How To Get your Students Speaking in Class

How can we get our learners talking? A combination of factors can often inhibit our students from speaking out loud – fear of making mistakes in front of their peers; not knowing what to say; not feeling motivated or interested in the topic. If we want to engage our students and get them talking in the classroom, we need to create a structured, safe environment, where they can talk about topics that interest them and things that they can relate to their own lives and culture.

So here are my top seven tips for avoiding those deadly silences …

1          Preparation. Don’t expect your teens suddenly to have an opinion about recycling, favorite festivals, healthy living or whatever your topic of the week is. Use a reading or listening text to act as your prompt and elicit reactions from that. Or have your students do some independent research first and then share their findings in groups.

2          Pair work (or small group work). Students who may be nervous of speaking out loud in front of the whole class, often feel much safer when working one to one with a peer. But make sure that one person isn’t dominating the conversation. Monitor pair work activities, walking around the classroom and checking that students are sharing the talking.

3          Prompts. Giving students some written prompts can help to encourage reluctant speakers. For example, you could provide the starting words for each sentence and then have students complete the sentences with their own ideas. Let’s imagine you want students to talk about a festival from their country. You could write prompts like these on the board:

  • This festival celebrates …
  • It’s in {Spring / Summer / November …}
  • In this festival, we sing / eat / wear …
  • I like this festival because …

This gives students a safe and structured way to start the speaking activity and helps to direct their conversation.

4    Points. Students love competitions, so work some point-giving tasks into the speaking activity.  For example, if you’re having a class discussion about the environment, brainstorm related vocabulary onto the board first. Divide the class into teams and then ask a discussion question: How do you help to recycle at home? Have each team discuss the question for a few minutes and then go round the class, eliciting ideas from each team. Teams win a point for every word on the board which they manage to include in their spoken responses.

5        Pictures. Great pictures and photos are a powerful way to evoke responses from students. In the National Geographic Primary course, Look, we open every unit with a thought-provoking photo and ask some discussion questions about the picture.

From Look Level 5
This picture is from Level 5, Unit 1. We ask students to look at the photo and discuss the following questions:
1 Where are these people?
2 What are they doing? Why?
3 Why do you think they can’t use their phones to make phone calls?
4 How do you communicate with the following people: your school friends; your family; people who live far away?

Look out for pictures that are unusual or that might inspire your students to ask questions.The National Geographic ‘Your Shot’ page is a very useful resource for stunning photos.

6         Personal. Students love to talk about themselves, as long as they’re allowed to define the parameters of the conversation. Don’t expect them to share intimate details of how their family situation is set up, and be aware of discussions that may highlight differences in family income or social status. However, talking about subjects like favorite childhood games; pets; family meals or first experiences allows students to explore familiar subjects, encouraging them to speak out when more alien topics may not engage them.

7          Positivity (not Perfection!) There are plenty of opportunities to correct your students, but try to avoid too much correction during a speaking activity. Respond to students’ spoken output positively, picking up on the ideas they express and making a note of any common errors for correction and practice later on in the lesson. The more confident your students feel, the more they will speak and the more they speak, the better they will get!

I hope these tips will help you next time you’re planning a speaking activity with your students. How about you? Do you have any great ways to encourage your students to speak out in class? Do share them in the comments section below!

Author: Katherine Stannett

Katherine Stannett is based in West Sussex, England and is an author with over twenty years of experience in editing, writing and developing materials to teach English. She specializes in writing for children and teenagers at all levels and is particularly interested in the development of 21st century skills. She is an author of National Geographic Learning’s Look, a seven-level series for young learners of English, and Impact, a five-level series for teenage learners of English.

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