Ah, to be young again.
Younger ESL students know what’s up. They treat being in ESL class like being on the playground.
Got a couple of bumps and bruises on the jungle gym? Brush yourself off and keep playing, kid.
Made a few English mistakes? Laugh it off and keep chattering away.
And that’s how it should be! ESL class is the perfect place to make English mistakes.
That being said, speaking out loud in front of other people—especially in a second language—can be nerve-wracking for anyone. Which is why it’s essential to get creative with ESL speaking activities for adults.
Youngsters are often less inhibited than adults, so when teaching English speaking lessons to adults, there are some things that we need to bear in mind.
1. Adults, from any cultural background, still like to have “fun,” but their idea of what’s fun may be different from yours.
2. Adults are likely to be more sensitive to the need for dignity, and won’t want to “lose face” in front of others.
Those are a couple of big ones, but there’s still more. Keep reading to find out all you need to know about teaching speaking lessons to your adult ESL students.
Important Considerations for Teaching Adult ESL Students
If you’re teaching a class overseas (rather than a class with mixed nationalities in your home country), you need to be aware of local sensitivities, especially to appropriateness in mixed gender situations.
- While your school may have considered it acceptable to have men and women learning in the same room, you should notice if students have a strong tendency to sit separately based on gender. When you indiscriminately ask them to pair off, you may observe signs of discomfort or even distress in some students.
- Sometimes you may notice that the class is silent and attentive when a male student is talking, but students fidget and become talkative when a female student takes her turn at the front.
What can you do about it?
- If they have sufficient language skills, you could open up a class discussion about it.
- Be flexible when arranging the class, without necessarily letting them become lazy and work with their same favorite partners every time.
There are a few other things to consider about teaching ESL to adult students:
- Just because they’re of a mature age doesn’t mean that they necessarily have advanced language skills.
- If they’re struggling, it may mean that they’ve forgotten language lessons from earlier school days—we refer to students who have studied English before and later forgotten “false beginners.”
- Try not to always link reading skills too closely to speaking skills, because they may be having difficulties with the reading.
- They may actually be illiterate (especially if they’re refugees).
- They may be literate in a different script but are struggling with English script.
- They may have a learning difficulty such as dyslexia.
No matter the unique challenges facing each adult ESL student, with the right motivation, encouragement and direction they can still learn to improve their English speaking skills.
Strategies for Getting Adult ESL Students to Speak
Students need to speak out loud by themselves and not just follow along in their heads while someone else speaks. It isn’t good enough for them to only mumble along with the crowd as in a drilling exercise.
Here are some possible speaking opportunities that you can provide your students:
- Stand up in front of the class and speak. (This is good practice for the speaking part of exams such as IELTS, TOEFL or TOEIC.)
- Stand up in front of the class with a partner and present something together.
- Be part of a group presenting a drama or role-play in front of the class.
- Take part in a whole-class discussion or debate. (Make sure everyone participates. Often the quieter students will sit back and not participate in this.)
- Be involved in pair work where every student must talk with a partner.
- Be involved in small group discussions where individual students are less likely to get left out.
It’s also important to lay the groundwork outside of dedicated ESL speaking activities. While young students are often comfortable diving straight into new tasks, adults may want to see it done first and mentally prepare.
FluentU is a helpful tool for this purpose—it provides authentic English videos that have been transformed into level-appropriate language lessons.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
As an educator, you’ll love the built-in curriculum building and progress tracking tools.
It’s a fun way for students to actively build their English skills while absorbing native-sounding speech. You can use it in class or, if students have access to mobile devices outside of the classroom, they can take their practice on the go.
18 Ideas for ESL Speaking Activities for Adults
1. Short Talks
Create a stack of topic cards for your students, so that each student will have their own card.
Each student draws their card, and then you assign them a time limit—this limit may be one minute initially, or maybe three minutes when they have had practice. This is the amount of time that they’ll have to speak about their given topic.
Now, give the students a good chunk of time to gather their thoughts. You may want to give them anywhere from five minutes to half an hour for this preparation stage. You can let them write down three to five sentences on a flashcard to remind them of the direction they’ll take in the course of their talk.
