Speaking Strategies for English Language Learners

Written by: Mike Turner



Time to read 8 min

As a trainer, one of the things I am often asked about is how to get students speaking in class. When we are teaching spoken English, there are three significant ways we can help:

  • Provide an interesting dynamic, so that learners remain engaged
  • Offer security, through strong frameworks
  • Teach our learners explicit strategies

Whilst there are a lot of online resources for ESOL students, few of these provide a strategic approach. So, today, I’m going to focus on effective speaking strategies you can share with your students and I’ve created a list of what I think are the best speaking strategies for ESOL students and English language learners. 

Developing Speaking Strategies 

Here are some effective speaking strategies I encourage my students to think about and practise:

  • Using context
  • Employing formulaic language.
  • Buying time.
  • Requesting help: repetitions and clarifications.
  • Paraphrasing.
  • