7 Superb Speaking Activities That’ll Get Your ESL Students Chatting

“All right everyone, pair up!”

This sentence can be met in many ways.

Blank stares. Two class troublemakers reaching for each other’s hands.

The shy kid in the class trying very hard to become invisible.

It’s no secret, getting students to work well in pairs can be hard, and it doesn’t stop with just having them pair up.

ESL students doing pair activities can often try to skive off doing the activity at hand. Shyer students can be tempted to let their partner do all the work.

As far as the teacher is concerned, it can be tough making sure that the students who are actually working are speaking correctly.

Well, it’s time for all those problems to be ancient history. Here, you’ll find the ultimate guide to perfect pair work.

Techniques for ESL Pair Work

The first mistake many teachers make when assigning pair work is letting students choose their pairs.

While that may be fun for those in the class who are already friends, your job as the teacher is to assess each student’s strengths and weaknesses and put them with someone they can work with well. In other words: you make the pairs.

If you know that two students are particularly good at conjugation, it might be interesting to put them together so that they have a real challenge. If one student is exceptionally shy, don’t stick them with the class loudmouth; they’ll only be overshadowed.

The best way to set up pair work in the classroom is to allow no expectations amongst students that they’ll be picking their own partners.

“We’re going to go about this activity in pairs! Sasha with Kevin. Lucy with Mary.”

By making it obvious that you’ll be the one deciding who works with whom, no one will get upset or try to fuss.

Once the pairs have been established, it’s time for your most important role: monitoring pair work.

While most pair work should finish with a group discussion or individual evaluation, the purpose of the pair work is lost if you aren’t listening and gently correcting. While you should be wary of over-correcting and silencing a student, do wander the room, listening for errors that you know a student can correct him or herself. Then you can gently remind the student how to properly use that language.

This serves two purposes: not only does it reinforce correct use of English, but it also ensures that students know you’re listening. This way, they’re sure to give the pair work activity their all.

7 ESL Pair Work Speaking Activities to Get Those Lips Flapping

Not all classroom ESL activities are designed for pair work. The best time to use pair work is during oral activities, as these activities allow students to get more speaking time than they would in a class setting.

But you can’t just ask students to talk to each other for two minutes—you need a bit more structure than that!

Here are 7 great ESL pair work activities that you can use in a variety of ways to get your students talking.

1. Investigative Journalist

speaking activities for ESL students

Investigative journalist is a classic pair work activity for a reason: it works!

It can be used in a variety of scenarios and tailored according to specific grammar or vocabulary points that you’ve been reviewing in class.

The basis of investigative journalist is for students to interview one another in pairs and present their findings. It can be used for groups at all skill levels from beginning to advanced, as long as you tailor it to their levels.

Beginners may do a simple version, asking their partners about their family structure, favorite colors and foods, pets and hobbies. Intermediate students could use investigative journalist to practice past tense structures by asking about their interlocutor’s childhood. Advanced students might benefit from a murder mystery version of the game, where each student is assigned a character to play and the game concludes with the “murderer” being sussed out as a result of the questions.

A great way to prepare students for this versatile activity, no matter their level, is with authentic videos of English conversations from FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Students can watch their selected clip either once you’ve paired them up, or ahead of class for homework.

The FluentU videos are all organized by level and come with interactive captions, flashcards and exercises to help students pick up new words as they watch. Through these supercharged English dialogues, news reports, interviews, movie clips and more, they’ll get comfortable with the types of basic English conversations investigative journalist requires.

Have fun with this game, and remember: if you give your students the tools to succeed, they’ll surprise you!

2. Debate

speaking activities for ESL students

Debate is another classic that can incorporate pair or group work, depending on the size of your class. Create groups and assign each group or pair a side of an argument. Use pair work time to allow students to develop their argument and conclude with a class-wide debate.

Debate is made even more interesting when you present students with authentic materials to use as support for their claims.

3. What’s Your Secret?

speaking activities for ESL students

What’s your secret? is a pair work activity that truly involves the whole class. In this game, which is a play on investigative journalist, each student writes a secret down on a piece of paper, things like: “I play the clarinet.” or “I have a twin.” The papers are placed in a hat and each student draws one: that’s where the game begins.

What’s your secret? can either be played by allowing students to mill about the classroom freely or by setting up a speed dating scenario, where each pair has 1 minute to speak before rotating. Students may ask one another yes/no questions—they may not ask directly if what’s on the piece of paper is true about them or not.

Students then must guess to whom the secret they drew belongs.

4. It’s Your Turn: Teach a Class!

speaking activities for ESL students

Teach a class! is a fun activity for advanced ESL students. In this activity, you assign each pair a grammar, vocab or culture point that they’ll have to teach to the class. The pair works together to prepare activities and lesson plans and teaches the point to the class.

Unlike many of these other activities, the conclusion portion of this activity is built right in: when the pair teaches the class, the teacher should play the role of the student, but you may evaluate the lesson at the end and feel free to correct any mistakes the “teachers” make!


5. Following Directions

speaking activities for ESL students

Following directions is an interesting game that offers a change from classroom routine.

In this game, each student in the pair draws a picture, keeping their paper shielded from the eyes of their partner. Ideally, pictures should be fairly geometric. Once the picture is complete, they explain to their partner, using words only, how to replicate the image.

For example, if a student has drawn the stereotypical square house with a triangle roof, he might say: “Draw a square in the middle of the paper that’s about a third of the size of the paper. Draw an equilateral triangle on top of the square, using the top side of the square as the bottom side of the triangle.”

The goal of this game is for each partner to replicate the other’s drawing going by these spoken directions.

6. Games! Yes, No

speaking activities for ESL students

Many pair work activities can feel like games, but sometimes it’s fun to introduce some real games into the mix.

Yes, no is a game where the only two words that students aren’t allowed to say are yes and no. Pair students off and play. When a student loses, he or she is out and the winning partner is paired with another winning partner. In this way, you can create a tournament of yes, no.

Other versions of the game also forbid “maybe” and “I.” Consider these versions when the game is lasting too long or students need an extra challenge.

7. Games! Guess Who

speaking activities for ESL students

Guess who is a version of 20 questions that focuses entirely on people.

Students draw the name of a famous person out of a hat (you’ll need to prepare these slips in advance!) and their partner tries to guess who’s on the paper by asking a series of yes/no questions.

Like yes, no, guess who can be turned into a tournament-style game.

Concluding a Pair Work Activity

Remember: a pair work activity isn’t a lesson in and of itself.

There should be a brief introduction, letting students know what you expect them to do during the activity.

There should especially be a conclusion. Be sure to budget it into your class time or the pair work activity will be useless.

During your conclusion, you should gather the information gleaned during the activity and go through it as a group. This will allow you to correct errors and it’ll also allow students to learn from their peers.

Many pair work activities also benefit from being followed up by an individual activity such as a written response, worksheet for homework or short oral presentation to the group presenting the student’s findings.

Once you’ve mastered the art of pair work, your students will be speaking up (and correctly!) before you know it!

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