To keep listening students focused, you could create an instant “Bingo” game. The class is told the topic and asked to write down five words that they might expect to hear (other than common words such as articles, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs). They listen for those words, crossing them off as they hear them and politely raising a hand if they hear all five.
2. Show and Tell
Students can be asked to bring to school an object to show and tell about. This is lots of fun because students will often bring in something that’s meaningful to them or which gives them pride. That means they’ll have plenty to talk about! Encourage students to ask questions about each other’s objects.
Instead of having students bring their own objects, you could provide an object of your own and ask them to try to explain what they think it is and what its purpose is. Another option is to bring in pictures for them to talk about. This could be discussed with a partner or in a group, before presenting ideas in front of the whole class.
Generate a stronger discussion and keep things flowing by asking students open-ended questions.
3. Video Dictionary
The English videos on FluentU—with their built-in vocabulary lists—can be catalysts for conversation practice. Every word used in a video has a definition, plus extra usage examples.
In this activity, students will learn some vocabulary words from the videos, then create their own definitions or usage examples for those words.
1. Select several FluentU videos for teams of your students to watch. With hundreds of available videos, you can easily find suitable videos that work for your students’ learning levels and interests.
- For a group of beginners, you might choose a video like “Breakfast Food!”
- If you have intermediate students, you might pick a video like “How to Survive Small Talk.”
2. Use the built-in vocabulary list to select the words you’d like your students to learn. (You can also combine words from several different videos into the same multimedia flashcard deck in FluentU.)
- If your students were watching the “Small Talk” video, you might target certain words in the Vocab list, such as “responses,” “engaging” and “brisk.”
3. Divide your class up into teams of about three or four students apiece and have them watch the selected videos.
4. Students will work together to come up with new usage examples or definitions to illustrate the vocabulary words from their chosen video. Each sentence’s context should make the target vocabulary’s meaning clear.
- Let’s say you’ve included the word “brisk” from the the “Small Talk” video:
- “I wanted to get a little exercise this morning, so I took a brisk walk to the mailbox.” (usage example)
- “Brisk means done quickly, with a lot of energy.” (definition)
5. Teams will take turns presenting words (and their own examples or definitions) to each other. Students on each team should take turns presenting their example sentences or definitions.
6. Students can also be given time for discussing the words they learn, having conversations about what the words mean and how to use them.
After watching the other teams’ presentations, students who didn’t watch the video can take the matching quiz on FluentU, to see how well they learned the target words from their fellow students.
You can request a free trial of FluentU for classrooms if you want to give this activity a try!
If your students have laptops (or a computer lab they can use) and are reasonably familiar with presentation software (such as PowerPoint), then all that’s left to acquire for this activity is access to an LCD projector.
Students can have a lot of fun speaking while giving a presentation to the class. Using projected images helps to distract some attention away from the speaker and can be helpful for shy students.
The “PechaKucha” style of presentation* can give added interest with each student being allowed to show 20 slides only for 20 seconds each (the timing being controlled by the software so that the slides change automatically) or whatever time limit you choose. You could make it 10 slides for 15 seconds each, for example.
You could also add rules such as “no more than three words on each slide” (or “no words”) so that students must really talk and not just read the slides. They need to be given a good amount of time, either at home or in class, to prepare themselves and practice their timing. It can also be prepared and presented in pairs, with each partner speaking for half of the slides.
*PechaKucha originated in Tokyo (in 2003). The name means “chitchat.”
“Nowadays held in many cities around the world, PechaKucha Nights are informal and fun gatherings where creative people get together and share their ideas, works, thoughts, holiday snaps—just about anything, really.”—the PechaKucha 20×20 format.
Many people think of this game as a listening activity, but it can very quickly become a speaking activity.
There are a number of ESL websites that will allow you to quickly create a set of Bingo cards containing up to 25 words, phrases or even whole sentences. They’ll allow you to make as many unique cards as you need to distribute a different card to each student in class. Each card can contain the same set of words arranged differently, or you can choose to have more or less than 25 items involved.
