18 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 and get them talking.
We’ve got some ESL pair activities for your lessons to help you do just this!
- 1. Read a conversation script together
- 2. Act out a drama or role-play
- 3. Information gap
- 4. Line up role plays
- 5. Getting to know each other
- 6. Two team games
- 7. Picture dictation
- 8. Rhythm games
- 9. Grammar chants
- 10. Who’s who?
- 11. Puppet plays
- 12. Telephone conversations
- 13. Memory cards
- 14. Story retelling
- 15. Short story creation
- 16. Acting out
- 17. Great debate
- 18. Picture portrayal
- Why You Should Have ESL Pair Work in Your Lessons
- Considerations for Choosing Partners
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 speaking to another level.
This could also be a very quick activity for an 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.
For more ideas, visit this post:
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 and 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. Introductions 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 another 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, mostly by virtue of their strong rhythmic nature. 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 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 fingertips.
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, 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.
You can use a short video from YouTube to find a great topic (and clip) for a story-retelling activity. There’s also FluentU, a language learning program that offers authentic content, so your students can watch clips such as movie clips, commercials and more, that were made by and for native speakers.
FluentU has features such as interactive subtitles, flashcards, vocabulary lists and personalized quizzes. It supports your students so that they can learn on their own, and you can assign clips for them to watch and retell.
In this activity, students can watch a clip and then summarize it for their partner as best they can. They’ll love the authentic connection to everyday spoken English from the content.
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.
15. Short story creation
In most cases, your students might have had the chance to read a few stories and understand the flow needed for a story to work. Now all they need is a writing partner to craft an exciting, concise story with. This ESL pair activity is a perfect way to get in multiple skills at once.
Have your students pair up and create a story together. A great way to do this is to present a place and some interesting characters (maybe people, animals or both), and evoke a conflict for your students to use in their story. Conflict will help your students to develop a dialogue between the story’s protagonist and supporting characters.
Once they have a well-developed short story, let the dynamic duo share it with the rest of the class. This will give them great public speaking practice and further their presentation skills in English. You can also have your students put together an illustration for their story, depending on how far you want to take the activity.
16. Acting out
In this ESL pair activity, you will let your students craft scripts and later act them out. There is a twist that will add an element of fun: The partners develop their dialogue separately and act it out together without collaborating first or discussing how it will flow.
You will want to whip up a very concise worksheet for this ESL activity, which the students will work on alone before acting out in pairs. This worksheet will help guide your students in a specific direction relating to a scenario. The dialogue your students create will be of their own imagination, but they will have a small guide to follow in their development.
Here is one example of how this could work:
- Set the scene. First, you will need to set the scene where the dialogue will take place. For this example, we will use a neighborhood park on a sunny day. This will give your students an image to help their creativity flow.
- Guide the conversation. Each student will read a set of short questions and develop their dialogue sentences from these. The first question on the worksheet could be, “How do you introduce yourself to someone new?” or “How do you open a conversation with a stranger?” From these questions, they can craft a working dialogue. For example, “Hello, do you come to this park often?”
- Add layers. Next, you will add layers to the situation. In the park example, you could add dogs into the mix. Here your students will see the next set of questions to help them build more dialogue: For example, “How do you ask what breed a dog is?” or “How do you compliment someone on their dog?” Your students may develop dialogue like, “Your dog is so cute, what breed is he or she?” The important thing to focus on is the natural flow and language of a conversation, like in these examples.
In order to get fun dialogue, it’s essential to guide your students a bit toward some more specific areas. Again, you will give your students a specific scenario, for example, a sunny day at the park or waiting for the train.
This is an excellent chance to run over a few vocabulary words they can use in their dialogue as well. For our dog walking example, using words like “breed” or “leash” may be beneficial in overall understanding for your students. Once you have gone over vocabulary, you can have them fill out a dialogue sheet silently by themselves.
After they have crafted their scripted lines, it’s time for the fun to begin. One student will read their first line and then their partner will follow with their first line. The two lines may have nothing to do with each other, which is sure to draw a laugh or two from the peanut gallery. You can have the class chime in afterward and help the two actors piece together a more well-developed and coherent dialogue.
17. Great debate
Here, you will give your students a chance to use all their English superpowers and go head-to-head with their partner over an important and interesting issue.
Let them debate topics covering things happening in their communities, cities and countries. This will allow them to apply English to the issues that directly affect them. The class period before having the debate is the perfect time to brainstorm a few issues your students are interested in. Make a list of topics on the board, discuss them each briefly and let your students make notes and suggestions about what is important to them.
After all the issues are on the table, employ your students to build a working outline of the key attributes they will cover during their debate. Go over the importance of “pros and cons” with supporting evidence to back what they say.
18. Picture portrayal
This activity is a slightly more advanced version of the picture dictation activity above. It’s a delicate balance of fun, challenge and philosophical breakthrough, so you should be on the lookout for pictures that help develop deep thought and allow your students to have mentally exciting ideas. They should be able to craft several ideas from a single photo. An example of photos that could be good for this is from National Geographic.
Ask your students to write down what the photo means to them. The key to this activity is to let your students first individually view the photo and craft their own thoughts about it without outside interference. Putting a time limit on the individual part of this activity will benefit your students’ quick response abilities.
After your students have developed and recorded their ideas surrounding the photo, put them into pairs and let their ideas collide in a perfect ESL storm of subjective thought and collaborative discussion. Your students will enjoy discussing unique and thought-provoking insights with their partners as you float around the classroom, listening to their words and perceptions.
Why You Should Have ESL Pair Work in Your Lessons
It’s a great idea to use pair work in your ESL classroom 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.
Considerations for Choosing Partners
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.
- Let them just choose their own partners from time to time. 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 that 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 by 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 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!