This article by Paul Charles aims to narrow the communicative approach into some practical steps towards successful speaking lessons.

Question: What would you suggest as a method of encouraging a student to speak, for example, when they are rather shy even in their native language? I remember GiddyGad once said that I can't make a student use the expressions and vocabulary they do not even use in their native language, and I agree. But what about when they usually answer: "I don't know," "Hmm?" or only "Yes, I do," "No, I won't" etc... I realize it's connected with psychology very closely... Any useful tips?


Taken from the onestopenglish Forum. Click here to read the original discussion.

Encouraging students to speak

Before I go on, I'd like to ask for a moment's reflection. First, think of a lesson you have taught which you feel has gone really well. Next, think of one that has gone particularly badly. If your experiences are anything like mine, both your top and bottom lessons will have been speaking-focused. Speaking-based classes seem to provide incredible scope for both truly great and truly awful classroom experiences. This article will look at reasons for this apparent unpredictability and try to narrow the vague 'communicative approach' into some practical steps towards successful speaking lessons involving all students.

I remember being amazed as a new teacher when topics like 'drugs should be legal' or 'marriage is outdated' only generated awkward mutters, especially while seemingly stupefying topics sometimes brought about lively debate. I now believe that most problems with speaking-fluency lessons come down to two questions I started to ask myself then: Were there any topics that were consistently successful, and how could I identify and control the other variables in play? I don't claim to have any definitive answers, but I hope my experience can be of some use for teachers facing unresponsive students, or even unresponsive groups.


The three Ts

While a stimulating topic is usually crucial, two other indispensable ingredients are also involved: some form of task to complete, and the necessary language (or tools) to do so. These three factors work together in different proportions in all successful speaking exercises - sometimes the topic will dominate to the extent that the others can take a much lesser role, sometimes the emphasis may be rigidly on the task and sometimes the discussion may rest on a specific 'tool' (for example, a grammar point.) However, if anybody in the class feels unsure about any of the 'three Ts', of Topic, Task and Tools, they are very unlikely to make a meaningful contribution. Recognizing this has major implications for both planning and teaching speaking exercises.


Finding good topics

Every class, of course, is different. In Learning Teaching (2005), Jim Scrivener provides a list of interesting topics (p.402) and others are widely available. While suggesting more ideas here would add little in terms of methodology, here are a few things to think about when deciding on a topic:

  • Is it something that everybody in the class can relate to, to some extent? Things like politics or music, while often successful, can isolate the less interested or knowledgeable.
  • Are the students capable of dealing with the subject on a meaningful level, or is their English too much of a handicap?
  • Is it something they might have talked, read or thought about much before? For example, something like the environment can provide useful material but is unlikely to stimulate much discussion if students are simply regurgitating clichéd arguments translated from their own language.
  • How would you feel talking about the same thing in front of other people? Maybe a shy student would be more comfortable with a light-hearted discussion on national stereotypes or differences between generations than one on the death penalty or abortion laws.

In a class where the objective is spoken fluency, good discussion material is everywhere. Outside of the specialized books (such as Ur: Discussions that Work and Wallwork: Discussions A-Z) the media is filled with potential topics depending on the age, level and interests of the group.

Finally, here are a few ideas for topics that often draw contributions from otherwise unresponsive students:

  • All the above criteria are met when learners talk about themselves. There are many ways to present this, and here is a simple one:
Write Past, Present and Future on the board and a name, a date and two other words around each one. These should show four things that used to be very important for you, four important things in your current life, and four wishes for the future. In my own case, my Past spidogram says, Lindsay, 1983, Exeter and Berli. Elicit a couple of questions, (Who was Lindsay, what happened in 1983...?) and maybe highlight the structures, then ask the students to do the same exercise in pairs. After fifteen minutes they talk to the class about one another.  (Adapted from Cutting Edge Upper-Intermediate)
  • A similar idea is to ask students to choose their own 'specialized subjects' and take five minutes each answering questions from the rest of the group / a small group about them. As an example, I might say surfing and encourage questions like, When did you start surfing?, How often do you go? or even Is there a world surfing champion? What's his name?
  • Most people have a pet hate. A lesson based on the BBC TV program Room 101 works well. In pairs, the class has time to prepare arguments as to why the world would be better without two or three things they hate. Each pair gives a presentation and the rest of the class then votes on whether their choice is removed from existence into 'Room 101'. With this activity, it is important that the nominations aren't too serious, and that you give a couple of good examples. I use flies, ironing and mobile phones.
  • Another possibility is to hand over some control to the students by suggesting a list of possible discussion topics at the end of a class and asking them to decide which they would prefer to talk about the following week.