Rather than having students mark up their cards, you can give them markers (such as stones or sunflower seeds) to place on each square as they recognize it. This way the markers can be removed and the game can be repeated.
For the first round, the teacher should “call” the game. The first student to get five markers in a row in any direction shouts out “Bingo!” Then you should have this student read out every item in their winning row.
The winner is congratulated and then rewarded by becoming the next Caller. This is a great speaking opportunity. Everyone removes their markers and the game starts again. Every expression that’s called tends to be repeated quietly by everyone in the room, and by the end of a session, everyone can say all of the expressions on the card.
6. Two Texts
This challenging task is great for more capable students and it involves reading. Having texts in front of them can make adult students feel more supported.
Choose two short texts and print them out. Print enough of each text for half of the class. Create a list of simple questions for each text and print out the same quantity.
Divide the class into two groups and hand out the texts. Hang onto the question sheets for later. One group gets one text, the second group gets the other text. The texts can be about related topics (or not).
Group members then read their texts and are free to talk about them within their group, making sure they all understand everything. After five minutes or so, take the papers away.
- Each student is paired with someone from the other group. Each student must tell their partner everything they learned from their text. Then they must listen to (and remember) what the other student tells them about their group’s text.
- Students return to their original groups and are given a list of questions about their original text.
- Students are paired again, this time with a different person from the other group. Each student must test their partner using the questions about the text—which their partner never read and was only told about. Likewise, the students quizzing their partners must answer questions about the text they were told about.
Another day use two different texts and try this activity again. Students do remarkably better the second time!
7. Running Dictation
This useful activity requires students to use all four language skills—reading, writing, listening, and speaking—and if carefully planned and well-controlled can cause both great excitement and exceptional learning.
Pair students up. Choose who will run and who will write. (At a later stage they could swap tasks.)
Print out some short texts (related to what you’re studying) and stick them on a wall away from the desks. You should stick them somewhere out of sight from where the students sit, such as out in the corridor.
There could be several numbered texts, and the students could be asked to collect two or three each. The texts could include blanks which they need to fill later, or they could be asked to put them in order. There are many possibilities here!
The running students run (or power-walk) to their assigned texts, read, remember as much as they can and then return to dictate the text to the writing student. Then they run again. The first pair to finish writing the complete, correct texts wins.
Be careful that you do not:
- Let students use their phone cameras to “remember” the text.
- Let “running” students write—they can spell words out and tell their partner when they’re wrong.
- Let “writing” students go and look at the text (or let “running” students bring it to them).
8. Surveys and Interviews
Becoming competent at asking and answering questions is invaluable in language learning.
In the simplest form of classroom survey practice the teacher hands out ready-made questions—maybe 3 for each student—around a topic that is being studied.
For example, let’s say the topic is food. Each student could be given the same questions, or there could be several different sets of questions such as questions about favorite foods, fast foods, breakfasts, restaurants, ethnic foods, home-style cooking, etc.
Then each student partners with several others (however many the teacher requires), one-by-one and asks them the questions on the paper. In each interaction, the student asking the questions will note down the responses from their peers.
At the end of the session, students may be asked to stand up and summarize what they found out from their survey.
In this game, one player has a card listing four words:
- The first word is the secret word. The aim of the game is to get another player to say this word. The student with the card will need to describe this word until another student figures out what the secret word is.
- The other three words are the most obvious words that you might use to explain the secret word. They are all “taboo” and cannot be used in the student’s description of the secret word.
This game can be played between two teams. It can also be played between partners.
You can create your own sets of words based on what you’ve been studying, or you can find sets in your textbook and on the internet.
10. Discuss and Debate
More mature students can discuss and debate issues with a partner. They can even be told which side of the argument they should each try to promote. This could be a precursor to a full-blown classroom debate.
Working with a partner or small group first gives them an opportunity to develop and practice the necessary vocabulary to speak confidently in a larger forum.
11. I Like People
Adults do like to have fun, as long as they aren’t made to feel or look stupid. This is a brilliant game for helping them think quickly and speak more fluent English (rather than trying to translate from their native tongue).
