Getting students to talk is the name of the game for many ESL teachers.
A strategy that actually gets students to chat more is pretty much the holy grail.
It can be a serious challenge.
Grammar drills, book exercises, flashcards and other quiet, traditional methods are useful but can only get your students so far.
Now they need to open their mouths and let the magic happen—to actually start speaking, communicating and making the language their own.
But why won’t they?
In this article I’ll give you my own fail-proof strategies to work into all your lessons to get those shy, mute observers transforming into confident chatterboxes before your very eyes!
Every one makes a difference.
This involves simple tricks and techniques to weave into each lesson and every activity for maximum student confidence and speaking.
The Holy Grail: 10 Strategies for ESL Teachers to Get Students Speaking
1. Pair Work Plus Feedback
Whatever is terrifying alone becomes much less daunting in a pair.
First, there is less of the spotlight, because you and the rest of the class are not watching every person’s interactions. Everyone also has someone dedicated to giving them support, encouragement and direct feedback.
So, when you’ve got a conversation topic you’d like your students to tackle, start with pair work.
Get students to debate all questions or topics in pairs first. Not for long, just a few minutes. Then have them share the results of their conversation with the whole group and build discussion on that. The magic is that, when you ask them in front of the whole class, they are already prepared. They do not have to think something up on the spot and they are not totally responsible for what they say, since it is the result of a joint effort. This takes away the sting of failure and the fear of speaking up.
Let’s see how this plays out in the classroom, given a specific topic.
For example, if the topic is family, then hand out a worksheet or project onto the board a list of introductory questions about family first. This can range from “What is your first memory?” to “What are the best parenting methods?” or even “Is it ethical to spank your children?” depending on what your students are ready for.
Wander around between the pairs to interact, listen, question or correct, wherever you are needed. This is a lovely learning environment for the students because it feels informal and they can ask questions they might otherwise fear to when all eyes and ears are on them. They get to know and trust their peers better. And they get to talk to you on a more personal level. Just this alone puts them more at ease.
Once they have had ample time to talk with their partners—and with you if needed—write up the various answers on the board for further group discussion. You can either have students call out answers while you write or you can have them all scramble up to the board and write things down. Note interesting themes.
Everyone is now warmed up, has plenty to say and feels part of a group process.
Do you see the difference between starting the lesson with “So, Jose, tell me about your family.”? (Cue terrified silence and rest of class trying to hide behind their seats to avoid being asked next.)
2. Role Plays
This gets students out of themselves and their inhibitions. It is also massively fun.
To generate maximum confidence and facilitate speaking, it needs preparation first. A spontaneous role play can be beyond terrifying to many.
Give each person an easy role to follow. Here are some great examples. As you can see, each card has a few prompts to help students start thinking. The other partner plays the opposite role.
For less confident groups or just to ensure success, put people with the same role in pairs first, before the role play begins. This will give them a chance to run through some ideas with someone in the same situation and give them confidence they might lack if just thrown straight in.
Props are good. If you are a creative type then make some things yourself, bring in different hats or rearrange the room slightly to resemble a doctor’s surgery/home living room/whatever situation you are role playing. But don’t go too crazy. Just entering a role and using an imagined name is normally enough to suggest to the students that they are somehow outside themselves.
During the role play you can circle the room and listen in, have a joke and join in the fun. Try not to cramp their style by butting in or correcting too much. This is pure speaking and fluency. Accuracy can wait.
3. Detailed Task Briefs
Group work within class works best if carefully structured. I like to set my students up with small team projects. For instance, “design a marketing strategy for an unpopular place in your country.” This task centers on the students’ creativity in thinking up their own ideas.
But it is also important to give them a structure to work around.
Write them a brief. Preferably type it up in advance. You can project it if you have a screen and monitor at your disposal. If not, write up a brief on the board and talk them through it.
For example, I got my students to watch this video on heritage tourism and then think of ways to market their own town based on heritage tourism. The brief was very clear: five pieces of information about the town, five ideas to remarket it. The result was a fabulous 90-minute lesson of student presentation, interaction and discussion.
These three strategies: pair work, role play and task briefs are, in my opinion, the foundation stones of useful speaking strategies. Here are some more general tips to make your speaking classes a sure-fire success.
