17 Foreign Language Speaking Activities That Simulate Real-world Conversation
Do you want your language students to go further than parroting back given words and sentences?
Are you looking for classroom speaking activities that get students to really, truly, actively use their brains?
Lucky for you, in this post, you’ll find 17 Modern Foreign Language (MFL) speaking activities to improve your student’s learning experience while keeping them engaged.
- 1. Sell Me Something
- 2. I Am History
- 3. News Reporter
- 4. Scenes from the Hat
- 5. Sing Me That Song
- 6. Hard Questions
- 7. Things My Grandmother Taught Me
- 8. Blind Instructions
- 9. Photo Differences
- 10. Missing Directions
- 11. Speed Chatting
- 12. The First Five Minutes
- 13. Google Doc Conversations
- 14. Agree or Disagree?
- 15. Creative Question Responses
- 16. Telephone Role Play
- 17. Prompts from a Hat
- Why True Speaking Is True Learning
- Strategies to Encourage Speaking in Your Classroom
1. Sell Me Something
This activity involves a student trying to persuade the class into buying something. They’ll note all the benefits and advantages of the said product and deliver a sales pitch using the target language.
Students choose an object that they would like to sell and bring the actual object to class on the day of the pitch. If that’s not possible, students could instead bring pictures or videos to show the class.
These videos could have subtitles to help with comprehension. The students should also be dressed for the part, so if a student is selling some oranges in a market setting, he should dress accordingly in order to be more in character. If a student is selling a solid gold airplane, then she should also dress the part.
Each student is given two minutes to pitch the product to the whole class. They’ll relate to the class the distinct features of the product as well as its primary advantages and benefits. This is great for teaching students to be descriptive, confident and persuasive.
This activity is a good vocabulary-building exercise that’s specifically geared to make the adjectives of the target language particularly memorable. Because a student has to describe the product’s physical features, they’ll have to dig into the trove of adjectives available.
Because there’s a visual reference and strong context for the vocabulary, it becomes memory-friendly not only for the student delivering the pitch but also for the classmates looking on and listening in.
So, for example, the word “ripe” becomes much more alive for the students when they see those plump red tomatoes held by one of their classmates.
The activity also lends itself to quick lessons in numbers and units of measurement, because when selling something, prices as well as quantity will often be discussed.
2. I Am History
Students get to pick a favorite historical character and develop a speech as if they were the person. The class will guess who the character is.
Encourage students to pick characters who may not be as famous as Gandhi or Alexander the Great so they could learn something extra along the way. The personalities could be on fields like science, economics or the arts and they would have to do research about him/her. (If the male students would choose to play female historical characters and vice versa, this could elevate the fun and interest level a few notches higher.)
Remind the students that they’ll be dressed in character and can freely bring props for their presentation.
Each student gets two minutes to talk as the character of their choice, dropping plenty of hints as to their identity. They’ll get to mention the character’s credentials, accomplishments, trivia and anecdotes credited to them.
Because the task is arranged as a first-person speech, your students will get plenty of practice in first-person sentence construction and grammar. This first-person point of view is vital in any target language because it’s what native speakers use to talk about themselves and their experiences.
At the end of the speech, you ask the class who the person standing in front of them is. Brownie points to the student who guessed correctly, as well as the student who gave the speech.
3. News Reporter
Students pick a news event to report on, then act as if they’re an anchor or field reporter telling the news to the class. The activity requires students to don their reporter hats and give a detailed account of an interesting event.
Ask students to pick a news item, a current event or a social issue that they’d like to report on. For example, a student may choose to report on a G7 Meeting, the spate of college dropouts around the country or, for some lighter news, a newborn panda in China.
Make a list of all your students’ topics and make sure there are no duplicates.
Encourage the class to pick a broad range of news and issues, from politics to entertainment, lifestyle and business.
Each student has from 45 seconds to 2 minutes to deliver the news. They could either be anchors pretending to sit in a studio or field reporters delivering the news from the thick of it.
The activity is set up so that it not only hones the speaking aptitude of students but also gives them a peek into the storytelling and information-delivering aspect of the language. Reporting the news is essentially like telling a story, and telling a story is one of the most important social functions of a language.
The activity also enriches each student’s practical vocabulary, by introducing them to words that might be new to them but are common phrases and expressions for the specific beat they’re reporting on.
4. Scenes from the Hat
This is a traditional improv game where students draw prepared scenes from a hat or bowl. They’ll have to act out the scene or task that’s written on the piece of paper they’ve drawn.
Prepare a list of scenes or tasks that students will have to perform in front of the class. Write them on pieces of paper. Roll the pieces of paper and deposit them in a hat, bowl or any appropriate container.
The scenes, written in the target language, may include classics like a mother looking for a lost child, a girl 15 minutes after a break up, a groom 1 hour before the wedding, a photographer telling models what to do, a politician campaigning for president, etc.
If you want the students to work in pairs, then prepare scenes that are suitable for duos like friends fighting over a girl, buyer and seller haggling over the price, etc.
Ask the students to draw their scenes/tasks from the bowl. Depending on the skill level of your students, you can ask them to do the scene impromptu — they should perform as soon as they’re done reading what’s written on the paper.
For beginners and intermediate students, it would be better if you give them a day or two to compose their lines or dialogue. Doing it this way, you give ample time for students to wrestle with the language, research and practice their lines over and over.
5. Sing Me That Song
Students pick a familiar English song. They’ll translate that song into the target language, then sing it in the translated lyrics. This is an activity where students get speaking practice through music and melody.
Students are given their pick of English songs. Any song will do, from Katy Perry’s “Friday Night” to Tom Jones’s “Delilah.” As homework, they’ll have to translate two stanzas and the chorus of the song and submit to you a copy of the original and translated lyrics so you can check and polish their work.
Come presentation day, the student sings the translated (and corrected) lyrics in front of the class, to the delight of everyone seated.
This activity is actually both a translation exercise as well as a speaking activity. It broadens your class’s vocabulary by engaging them in translation activities. And beyond that, you have just given them a wonderful opportunity to practice by singing a song.
6. Hard Questions
Students get to discuss the hard questions in life. “Ketchup or Mustard?” “Who’s cooler, Superman or Batman?” “Jacob or Edward?”
This discussion activity is done as a class and works best when students are actually prepared to express their thoughts. So for a most fruitful discussion, a day or two before this activity, announce to the class that you’ll be resolving a very important issue (e.g. Ketchup or Mustard?).
Make it very clear that you’ll be calling on people to express their opinions on the matter, using the target language of course. Make them realize that they really have a say in the direction and the quality of the discussion. This should get the class worked up.
The other preparation involves you, the teacher. Acquaint yourself with the issue (e.g. Superman or Batman?) List down the strengths and weaknesses of each side. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both? Have these ready so that during the discussion, you can challenge, amplify or extend the arguments provided by the class.
Student talking time in the beginner phases often serves as comprehension checks. In “Hard Questions,” talking time is used to develop both thinking as well as language skills.
Do the activity as a class and facilitate the discussion by inviting opinions from the members of the class. Who’s cooler, Superman or Batman? You can actually spend the whole session with just that question. Anybody can talk and throw in their two cents into the pool of ideas. Ask the class to give their reasons and make their point.
If nobody speaks up at first, give your own opinion on the matter and ask if they agree. Your skill as a facilitator will be very important. Probe and lead, but most of all, be very positive and motivate your students.
7. Things My Grandmother Taught Me
This one’s for advanced learners. Students pick a local proverb to expound on.
Students will be given two to three days to prepare for a two-minute presentation. The presentation should include the following elements:
- A literal and figurative English translation of the proverb.
- A short story or anecdote to illustrate the proverb.
- An insight, advice or prescription that will benefit the class.
The students are free to bring visual aids or props to help them make a point. Bringing pictures or showing video clips can make for an interesting and memorable presentation.
Note: The two minutes given are for speaking time exclusively and wouldn’t include the time it takes to play a video clip.
This activity is unique in that it not only provides room for practice, it provides a peek into the rich cultural wisdom of the target language. A language’s proverbs and sayings reveal the distinct character of a culture, what issues are vital to people, and what values they hold most dear.