1. Students sit on chairs in a circle, leaving a space in the circle for the teacher to stand.
2. First, they’re asked to listen to statements that the teacher makes and stand if it applies to them, such as: “I like people who are wearing black shoes,” “I like people who have long hair,” etc.
3. Next, the teacher asks standing students to change places with someone else who’s standing.
4. Now it becomes a game. The teacher makes a statement, students referred to must stand and quickly swap places. When the students move around, the teacher quickly sits in someone’s spot, forcing them to become the teacher.
5. The students quickly get into the swing of this game. Generally, they’ll quickly notice a “cheating” classmate who hasn’t stood up when they should have, and they’ll also eagerly encourage a shy student who finds himself standing in the gap with no ideas.
This game has no natural ending, so keep an eye on the mood of the students as they play. They may start to run out of ideas, making the game lag. Quickly stand and place yourself back into the teacher position and debrief (talk with them about how they felt about the game).
12. Sentence Auction
Create a list of sentences, some correct and some with errors.
- The errors should be related to a language topic you’re teaching or reviewing (e.g. articles, tenses or pronouns).
- The number of sentences will depend on your students’ abilities. 20 is a good number for intermediate students. If you have too few sentences then it will be harder to balance the correct and incorrect.
- The ratio of correct and incorrect is up to you, but it’s a good idea to have more than 50% correct.
Next to the list of sentences draw three columns: Bid, win, lose.
You can set a limit for how much (imaginary) money they have to spend, or just let them have as much as they want.
They need to discuss (in English) and decide whether any sentence is 100% reliable, in which case they can bid 100 dollars (or whatever unit you choose). If they’re totally sure that it’s incorrect (and they rarely are) they can put a “0” bid. If they’re unsure, they can bid 20, 30, 40, based on how likely it is to be correct. (Having a limit on their total bid will make them decide more carefully.)
- When all of their bids are written in, it’s often a good idea to get pairs to swap their papers with other pairs for marking.
- Go through the sentences, discussing which are correct and why. Get individual students to explain what’s right, what’s wrong and why.
- For correct sentences, the bid amount is written in the “win” column. For incorrect sentences, it’s written in the “lose” column.
- Both columns are totaled, and the “lose” total is subtracted from the “win” total.
- Papers are returned, and partners discuss (in English) how their bidding went.
This activity is most effective when the students work together as partners, reading and discussing the correctness of sentences. Students are encouraged to use English to discuss their strategies with their partner.
This well-known ESL game is great speaking practice for adults. The teacher tells the class that a particular crime has been committed. For fun, make it locally specific. For example:
“Last Friday night, sometime between ___ and ___, someone broke into the ____ Bank on ____ Street.”
Depending on the size of your class, pick several students as “Suspects.” The “Police” can work in groups of 2-4, and you need one Suspect for each police group. So, for example, in a class of 20 you could choose four Suspects and then have four groups of four Police for questioning.
Tell the class: “___, ___, ___ and ___ were seen near the scene of the crime, and the police would like to question them.”
The Suspects go outside or to another room to prepare their story. They need to decide all of the details about where they were during the time of the crime. For example: If they were at a restaurant, what did they eat? What did it cost? Who arrived first?
1. The Police spend some time preparing their questions.
2. The Suspects are called back in and go individually to each police group. They’re questioned for a few minutes, and then each one moves on to the next group.
3. The Police decide whether their answers match enough for them to have a reasonable Alibi. (Maybe up to five mistakes is reasonable.)
Explain to students that this game is named after the strong wind that blows everything away. It can be played with a class as small as three, but it also works with large classes. It’s great for reviewing speaking topics.
1. On the board draw a grid of boxes—a 6 x 6 grid works well and can take about 45 minutes to complete, but you may vary this once you’ve played a few times. You’ll just want to choose the size depending on how much time you have. Mark one axis with numbers, the other with letters. (Or use vocabulary words like adjectives on one and nouns on the other.)
