ESL Speaking Activities

There are many approaches to ESL speaking activities which used in English classes. Some are focussed on pronunciation, some more basic speaking activities are controlled or guided activities, and finally ESL discussion or conversation activities. All are important. In this article I will focus on speaking activities which offer controlled practice, and thus the support that so many students need. Teaching English pronunciationis discussed here, and ESL discussions here.

How do you get your students speaking? I've asked this question many times to English teachers. Most teachers answer - quite reasonably - by talking about building a good relationship with the students, making them relaxed, motivating them, and amusing them. The answer is good, as far as it goes. Building a good relationship with, and among the students is very important. Reducing any anxiety they may have towards learning or speaking in a foreign language is a prerequisite for successful language learning.

However, there is another answer. Perhaps I should have asked a different question: which ESL speaking activities are best to get your students speaking? Here are some examples of ESL speaking activities.

Types of ESL Speaking Activities

Q&A - The simplest, most used, and probably most misused of ESL speaking activities. Whenever you teach a language point, for example the present perfect, or a question such as "Which do you prefer, _ or _ ?" this is a very simple and powerful way of giving the students practice.

Write the question on the board and ask the students chorally to ask you. This provides an excellent opportunity for you to model some example answers, and to check on their pronunciation. Then have a few students ask the question (substituting: "Which do you prefer, dogs or cats/tea or coffee...).

Then, when the students understand some of the possible ways of answering the question, move to open pairs (student A asks student C etc). This gives you a way of checking whether the students understand. Two or three times with open pairs should be enough.

Next put the students in (closed) pairs, and walk around the room listening as they ask and answer. Finally get some feedback. For example: "John, what did Vivian say?" When using Q/A patterns like these it's best to allow the students to be creative with their questions and answers.

Q&A Contests - work well when teaching English to children. Divide the class into teams (giving names to the teams), devise a scoring method. Then ask each team in turn a question, giving 3 or 4 seconds for them to answer to get a point for their team.

Essentially it's a way of drilling a sentence pattern without the children knowing it, as they see it as a competition. The scoring method adds fun for the students. This could be as simple as drawing animals or faces on the board to indicate points. Or it could be two people floating over shark infested waters holding balloons which are popped if the question is answered wrongly.

For more positive reinforcement draw a picture on the board (an anime animal or person could work well). Each line, or group of lines, in the drawing adds one point. I'm the least artistic person, but quickly learned how to draw a picture on one of the many 'how to draw anime' sites online.

Just a Minute - is a fluency activity (and the only non-controlled speaking activity here). If used in the right way, it can build up students' confidence in speaking English in front of other people. It's adapted from a Radio 4 game and can be fun with older students and adults.

Write topics randomly around the board. Then have a student throw a sticky ball (piece of rolled up paper will do) at the board. The topic which is closest to where the ball hits is their topic. The student must then stand and speak for one minute without hesitation, repetition or undue silliness about the topic.

If the students hesitates, repeats or becomes silly then stop them and write their name and the time they spoke for on the board. I have used this ESL speaking activity successfully with children - hence the silliness restriction - but it works best with teenagers and adults.

Spot the difference - between 2 pictures. Draw and photocopy a simple picture. There are books which contain photocopiable pictures for this purpose. Make several small changes and photocopy again. Now you will have two almost identical pictures.

Put the students in pairs and have them find the differences without looking at their partner's picture. It can be useful to pre-teach some language for this ESL speaking activity. For example: on the right, in the top left corner, in the middle etc.

Guessing Games - are ESL speaking activities which can provide a lot of speaking practice. The 20 questions TEFL game is a classic game and is described fully in Top 10 TEFL Games There are many variations. In what's my line? students have to guess one students occupation. The student can be given card with the occupation written on it, or can imagine an occupation.

Another good variation is 'many knowers,' in which one student sits at the front of the classroom facing the other students. Write a word, or place a flashcard on the board behind the student. The student cannot look or be told this word. The other students then describe the word, without using body language to explain. The student at the front must guess the word.

This can be played as a contest. Times taken to guess the word are recorded on the board. If a student can't guess within 60 seconds write that on the board and go to the next student. The team with the lowest score wins.

With children especially, it can help to write some examples of how to describe on the board. For example: 'It is _,' 'It eats _,' 'It sometimes _,' and so on. With children it's easiest to use animals. This ESL speaking activity works well with children and adults, beginners and quite advanced students.

Famous personality party - is another guessing game. This is a mingle activity where students have the names of famous people on their backs and must discover who they are by walking around the classroom and talking to other students.

Picture dictation - In pairs, one student describes a picture to the other student, who must draw it. The drawer can ask questions about the picture, but is not allowed to see it while drawing.

Find someone who.... - Photocopy a sheet for each student which says at the top: 'Find someone who..' then below this on the left list experiences: 'has been to New York,' 'has a dog,' and so on. This works for all but beginners.

Dialogue Trios [Look & Speak] - A way of practicing dialogues. Two students study a piece of dialogue for a short time. The students then practice the dialogue without looking at it. The third student prompts them when necessary. Students can look at the dialogue, then look up and speak without reading. If the dialogue is long, this can be done line by line.

Listen and say - One of the simplest and most effective ESL speaking activities. This can be done with a recording in English. They can record themselves or the teacher can listen. Shadowing is a useful activity to encourage the students to do in their own time. Walking outside listening and saying really does help, and has helped me in learning foreign languages.

Split Exchanges - 'Write one part of an exchange for each member of the class.' They must memorize it and mingle, speaking to everyone, and trying to match their lines. This esl activity can be used with any level by altering the difficulty of the text.

Weekend - The students write 5 words describing their weekend on a piece of paper. Then their partner tells the class what the student did. The original student comments on the truth of this. Many similar ESL speaking activities can use this pattern. For example instead of weekend the students could write 5 words about their job, hobby...

Types of Music - Record a variety of music (or other sounds) on a CD. Play the music and ask the students how they feel about it. This activity is great for practicing 'I love,' 'I hate,' 'I can't stand,' ...

No Yes No - In pairs, students ask yes/no questions, but they are not allowed to answer with yes or no. For example: 'Are you from this city?' 'I'm from this city.' 'Do you come here often?' 'I sometimes come here.'

Roleplays - One of the most commonly used ESL speaking activities. Roleplays can be made up on just about any topic. Give your students a problem to resolve, and roles, then allow them to speak. Roles can be given on cards. This could be two neighbors discussing a barking dog, a customer speaking to a call center staff member about a problem, a parent and child...

Also see ESL discussions ESL conversation topics teaching English conversation ESL stories and ESL games for more ideas on speaking activities.

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