And since sayings and proverbs are purposely written or composed in a catchy manner, every line, every proverb, presented in front of the class would be brimming with highly memorable, highly contextualized vocabulary that will benefit the listening classmates.
8. Blind Instructions
This activity can help students learn to be more precise in their speaking, meanwhile helping them develop their listening skills.
Seat pairs of students with their backs to one another and then give an object to one of the two partners. This object could be a picture, or it could be a selection of objects grouped in a specific way.
One partner gives directions while the other must draw the picture as it’s described, or place a similar group of objects in the same configuration, using spoken directions only.
9. Photo Differences
This exercise aids students in their descriptive ability and, again, helps the group as a whole become better listeners.
Distribute multiple copies of the same photo to your class, but with a few slight differences.
Perhaps the color of a pair of sunglasses differs in many of them. Or maybe there’s a bird in a tree in some of the photos but absent in others.
Ask each student to describe his or her photo clearly to the class or to a small group. Students will listen to determine what the differences are based on these descriptions. Then call on some of the students to tell you what differences they heard.
10. Missing Directions
This activity can help to develop skills in task-directed communication as well as reading comprehension.
Create a list of directions for a complex task, such as baking a cake or assembling a house with Legos.
Split your students into groups and distribute only part of the directions to each member of the group. Your students need to work together to comprehend and follow the directions and accomplish the task.
11. Speed Chatting
Give the class a heads-up the day before about what the topics will be so that they can practice answering the questions ahead of time. Seat students facing each other at two rows of desks. Set a timer for approximately five minutes (though a longer or shorter duration may work better depending on your group).
Whenever the timer goes off, introduce a new topic. You could perhaps start with the old standbys such as family, leisure activities, etc. If you have a solid understanding of your students and their interests, you might try making the questions more specific and relevant.
For example, if a fun and popular event like a festival or a concert just happened in the community, you might ask students to talk about what they saw or what they did. If you know for certain that some of your students enjoy a particular TV show, you might ask them to discuss their favorite character.
Whenever the timer goes off, require the students in one row to rotate so that everyone has new partners.
It helps take the pressure off when speaking occurs within a set timeframe. Your shy students will also feel more at ease in the knowledge that only one person is listening at any given time, making the speaking more low-risk.
12. The First Five Minutes
This activity allows students to practice initiating and continuing a conversation.
Let your students know who is going to be a facilitator ahead of time so that they can prepare. You can use a random name spinner to decide who’s going to be the next day’s facilitator. To help quieter students, you may want to give them more notice by preparing a monthly rotation schedule so that they can practice appropriate conversation starters ahead of time, or even have a practice run with you before their turn comes.
Each day, for the first five minutes of class, assign a different student to facilitate group conversation.
During the activity, don’t be afraid to jump in and gently prompt students if necessary.
13. Google Doc Conversations
By working together to prepare a conversation, students can develop their confidence, especially if they know that corrections have already been made.
Let students choose the topic or give them guidelines to set the scene (on vacation, at the hairdresser’s, etc.).
Have small groups collaborate on a conversation written in a Google Doc that they’ll then present to the class.
When they’re finished writing, ask them to share the document with you so that you can make corrections.
Once they’ve had the opportunity to make corrections and practice, they’ll have enough confidence to perform their scene, either for the class or for a small group. Make it even more fun by including props and costumes!
14. Agree or Disagree?
This exercise gives students valuable practice in a task that everyone enjoys: expressing their opinions.
Write a controversial statement on the board or post it to your class blog.
Ask students to discuss whether or not they agree with the statement.
Be clear that they must give reasons for their opinion—not just a “yes” or “no.” Try for something that’s relevant to the majority of students, for example, an unpopular school rule or a notorious celebrity. For best results, assign students to small groups in which they can share their opinion without the whole class listening.
15. Creative Question Responses
This is a great activity to prepare your students for real-life presentations they may have to do in future academic or professional settings.
Many students feel more comfortable expressing themselves verbally when their creative side is unleashed. For this activity, students can create visual responses to questions that they’ll then support with speech.
When you have a question that you want the class to discuss, have students create a poster or an infographic that portrays their response in a creative way.
