You toss a question to your class.
You imagine hands flying up from enthusiastic students, eager to respond.
Maybe an uncomfortable cough or two.
Granted, there are moments when silence is optimal for students—like during a personal writing activity or individual reading period. At a certain point, though, you need your students to speak… because otherwise, very little communication is possible. And isn’t communication the whole point of our work?
To that end, you need to hear from all your students. But the reality is that it can feel like pulling teeth.
With so much communication now taking place digitally through the written word, our students are experiencing an ever-increasing discomfort with speaking out loud. They’re accustomed to a safe space that allows them the leisure to edit their thoughts as they go.
Add to that the difficulties of pronouncing foreign words, and you have a recipe for silent students.
But don’t despair! We’ve compiled the perfect list of activities to make speaking up in your language class fun.
These activities are structured to encourage communication in several different ways, to engage all of your students—even the shiest ones.
Ready to inspire a classroom of chatterboxes?
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. As students become accustomed to this ritual, they’ll feel more comfortable with the expectation of speaking every day, even if it’s short and low-risk.
Give more air time to students.
As teachers, this can be tough to do sometimes. We become unnerved by the silence that sometimes ensues when we wait for students to talk.
But it comes down to basic math: The more time you spend talking, the less time your students have to do so. Give them time to structure their thoughts before speaking so they won’t feel rushed or pressured. Don’t hurry to cover the silence. Give them the space and time to speak, and they will.
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.
Later in this post, we’ll show you some activities that are built on this premise.
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.
One great tool to use for this purpose is FluentU.
The videos range from movie trailers to news reports to funny YouTube clips—and they all come with interactive captions and exercises that help students pick up new words and phrases.
Meanwhile, you’ll love the integrated progress tracking and curriculum building tools. It’s an awesome way to immerse students in the target language while ensuring they actively build their communication skills.
Ensure an equal back-and-forth within pairs and groups.
It’s just a fact of human nature: Some people like to talk more than others. 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.
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The Different Functions of Speech and Why They Matter
Not all speech is the same, so our classroom speaking activities shouldn’t be, either. It’s a good idea to structure classroom activities in such a way that they reflect the functions of speech covered below.
Later in this post we’ll show you some specific activities for each of these four categories.
- Goal-directed: Communication takes place for the purpose of accomplishing a specific goal. Some examples would be giving directions or ordering food at a restaurant.
- Extended: This is a back-and-forth conversation in which speakers take turns controlling the direction of the discussion.
- Structured: Speakers follow a specific structure in a conversation that flows logically from Point A to Point B.
- Controlled: The conversation and the task itself are dictated by a non-negotiable topic, often provided by the teacher.
Something to Talk About: Activities to Get Even Your Shyest Students Speaking
1. Blind Instructions
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.
As one partner gives directions, 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.
This activity can help students learn to be more precise in their speaking, meanwhile helping them develop their listening skills.
2. Photo Differences
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 that’s 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.
This exercise aids students in their descriptive ability and, again, helps the group as a whole become better listeners.
3. Missing Directions
Create a list of directions for a complex task, such as baking a cake or assembling a house with Legos.
Then distribute only part of the directions to each member of the group.
This requires them to work together to comprehend and follow the directions and accomplish the task. In doing so, they develop skills in task-directed communication as well as reading comprehension.
4. Speed Chatting
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.
To make things even more comfortable, you might try giving 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.
5. The First Five Minutes
Each day, for the first five minutes of class, assign a different student to facilitate group conversation.
Make sure they know ahead of time so that they can prepare. You can use a random name spinner such as this one 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.
During the activity, don’t be afraid to jump in and gently prompt students if necessary. This activity allows students to practice initiating and continuing a conversation.
6. Google Doc Conversations
Have small groups collaborate on a conversation written in a Google Doc that they’ll then present to the class. They can choose the topic, or you can give them guidelines to set the scene (on vacation, at the hairdresser’s, etc.).
When they’re finished writing, ask them to share the document with you so that you can make corrections.
By working together to prepare a conversation, students can develop their confidence, especially if they know that corrections have already been made.
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!
7. Agree or Disagree?
Write a controversial statement on the board, or post it to your class blog. Then 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.
This exercise gives students valuable practice in a task that everyone enjoys: expressing their opinions.
8. Creative Question Responses
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.
So next time you have a question that you want the class to discuss, give it a new twist. Instead of just verbal responses, 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 like Glogster.
Afterwards, depending on your class structure, you can have them present their work in small groups or individually for the class. This is a great way to prepare them for real-life presentations they may have to do in future academic or professional settings.
9. Telephone Role Play
Seat students back-to-back, assign them a prompt and have them act out a telephone conversation. 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.
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. Activities that stimulate spontaneity and creativity will boost their comfort level with speaking in class.
10. 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 and 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.
With these creative and fun activities, you’ll have those shy students contributing their voices to the conversation in no time.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach languages with real-world videos.