just second language acquisition.
In pairs, they can improve their concentration and coordination with clapping games where they follow a sequence of clapping their own hands and then their partner’s hands, possibly adding other body percussion such as knee pats and shoulder taps. You may remember some of these sequences from your own playground days, or you could create some of your own.
Choose an English poem or song (which maybe they’re already learning) and increase their appreciation of it as well as improve their learning by getting them to practice saying it with their partner while following a clapping sequence.
9. Grammar chants
Grammar chants and jazz chants were famously introduced to the ESL community by Carolyn Graham. You can find many examples of her original works as well as similar offerings from others on the Internet, and you can very easily create your own based on what you’re teaching in particular. (There may even be some examples in a textbook that you’re using.)
Chants are different from other practice conversations (see above) mostly by virtue of the strong rhythmic nature of them. They can be practiced as a “Call and Respond” whole class activity, but the best way to get students familiar with them is by working in pairs. It’s recommended that students be encouraged to click their fingers (if they can) or move to the strong beat of the chant.
10. Who’s who?
There’s a well-known game out there called “Guess Who?” or “Who’s who?”. I’m betting you’ve heard of it!
One student selects a character. The other student looks at a collection of character pictures and asks questions about their appearance or clothing until they can guess the right character.
Along with practicing the appropriate usage of vocabulary and pronouns, practicing questions and answers is always an excellent basis for a classroom activity.
The student holding the complete set of character pictures, the one who’s trying to guess which character has been selected, must ask yes or no questions. Students often do a lot of practice with “Wh- questions” but fumble over using auxiliary verbs (such as “do” and “does”) in yes or no questions.
There are many downloadable versions of this game available such as this Guess Who Matching Game, or you can create your own set of characters from clip-art or printed out celebrity photos to suit the concepts you’ve been teaching.
To add extra interest, you could even have your students create simple pictures of people and scan them into a printable set for this game.
11. Puppet plays
Whether reading a script or simply improvising, using puppets can help shy students as well as add excitement. When practicing a dialogue with a partner, each student can manage two puppets—one in each hand—or even more if finger puppets are used.
Creating the puppets themselves first gives added interest and opportunities to practice English. A picture of the character printed out (or drawn by the students) can easily be cut out and stuck onto a Popsicle stick, chopstick or drinking straw. The picture can be stuck or drawn onto a paper bag for a quick hand puppet. If small enough, puppet characters can be sticky-taped onto finger-tips.
12. Telephone conversations
In this paired activity, partners sit back-to-back to have a phone conversation. This requires careful speaking and careful listening as a lot of the usual visual cues are missing. They could be given specific questions to ask each other and information to find out.
Of course, nowadays many students actually have their own phones, and maybe if the situation is suitable—for example, they aren’t paying too much for calls, and you can trust them to speak only English—you could send one group outside or into another room and they could actually phone each other.
13. Memory cards
Students in pairs can practice vocabulary and even some rules or concepts by playing the well-known game of “Memory” or “Concentration” using cards with relevant words and/or pictures. The matching pairs could be identical pictures or words, or a picture and a word, or two things that go together in some other way.
The cards are spread face-down in a grid. Each student takes a turn and turns over two cards. They should then say the word out loud and make sure their partner sees and hears it. If the cards don’t match, they’ll turn them back over in the same positions and the partner takes their turn. If the cards do match, then the student picks them up, keeps them, gains a point and has another turn.
14. Story retelling
Everybody loves a good story! As an ESL teacher you’d do well to tell stories as often as you can. They don’t need to be long, or even particularly significant, but you’ll notice as soon as you start to tell a story (even about something that happened on the way to work) that your students will “prick their ears up.” Even if they don’t understand all of it, they’ll want to listen.
After telling a story, especially when you’ve noticed interest, reinforce it by pairing students up and seeing if they can retell the story to each other. They may have slightly different—correct or incorrect—memories of the story to compare.
It’s also a great idea to use a short clip or video from FluentU to find a great topic (and clip) for a story retelling activity.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
You could even ask them to change the ending. Young students could then go on to illustrate the story and tell their versions to the class.
What to Do After Pair Work
Pair work is never an end in and of itself. It’s a practice time where all of the students get to be involved.
Sometimes, especially if they’ve been working on a drama or play, it’ll be suitable to finish the session by having a few pairs come forward and demonstrate what they practiced in front of everyone.
Generally speaking, not everyone will want to do this. As with any speaking activity, they should be encouraged to speak up but not forced to do so (and there should never be ridicule from the rest of the class).
The key is to make things fun, and the learning will follow!