Chatty Kathy Conversion: How to Motivate Your ESL Students to Speak English in Class

Imagine walking into class with a great lesson prepared.

You have an awesome speaking activity that you know your students will relate to.

After explaining the activity, you ask for volunteers. As usual, though, only Super Student Sally raises her hand.

“Who else wants to volunteer?” you ask.



Funny how students love talking when you want them to listen, but when it’s time for them to speak, there’s nothing but silence.

Speaking in a foreign language can be intimidating, which is why students need lots of practice in class.

If only you could pull the words out of them and make them talk!

Fortunately, there are many simple, laid-back ways to motivate your ESL students to speak English that don’t involve physically pulling the words out of your students.

Be ready for a chattering classroom.

Go from “Crickets” to “All Hands in the Air”: How to Motivate Students to Speak English

Before we look at some ways to encourage your students to speak in class, it’s a good idea to look at some of the reasons that they don’t speak in class. That way, you’ll know what you’re up against, which can help you find additional solutions.

Motivating Your ESL Students to Speak: What Are Common Obstacles?

There are many reasons why students hesitate to practice speaking in class:

Fear of messing up

No one wants to feel embarrassed in front of their peers. Students need to know that if they say something incorrectly, they aren’t going to be laughed at. The best way to help students feel safe speaking is to create a positive classroom environment. This means cultivating a culture of respect by giving students positive feedback and not tolerating negativity.

Students need permission to try new words and make mistakes. This is how they’ll learn. That means other students aren’t permitted to make fun of a student for saying something incorrectly and the teacher won’t harshly criticize students for their mistakes. Instead, you can provide constructive feedback that helps students improve. After all, if they already knew how to speak perfectly, they’d be the teacher, not the student.

Introverted students

Some students simply process things internally and are less inclined to speak out, especially in a large group. For your introverted students, be sure to include some one-on-one speaking activities where they can speak with a partner, instead of in front of the whole class. It’s amazing how a student who hardly ever speaks up in front of the class has a lot more to say to a partner.

This is helpful for all types of learners, introverts and extroverts alike, because it gives them a better opportunity to practice. In a large group setting, each student carries a small amount of responsibility for the outcome of the lesson. But with a partner, they’re responsible for 50% of the conversation.

Lack of confidence

If students feel insecure about their speaking abilities, they’ll have a harder time speaking up. But you can set your students up for success by giving them specific phrases to try in conversation and going over proper pronunciation ahead of time.

It is also helpful to clarify the speaking activity by giving them an example of a quality conversation. This way, students know exactly what is expected of them and how they can do a good job. When students know they have the skills to succeed, speaking English is much more appealing.

Students aren’t sure what to say

If a speaking activity is too open-ended, students might struggle to come up with what to say. It can be hard to form a quality conversation from scratch in a second language. To make sure students aren’t simply lacking the words, you can use role-playing scenarios and give them some questions that they can ask one another.

For example, if their conversation is supposed to be a mock job interview, you can give them some common job interview questions to ask one another. This will allow them to easily practice their conversation skills without the obstacle of not knowing what to say. Now they merely need to focus on using the correct vocabulary for that situation.

What Are the Best Ways to Motivate Students to Speak? Here Are 8 Suggestions

Despite the obstacles outlined above, there are some surefire ways to get students to speak English, including:

1. Eliminate pressure

Students need time to practice talking without the anxiety of needing to say everything just right. Give students a few minutes of free-speaking time with a partner or small group each lesson. The only rule is that they must speak English. You can give them a specific topic to discuss, such as current events, what they did over the weekend or what TV show they like.

In this situation, they can talk about anything. They can try new words or phrases and, perhaps most importantly, they can make mistakes. These times of practice will get them used to speaking in a foreign language without any barriers. This will allow them to problem solve and figure out how to communicate in English.

2. Amp up the competition

There’s nothing like good ‘ol fashioned competition to motivate reluctant speakers. Games or reward-based speaking activities are very useful tools that allow students of all ages to practice valuable skills. And you don’t have to teach kids to incorporate games into your ESL class; adults love games too! If you really want to up the ante, you can always offer the winner a point of extra credit on the next test.

There are plenty of games to choose from, such as 20 Questions, Catchphrase or Two Truths and a Lie. Look for games that require students to say a lot in order to accomplish the objective, especially games that encourage students to ask questions or describe things in English. Plus, having fun is motivation in and of itself.

3. Write first, speak later

For students who struggle to speak English, it can be very helpful to write out a script first and then practice speaking it. Writing gives students the time to think through what they will say, check their grammar and look up any words or phrases they don’t know. This is especially helpful for beginners who simply haven’t learned enough English to carry on a conversation off the top of their head.

You can give them scripted speaking activities by having them write out a conversation with a partner based on a specific conversational topic, such as what they would say if they ran into a friend on the street, how they would interact with a waiter in a restaurant or how they would ask a stranger for directions. This will help with their confidence when they find themselves in these scenarios in a real English-speaking setting.

4. Find relevant topics

Students will be more motivated to speak about something that they care about. Tap into students’ passion by having classroom debates and discussing current topics so that students have a lot to say. Did something important happen in the world this week? Then talk about it in English. Is there a new song or movie that everyone is talking about? Perfect conversation topic.

You can also ask students to write down a few themes that they would be interested in speaking about and then build an activity based on those. When students have something important to say, they will find a way to say it in any language.

5. Normalize speaking

Speaking in English doesn’t need to be a rare, dreaded occurrence. When students expect to practice speaking each lesson, they’ll get used to speaking English, making it less intimidating. Sometimes the best way to eliminate barriers to speaking is to just speak. If students know that each class they will be expected to come in and spend at least five minutes speaking English, they will adjust to this and gradually be more inclined to do so.

For more advanced students, you can even make a rule that they are only allowed to speak English in your class. While it may be necessary for students to speak in their native tongue on occasion, having regular English-only times or English-only lessons can be very helpful.

6. Mix it up

Sometimes students might simply lose interest in a certain speaking activity. To avoid this, use different methods to motivate students by challenging them. You can have them record their conversations, sing along to songs or present material to the class. Finding new ways to incorporate speaking will keep lessons fresh and interesting, which will help students stay engaged.

You can even use authentic content to model conversations and encourage shadowing. Alternatively, students can act out a scene they view in video, trying to mimic the tone and pronunciation as best as they can.

Another good way to change pace is to have students research a topic of interest, such as a country they’d like to visit or an activity they’d like to try. Then they present it to the class in English with a PowerPoint presentation. You can even have a class discussion about each presentation.

7. Create opportunities

Of course, sometimes lessons need to focus on aspects of English besides speaking. When this is the case, you can set aside specific lessons or even have an after-school club for English cultural activities. These are a great way to help English come to life by incorporating the English language with English-speaking culture.

You could watch a movie or TV show in English and then have a discussion about it. You could celebrate a holiday from an English-speaking country the way it is traditionally celebrated. You could even hold a mock presidential debate during an election period. Make use of specific aspects of English-speaking cultures to create relevant speaking opportunities.

8. Set goals

When it comes to motivation, the best kind comes from within. Ultimately, students will speak when it’s important to them. Have students decide what they want to get out of the class and why they want to speak English. At the beginning of the year, you can have students write down some specific skills they hope to gain from the class and why those are important to them.

For example, if they want to get a job that uses English, they will need to speak it fluently. When students are self-motivated by a personal goal, this will serve as encouragement to participate in the activities that will help them to reach their goal. No arm-twisting required.


Now that you’ve gotten your students to start talking, the real challenge will be getting them to stop!

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