How to Motivate Your ESL Students to Speak English in Class

You arrive to your ESL class with an awesome speaking activity that you know your students will relate to.

But when you ask for volunteers, only Super Student Sally raises her hand… as usual.

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!

Fortunately, there are plenty of simple, laid-back methods you can implement to change this.

Read on for how to make students speak English in the classroom, including what may be stopping them and eight ways to motivate your ESL students to speak up!


Speaking English in the Classroom: Common Obstacles

Before we look at some ways to encourage your students to speak in class, we’ll look at some of the reasons they don’t speak in class. Understanding your ESL students’ obstacles to speaking will make you more successful at finding the right solutions.

Speaking in a foreign language can be intimidating for many reasons, after all. Here are some:

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. 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, for 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.

8 Ways to Motivate Students to Speak English in Class

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.

In this situation, they can say whatever they want. You may choose to give them a specific topic to discuss (current events, what they did over the weekend, a TV show they like, etc.) or just let them discuss anything.

Either way, this is a time for them to try new words and phrases and, perhaps most importantly, make mistakes.

These practice times will get them used to speaking without any barriers. It will allow them to problem-solve and figure out how to communicate in English with very little pressure.

2. Amp up the competition

On the other hand, sometimes there’s nothing like good ‘ol fashioned competition to motivate reluctant speakers! If you really want to up the ante, you can also offer winners a point of extra credit on the next test.

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 in order to incorporate games into your ESL class; adults love them too!

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.

For example, they can write about 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 kind of activity 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? 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

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.

Speaking in English doesn’t need to be a rare, dreaded occurrence. Condition your students so they expect to practice speaking each lesson, and watch as it slowly becomes less intimidating to them.

You can even make a rule that students are only allowed to speak English in your class—though this is best for advanced learners. While it may be necessary for them 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 language with its various cultures.

You could celebrate a holiday from an English-speaking country the way it’s traditionally celebrated. You could hold a mock presidential debate during an election period.

You could also watch a movie or TV show in English and then have a discussion about it. For example, students can watch one of FluentU’s authentic English videos—equipped with interactive captions, personalized quizzes and more—to learn at their own pace, and then you can discuss it as a class afterwards.

Whichever activity you choose, use it to highlight 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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