2. On a piece of paper or in a notebook (out of sight) draw the same grid. On your grid, fill in scores in all of the boxes. Most of them should be numbers, and others will be letters. It doesn’t matter which numbers you choose, but it’s fun to have some small ones (1, 2, 3, etc.) and some very big ones (500, 1000, etc.). About one in four boxes should have the letter “T” for “Typhoon.”
3. Put the students into teams—at least three teams—and mark a place on the board to record each team’s score.
4. Ask questions or give speaking tasks to each team in turn. If they answer correctly, they then “choose a box” using the grid labels. The teacher checks the secret grid, and writes the score into the grid on the board. This score also goes into the team’s score box.
5. If the chosen box contains a number, the scores simply add up. But if the box contains a “T,” the team then chooses which other team’s score they want to “blow away” back to zero.
Notes on Typhoon:
- If you run out of time but the game isn’t finished, declare a “no questions, just choose” period to fill the rest of the grid and find out who wins.
- Students love this game, so you can spice it up by adding different symbols in some of the boxes. I use:
- Swap: They must swap their score with another team’s score, even if they’re winning.
- S: Steal. They can steal a score instead of just blowing it away.
- D: Double. They double their own score.
- After a couple of times playing this game, students can easily run it themselves. This provides even more opportunities to speak. One student (or a pair) could handle the grid, another could handle the scoreboard, others can make or choose questions or tasks and someone can be Game Presenter.
All the world’s a stage, and this role-playing activity will prepare your students for their speaking parts.
1. Devise several scenarios with two or more characters and a premise. These could be something simple, like someone going to a bakery to buy a cake, taking a bus across town (and figuring out the schedule and transfers) or visiting a museum with an unusual exhibit.
2. Divide your students into teams, with one student per role.
3. Give your students the premise for the scenario they’re going to act out. For example, you might say, “You’re a father at a bakery, trying to buy a cake with your child’s favorite cartoon character. The baker has never heard of this character. You need to describe how the character looks so that the baker can create the cake you want.”
4. Each team member will have about five minutes to prepare their part of the skit. Ask each student to prepare separately. That way, the other students they are interacting with must react spontaneously to their questions and statements.
5. Each team will perform their vignette in front of the whole class. Limit the time to play out each scenario to five or ten minutes.
6. At the end of each round, the non-performing class members can ask questions of those performing their roles. The performing students should respond in character to the questions.
7. Play can continue for as long as you’d like. Students can get the opportunity to play different types of characters with different issues.
This activity will help students react to impromptu situations. It will encourage them to react and respond to the prompts and cues of their fellow players directly in English, rather than translating from their native language.
With this activity, you can guide students to exercise their topical vocabulary in real-life contexts. There are almost limitless possibilities for the scenarios you can create.
To add writing (and reading) practice to this activity, consider having students create scenarios for each other’s role-playing.
16. News Brief
Ripped from today’s headlines is a speaking activity that also benefits listening comprehension and conversational fluidity.
Prepare a number of short news stories for different students to read. You can use stories directly from a source like:
- FluentU (Each video on FluentU has transcripts, so you can let your students read the transcripts as an alternative to watching the clip.)
Depending on the students’ fluency levels, you can give them the original story to read in context, or just prepare a “news brief” for them that’s level-appropriate.
1. Divide the class into teams of four or five students apiece. Each team will read one of the short news stories you’ve prepared.
2. One student on the team will pretend to be a news anchor reporting on the story. Another student can play a field reporter, who will interview the remaining students. The remaining students can play either passers-by (for a “person on the street,” opinion-poll story) or eyewitnesses to an incident (such as a blizzard, a car chase or a fire.)
3. Depending on how much time you’d like to fill with this activity, you can prepare multiple stories for each team. With each new story, students should exchange roles, so that they each have a chance to practice different kinds of speaking.
This activity combines reading, writing (preparing the “news copy” and “interview questions”) and speaking.
Students playing the “people on the street” or “eyewitnesses” will get the opportunity to answer spontaneously, especially if they’re not privy to the reporter’s questions ahead of time.
Students can also learn about using different registers of English in context.
The news anchor and reporter roles will require more formal, neutral English than the casual register of speech used by the interviewees.