Ideas for speaking tasks
As we have seen, choosing a good topic is important, but far from the only consideration. While a few people are very happy to speak for the sake of speaking, many have a diametrically opposed attitude. It is much more common to be motivated by the desire to complete a task, as much in speaking as reading or listening exercises. This is a key point in the communicative methodology, and if answers like I don't know; Yes, I do; or No, I won't are common, it is often the task that can most easily be changed to give positive results.

Here are some ideas for setting up speaking tasks:  

  • If sections of your class are unresponsive during free speaking activities, it may be that a lack of structure is undermining their confidence. Controlled communicative activities often give good results. See the Reward resource pack series by Susan Kay or onestopenglish for different types of information gap, pair and group activities. These work partly because they take the focus away from English production, allowing students to use their knowledge to achieve an objective. They are usually based around small groups, which also benefits less confident learners.
  • While the above may work in the short term, controlled exercises are not overly conducive to authentic language production. The following activities still focus on task completion but with a greater emphasis on fluency. They could be called 'semi-controlled':
  1. Take 'crime' as a topic. The Internet (a magical speaking resource) is full of anecdotes about 'dumb criminals' being arrested in amusing situations, which provide a more light-hearted speaking class, as suggested above. The first step could be to make role cards based on various stories. To give a task focus, each student could then write the headings Name / Crime / How Caught / Stupidity Rating 1-5, then, taking a role, mingle and fill in this information for everybody they speak to within a set time limit. Here the learners are speaking with an attainable objective, which also involves some input of their own opinion. Similar mingle exercises with information sharing can be found in many books or designed from scratch.
  2. A well-known task is to rank options in order of preference. This can be done with any number of topics and often with little preparation time. A 'pyramid' discussion is a way to organize this type of exercise to encourage full participation, where students start off discussing in pairs, then join with another pair after a set amount of time, until finally the whole group is involved in one discussion. Example themes for this type of activity are 'the three greatest inventions of all time', 'three people who have changed the world', 'how to spend £100,000 improving this city'.
  3. Many resource books feature simple board games which involve throwing a dice and moving a counter, with the objective of finishing first. Each square features a different topic to speak about for one minute. It is well worth making a blank board template so that you can adapt the topics to your own groups.
  4. Role-plays can also encourage students to contribute. A classic role-play supported by a clear task is the 'alibi' model (one of many variations is available here on onestopenglish.) 
    For a wider topic like the environment, you might split the class into councillors, green activists and property developers and build up to a final debate and decision. See the 'tools' section below for tips on how to maximize participation in this activity.
  • The final two tasks below encourage free production of language. Still, it remains important that a focus is provided to shape the discussion and make sure everybody has a chance to speak.
  1. Taking minutes: Imagine you have split a group into teams and asked them to debate a complete ban on smoking. Divide the board into 'For and Against,' bring two students up to the front and give them a pen. Their role is to note relevant arguments on each side as they are mentioned and decide on a winner. They explain their choice when the debate ends.
  2. The spoon: If some students are being marginalized in discussions, borrow this idea from Spanish TV talk shows: Bring a spoon to the class, and during debates only allow the person holding it to speak, for up to one minute. At the end of his time or contribution, those students who would like to respond put their hands up. Give the spoon to one, allow her a minute to speak, and so on. This is not a task as such, but it gives less confident students time to formulate their ideas, and the platform to contribute when they are ready. 

These are just a few of the tasks that can give impetus to speaking lessons. They are intended to show the importance of having an objective, and I have tried to avoid going over well-known ideas in too much detail. Some useful books for complete resources are listed in the bibliography.

Providing the tools

It is quite possible and often necessary for learners to use idioms, functions and vocabulary in a supportive English classroom that they hesitate to use in their first language. This final section looks at ways to equip learners with the necessary tools to turn some of the above ideas into successful speaking lessons, through language input and by turning the students on to the subject. In an ideal lesson, the students should be more than ready to speak by the time the teacher asks them to.

