ESL Speaking

ESL speaking activities are an essential part of every English class at every level. Why do students need to be 'encouraged' into this difficult endeavour?

  • they need it to communicate in and out the classroom
  • it's a confidence builder for the students, showing them their progress and that they can actually do it
  • it's part of the active process of learning, digesting, remembering and being able to reproduce new language
  • it provides a natural context for students to learn and focus on a particular target language (what you are specifically trying to teach them)

There are 2 different types of ESL speaking activities that you can do in the classroom .... targeted speaking and general speaking.

Targeted ESL Speaking

Targeted speaking is when you are trying to teach the students how to use a particular part of the language (target language) e.g.

  • a grammar point - like getting the students to speak about their daily routines when teaching the present simple
  • vocabulary - the students dicuss a particular topic using words they have just learnt
  • phrases -  the students practise using phrases that are specific to particular situations e.g. giving presentations, complaining, visiting the doctor

When doing ESL speaking activities that are focussed on a target language, remember the following:

  • make sure you have given the students the target language, that they have understood it, and have had some controlled practice with it already (e.g. gap fill exercises)
  • give clear instructions as to what the students have to do, and make sure they have understood it (get them to repeat the instructions back to you)
  • give the students some thinking and rehearsal time
  • make sure the students are sitting or moving around the classroom so as best to facilitate the conversation
  • for larger classes break the students up into groups or pairs so that everyone gets a chance to talk
  • mingle around the class and note down mistakes for error correction later
  • error correction - do not interrupt the students to correct them, as you want them to practise fluency. Rather write down the mistakes and correct them later. Error correction should be focussed on the target language for these exercises.

General ESL Speaking

Often we would just like the students to talk for no other reason than to get them talking. This is most often done at the beginning of a lesson (as a warmer), or as a follow on activity after a listening or reading activity. There is no specific target language, but the students get to practice their fluency and how to express their opinions. Error correction of common mistakes is a very important part of making the most out of this exercise.

  • the students don't need much preparation time
  • make sure the students do most of the talking. Encourage further contributions from them with questions like, 'Why do you think that?', 'Can you explain further' etc etc
  • make sure the topics you choose are relevant and of interest to the students

Common Problems & Solutions

Sometimes it's not easy to get the students talking, especially if you are teaching lower levels or a group of computer programmersHere are some common problems that you might find coming up:

  • the students stare at you blankly. This probably means they haven't understood the instructions. Repeat them again in a different way (and perhaps slower), and then ask them to repeat them back to you so you know they have understood. You can also demonstrate for them what you would like them to do (e.g. if they have to give their opinion on a quote, then choose one, and give them your opinion)
  • the students don't like the topic, or don't know anything about it - ask the students for input on the sort of things they like
  • the topic is too difficult - if the subject matter is difficult for your students make the questions easy, teach them more relevant vocabulary, and demonstrate/teach some phrases they could use
  • the students are not in the mood - get their blood circulating with a bit of movement around the room (add some drawing, acting etc)
  • the students are too quick or slow with the acitivity - give them time limits and clear instructions
  • the students are shy - mix up the groups during various lessons so the students get to know each other a bit
  • the students use their native language rather than English - walk around listening to the students, and tell them to stop if you hear them doing it. Explain to them that it's not beneficial for them
  • there are dominant students who always do all the talking - mix up the groups so they are with different people. Give every student a time restriction/guideline so that they all get to talk for the same amount of time. Ask the more timid students direct questions to draw them out
  • students are disrespectful towards one another - give the students a lesson on how to disagree politely, bring it to their attention and make them practise it!

Once you have started a speaking activity and you can see it's not working out quite as you had hoped, don't be embarrassed to step in and adapt things e.g. using some of the suggestions above ..... teach extra vocabulary, give instructions again, change the activity so the students have to move around more. Don't be shy to move the students around, to tell them where to sit and mix things up a bit.

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