The interviewees will also have more opportunities to practice speech that expresses emotion, since they’ll be communicating their opinion on a hot topic—or relaying their reaction to a dramatic event.
To give your students more writing practice, or to stretch out this activity into multiple lessons, consider assigning your students a writing exercise in which they “manufacture” their own news stories.
These news stories can have a humorous bent. Especially for intermediate and advanced learners, this variation could afford them the opportunity to explore satire using English.
Language learners tend to be fascinated by foreign words without direct translations.
If you happen to have students in your classroom with different native languages, they’ve almost certainly stumbled across words without direct English translations. You can use your students’ expertise in their own languages to spark conversation in the classroom.
1. Divide the class into small groups of students—preferably, each group of students will represent two or more native languages.
If the students in a group all speak the same native language, no worries—there are still different dialects, regionalisms and variations in individual experiences to drive conversation about each “untranslatable” word and its possible English definition.
2. Ask each student to come up with a small handful of words that they cannot translate directly into English.
3. Students will then take turns presenting to their respective groups, pronouncing each featured word and explaining—to the best of their ability—what it means in English.
4. After the presentation of each word, the other students will have the opportunity to ask questions, to clarify the word’s meaning and usage.
5. Where possible, each student who hears a presentation can also be asked to think of a word in their own language that means the same as the presenter’s “untranslatable” word.
6. Depending on the skill level of your students, they can also participate in open discussion of the featured word and its meaning after the presentation.
This activity encourages students to conceptualize the meanings of words in both their native language and English.
It brings the real-world experiences of each student into the classroom and can help make students less self-conscious. After all, each student has likely struggled to find an English equivalent to a seemingly “untranslatable” word.
This activity can be an ice-breaker for your students, prompting unscripted conversation and even civilized debate.
It’s also a very flexible activity since you could limit it to one new word a day, or use it to fill an entire classroom session.
In addition to individual words, ask students to come up with “untranslatable” slang or idiomatic expressions from their own languages.
This activity can also be done with the entire class, in a round-robin fashion. Especially if you are teaching a classroom of English students who share the same native language, you can become their student as they work together to teach you “untranslatable” words in their mutual language.
18. Skill Share
Everyone has hobbies that they enjoy or activities where they excel—whether it’s music, sports, playing video games, cooking or traveling. This activity combines giving presentations with having conversations about the presentation topic.
1. Ask each student to come up with a hobby or skill they can share with the rest of the class in a short presentation. You can give them several days to prepare ahead of time, making the preparation a homework assignment and saving time in the classroom.
2. If you have a larger class, you can divide your students up into teams to allow each student more time to present in a smaller group setting. You can also pair off your students, so one student will take turns presenting to one other student only.
3. Students will take turns making a short presentation—between 10 and 15 minutes, max—to their respective audience. In their presentation, they should explain their chosen hobby, skill or activity in clear terms that can be easily understood.
4. Within their presentations, students will also give simple, step-by-step instructions, to teach their audience members the target skill. For example:
- A student who does embroidery would first explain how to choose patterns to follow and where to find supplies such as thread, needles and canvas.
- Then, the student would list all the steps for completing the project.
- They would explain the techniques involved, such as using an embroidery hoop, changing thread colors or creating various types of stitches.
5. After each presentation, the student’s audience must ask the presenter at least one relevant question pertaining to the skill or activity in question. The questions should clarify their understanding of the process.
6. When the presentations and “Q & A” sessions are done, students can pair off with other partners or form new teams.
Audience members can use the information they’ve gleaned from a teammate’s presentation to explain the process they’ve learned to someone in the class who didn’t hear the original presentation.
The original presenter can act as a subject matter expert, prompting their former audience member (as needed) to explain the process more clearly.
After the Speaking Activity
If you run your speaking activity well, the students will often get really involved in it. They may well need to be “debriefed” afterward before they leave the classroom. This helps them get out residual excitement and reinforce the lessons they learned.
Always allow a few minutes of class time to talk about the activity, what they liked about it (or hated), how it made them feel and what they think they’ve learned.
Of course, all of this involves more worthwhile speaking time!