Turn Up the Volume: 5 Flexible ESL Activities to Get Students Speaking English Loud and Proud

Sitting in the teacher’s lounge at my school one day, I overheard a younger colleague complaining to the others.

“It’s my class,” she told them. “They’re so noisy!”

I have to confess that I jumped in and congratulated her. For me, a noisy ESL classroom—provided that all of the noise is in English, of course—is a wonder to behold. Noise is practice and experimentation, and it means that your students are socializing in their foreign language.

I invited her to embrace this supposed shortcoming, simply monitor the noise to ensure that it was, in fact, English, and be happy that her students were spontaneously producing language. Far from being a worrying trend, the spontaneous production of English is the ultimate aim of any and all ESL speaking activities.

Proper Production Promotes Progress

When is the English learning process “complete”?

In terms of reaching maximum fluency, the answer may well be “never.” Any ESL teacher will tell you, there’s always more to be learned.

However, in terms of completely learning a specific language lesson, like a set of vocabulary or a particular grammar pattern, the English learning process certainly does have a point of completion.

In this regard, I believe we can claim completion only when a student has accurately and independently used the target language to express themselves.

Correctly completing gap-fills and multiple choice questions are steps in this direction, but they aren’t the whole story. I need to hear the language produced by the student, in a complete sentence, before I can say the language has been learned.

In the same way, drilling and rote memorization are only part of the solution. The students are saying words, but can we be sure that they know what those words really mean? Can they use those words in a sentence?

To get students to completion, here are some great tips.

3 Key Tips to Encourage More Speaking in Your ESL Class

Simple Beginnings: Ask Good Questions

Our students reach the stage of spontaneous, independent production more quickly if they’re in an environment which encourages and praises natural, authentic speaking. One of the best and easiest ways to do this is to ask plenty of questions. Next time you teach an ESL lesson, invite a colleague to listen (or make a recording to listen to later) and have them count how many questions you ask.

Early in my career, I adopted a rule which has served me well: Never speak for longer than twenty seconds without asking a question which requires a thoughtful answer. 

This is a fantastic way to engage your students and to reduce Teacher Talking Time (TTT), a real issue for inexperienced teachers who sometimes wander dangerously close to lecturing.

Demand the Whole Enchilada: Insist on Full-sentence Answers

Let’s face it, a lot of our students cheat a little when they can. A common way is that they produce tiny, fragmented answers, which are often ungrammatical and carry little meaning.

From the very outset, and even with absolute beginners, I insist that every answer is a full sentence. For example, if I ask “Do you play basketball?” and I get a simple, direct and rather unsatisfying “no,” in response, I’ll use a circling or expansive gesture which invites the student to keep going. Eventually, with enough modeling and habituation, the answer becomes, “No, but I do love soccer,” which is far better.

Model What You’re Looking For

We’re trying to create a vibrant, “noisy” classroom environment, so consider showing your students the kind of responses you’d like. One useful way is to use your hands as a pair of conversing students, bouncing questions and answers back and forth, listening to each other, checking to make sure they’ve understood what was said, etc. Hand puppets would be awesome for this, especially with young learners.

If someone goes silent, try to find out why. Silence shows the teacher nothing, and could mean anything from a lack of understanding to a bout of shyness to a serious personal problem. I made silence “illegal” in my classrooms, with good results.

DIY Lessons: 5 Flexible ESL Speaking Activities for Any Classroom

You might be blessed with a successful textbook, but too often we’re teaching from outdated and plodding books which only rarely elicit genuine student interest.

A lot of teachers are finding that creating their own exercises brings a freshness to their teaching, allowing them to innovate and to design ESL activities specifically with their own students in mind. There are possibilities for almost any topic area.

Here are some tried-and-tested classics with very broad applications, which can be adapted in almost no time:

1. Interviews

The only thing young ESL students enjoy more than speaking about themselves is finding out about their classmates!

Before tackling topics such as hometowns, jobs, travel, education, laws or food, set up a sheet of interview questions, organized into pairs (for Student A and Student B). Each student should have four or five questions, and they’ll write down a brief summary of how their partner responds to these. Then they’ll add one more question of their own.

This deceptively simple exercise practices all four essential language skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing) and teaches students about summarizing, which is a hard-won and important ability.

2. Dialogue-building

This is a fantastic way to practice new structures and vocabulary while working on all four language skills. When learning situational language, invite your students to create their own short dialogues, rather than simply repeating the dialogue from the textbook.

Use the textbook content as a model, but strive to elicit creative, independent responses. After all, there’s nothing more dull than listening to thirty people read the exact same thing! Their dialogues should be based on and relevant to the textbook content and the lesson currently being learned, but they should have some kind of personal, unique spin to them.

Monitor this exercise closely to make sure the students are using the new language accurately, and have them rehearse their dialogues before performing them for the class.

3. Comprehension Groups

At the end of a reading exercise, it’s perhaps traditional to simply leave the students to work on the comprehension questions on their own.

I like to assign this task to pairs or groups instead. The students are therefore obliged to communicate throughout, answering the questions together and, once again, turning the work into an integrated-skills task. We’re always looking for ways to add an extra skills area to our students’ practice, and this is one of the best, and easiest, ways to do so.

4. Group Problem Solving

Imagine you’ve been reading with your students about the terrible pollution in Rio ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games. There might be some comprehension questions, but once they’re done, what now? Be creative.

Consider dreaming up your own scenarios, problem-solving challenges, moral dilemmas and other forms of discursive exercise to extend the topic. Ask your students to group up and invent potential solutions to the pollution crisis. What new laws are needed? How can the public become involved? What role should companies play?

Open-ended and suitable largely for more experienced groups (intermediate and higher), these can be long, detailed, integrated-skills tasks which prove memorable and require your students to produce tons of target language. Plus, students will have the advantage of already being familiar with the topic and relevant vocabulary.

5. Negotiation Exercises

One of the best ways to produce lots of language is to invite the students to negotiate their way through a problem.

If we have $10,000 to spend on our school, what should we do? If you were “King for a Day” but could only make three new policies, what would they be? If we allowed students to propose changes to the structure of the school day, what would be the top two priorities?

Give your students time in an open environment to thrash out a compromise with which all of them can agree. It’s a great practice opportunity, and you’ll learn a lot about your students and their opinions.


Speaking activities don’t have to be highly structured or formalized, and certainly don’t need to rely on a textbook. With a little confidence and creativity, teachers can make new, tailored speaking exercises which draw out plenty of target language and encourage students to speak together, learn from each other and, ultimately, understand the language and each other better.

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