  • The language input is very much specific to the exercise or discussion. A general tip is to make sure that the essential grammar, vocabulary or example questions are on the board following the presentation stage so that the focus doesn't return to the teacher during the activity itself. For example, using the Past, Present, Future idea mentioned above, I would always write What happened in…? Who / what was…? Why is… important? Why / when would you like to…? on the board while eliciting and answering these questions.
  • Many speaking games are wholly dependant on one grammar item or function. One example of this is the Tag teams lesson plan in the Lesson Share section. Another is the 'interrupting game.' In this activity, one student talks about something in great detail (their day so far, their favourite film…) while the others score points by interrupting politely with questions, no matter how trivial. Again, it is crucial that the questioners have a record of the functional language (Excuse me but… I'm sorry to interrupt but… Could I stop you for a second? and so on.)
  • During a livelier debate a way to give people the tools to speak (and use the target language) is to prepare various cards saying I absolutely agree, I'm not so sure, I really don't think so, etc. for each student or team. A point is earned for playing a card and backing it up with a relevant argument.
  • Finally, one of the most important steps to a good speaking class is to activate the students' interest in the topic and get them thinking about it. This might mean anything from a five minute warmer to a long reading or listening exercise. There are almost as many possibilities as there are topics, but here are a few ideas:
  1. Pictures, especially photos, often generate hundreds of ideas with very little input from the teacher. For example, the 'task' section talked about a debate on the environment. To introduce this, copy of two photos for each pair of students, one of a water park and one of a fishing village. The first task is simply to think of five adjectives for each. Next, a situation is introduced where the village council is going bankrupt and a big water park developer has put in a proposal to build there. The group is split into developers and traditional fishing families (who each have ten minutes to write a presentation and objections to the other team) and councillors (who spend the ten minutes writing questions for both teams.) In this example, the pictures have served the dual purpose of 'activating the schemata' of the students by bringing the situation to life, and of showing the teacher who would suit which role in the final exercise (a student who gives the adjectives 'noisy, smelly and tacky' for the park may not be best for the role of developer.)
  2. Realia works in a similar way to pictures. One idea is to bring a number of random objects to the lesson (a coat hanger, a stapler, a pair of glasses, a guitar string…) and give the class one minute to look at them. Afterwards, cover them up and allow one minute to remember what was there. Explain that the students are on a sinking ship, and the things that they remember are the things that will be washed up on a desert island with them. This leads on to two discussions: The first is the best way to use the objects for survival (another good pyramid-style exercise) and second, in pairs, a conversation based around Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, where guests can nominate a book, a record, a person and one or two luxury items to take to a desert island, and explain why.
  3. Traditional warmers: A good warmer sets up the whole class, and there are hundreds of ideas in the warmers section of this website, or in Ur and Wright's 'Five-Minute Activities'.

For the above discussion on stupid criminals, pairs or small groups could rank a list of crimes in order of seriousness, or for the 'people who have changed the world' discussion, you could play twenty questions with a hero of your own. Even if it's as simple as a brainstorm on the board, it's crucial that the warmer is lively, involves everybody and pre-empts any serious vocabulary problems that may occur later.    

Final thoughts

In this article, I haven't tried to give a list of speaking classes with guaranteed success. Like everybody, I wish I had one to offer. My intention was to provide some ideas, but more importantly, show the importance of Topic, Task and Tools to the communicative methodology, especially in encouraging less confident students to contribute. It's also always worth remembering that the teacher usually talks for no more than fifteen percent of a good lesson, and that pair work and small group work are a big area to focus on.

There are, of course, many ideas that I haven't mentioned, and many, many more that I'm not even aware of, but that's what keeps me teaching.



Jim Scrivener, Learning Teaching Second Edition, Macmillan ELT 2005
Penny Ur, Discussions That Work, Cambridge 1981
Penny Ur and Andrew Wright, Five-Minute Activities, Cambridge 1992
Adrian Wallwork, Discussions A-Z, Cambridge 1997
Susan Kay, Reward Upper Intermediate Resource Pack, Macmillan 1996
S Cunningham and P Moor, New Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate, Longman 2005