4. Vary, Vary, Vary.
You are trying to create an artificial English-speaking environment, a kind of bubble separate from the ordinary world of the dull classroom. For this you need to make each week different, to lure the students in, away from classic classroom passivity and boredom.
This does not mean massive amounts of extra work for you. Just vary the format each week.
Last week was very pair focused? Fine, today we will do a group task. Sometimes pair, sometimes group work, mingling, sometimes an article, song or short video. Sometimes book work and organized discussion, sometimes role play. It does not matter so much what you do as long as you vary it. Swap and switch partners and groups regularly.
Keep things fresh and unexpected.
5. Warm up
Making it fun gets students involved!
Have an attractive “starter” for each lesson, a fun video or song to listen to and then gap-fill missing words. This makes the conversation topic interesting for the students and starts them making associations and discussion points. You would be amazed at the power and motivation a simple 5-minute introduction can bring to the whole 90 minutes.
Traditional discussion work from a textbook can be good too. It may be comforting for students who like a classical approach to study, but try and spice it up with extras and ideas of your own.
6. Preparation Tasks for Homework
Similar to pair work, getting students to do the groundwork before the main discussion begins is a great way to ensure they have plenty to say and the guts to say it!
I often give my students a topic and some short introductory reading. They then have to prepare specific answers to questions.
More generally, you can get them to find issues in the news that interest them for homework. Just make sure you tell them exactly what you want (e.g. five facts, a brief history). It is vital they bring something concrete to throw into the class discussion. Again, this will be presented after preparation is complete, so students are well prepared and not put on the spot.
Get students to provide the content! It will then be much easier to encourage them to tear into it and get talking!
7. Learn Their Names
Do not underestimate the importance of addressing your students by name.
Asking questions to nobody in particular gets no particular response, except with chatty classes. When you ask someone personally to speak up (bearing in mind the importance of pair work and preparation first) they will feel more motivated to answer.
Learning names always demonstrates a level of respect and interest in your students. Plus, once you have the name in place other facts tend to stick. Students will feel more acknowledged when you start saying things like “Stefan, you said that you used to be in the army, what do you think of what Marina has just said?” in place of “How about… you there… what do you think?”
Remember though, always make it okay to not answer. This stops students from stressing out after being called upon. If they are stumbling or short of words just thank them and pass to someone else. Give them a chance to speak a bit later.
Tip: I have a very simple technique which consists of asking each student to give me something memorable about them from a list of cues—memories, songs, places, people important to them.
If you simply ask them to introduce themselves, they will just say their hometown and what they study or do for a living. Not very memorable. Make sure you get something more specific, unique and personal. Then I note this next to their name and it prompts my memory long enough to link face to name for at least the two first classes.
By the end of semester, the initial fact is long forgotten but the person is a live, vivid presence in my memory.
So, learn names early and reinforce often by addressing your students personally. It is vital that students see you care about them from day one. It makes them much freer to open up and trust you enough to go beyond their shyness.
8. Be Approachable and Friendly
Many students have commented that they felt comfortable to speak in my lessons because they knew they would not be laughed at or punished.
Remember, speaking can be a very difficult thing for many students. This is not just their English on the line but deeper fears of unworthiness or ridicule.
Be approachable and friendly. Make it okay not to answer and praise effort. Thank them for contributions throughout and at the end of each lesson.
9. Build Confidence
Whilst students want to improve, many have survived schooling systems where they were punished for every small error.
Create an adult environment where speaking is encouraged and mistakes are valued stepping stones towards improvement. Reframe mistakes rather than correcting them. Repeat and affirm what they say in correct English, within the flow of conversation.
10. Kindle the Fire
Finally, do not expect the fire of conversation to erupt where you want or expect it to.
You cannot “make” students talk.
Learn to plan speaking sessions as a series of activities and opportunities carefully prepared to provide the sparks of discussion. Your job is to prepare the ground and then if discussion does kindle, fan the flames, take a step back and let it develop. Your students will thank you for providing the space to make this possible.
Remember what a gift you are giving students by setting them free to talk without fear of failure.
This will help them in their language improvement more than anything else.