They can create these posters on traditional poster board and construction paper, or they can use a multimedia presentation platform of your choice.
Afterward, depending on your class structure, you can have them present their work in small groups or individually for the class.
16. Telephone Role Play
Activities that stimulate spontaneity and creativity will boost their comfort level with speaking in class.
Seat students back-to-back. This is great practice because it allows them to focus on the words in their conversation without being distracted by the other person’s mannerisms and facial expressions.
Assign them a prompt and have them act out a telephone conversation.
As an added bonus, you can seize the opportunity to teach appropriate telephone etiquette in the target language (and perhaps even in their own). Allow students to practice their telephone role-play several times. If students are too shy to perform for the class, consider asking them to record the audio so you can listen to it on your own or play it for the class if the participants feel comfortable with that.
For this activity, don’t get hung up on correct grammar and pronunciation too much. Just let them have fun.
17. Prompts from a Hat
Write 15 to 20 creative and humorous speaking prompts on small slips of paper. For example, you might include a phone conversation in which each person mistakenly thinks they’re talking to someone famous. Another might be a group of siblings trying to hide the fact that they accidentally broke their mother’s favorite glass vase. Collect these prompts in a hat.
Occasionally ask individual students to reach into the hat and choose one. The chosen prompt will give them context for a group conversation, lending some spontaneity to make conversing feel like less of a chore.
Why True Speaking Is True Learning
In teaching a language, much of what we do in the classroom should involve students opening their mouths and trying out the target language.
There is, of course, room for grammar, syntax and proper sentence construction, but what’s more important is for us teachers to give opportunities for students to speak—to feel how the words and phrases roll off their tongues, to actually hear themselves enunciate strings of vocabulary. Along with listening and comprehension activities, speaking activities belong on the priority list of every language teacher.
Talking of speaking activities, the most productive type isn’t one where you say, “Si!” and the whole class repeats after you with a chorus of “Si!” Maybe the listen-and-repeat scheme may work for absolute beginners, but when you really want your students to acquire the language, you need to allow them to really use the language.
Provide meaningful contexts for the utterance while you’re at it. Let them observe the language as it’s being used: to talk to a friend, to greet a stranger, to ask a question or to buy stuff.
Let your students have at it—with all the mistakes they can muster. You not only allow them to use the language, but you, the teacher, also give your students clear and unequivocal permission to make mistakes.
Don’t worry that they’ll butcher the language or that they’re not yet ready for the big leagues. You’re there to guide them—just like somebody teaching a little girl to ride her first bike.
Strategies to Encourage Speaking in Your Classroom
No matter what type of activities you decide to try, there are a few strategies that are helpful in fostering a classroom environment in which students feel comfortable speaking.
- Start each class period with a speaking activity. Begin with a brief, low-pressure “icebreaker” activity every day so your students become more comfortable with the expectation of speaking every day.
- Give your students the space and time to speak. Give them time to structure their thoughts before speaking so they won’t feel rushed or pressured. Don’t hurry to cover the silence. Remember that the more time you spend talking, the less time your students have to do so.
- Provide goal-directed, real-world tasks. Have students work together to navigate a subway map or create a menu for a language-themed event while communicating in the target language. Communication is most meaningful when it’s used in the service of a relevant task with a specific goal in mind.
- Give plenty of comprehensible input. Surround students with the sounds of the target language as much as possible. Use gestures and visual aids to make sure these sounds are comprehensible. As they’re exposed to more of the language that they can understand, they’ll grow more confident in their own communication skills.
Immersive videos, also allow students to improve their communication skills based on conversations in the real world. On the FluentU program specifically, the authentic language media clips come with word lists, comprehension quizzes and more to reinforce the vocab they learned from the videos and their interactive subtitles.
- Ensure an equal back-and-forth within pairs and groups. Monitor paired and group interactions and gently intervene when it seems that one person may be dominating the conversation. You might try cheerfully and calmly prompting the quieter students by asking their opinions to draw them out.
With these wonderful speaking opportunities, your students will come out of the course not just knowing a list of grammar rules, but having been immersed in the language like native speakers.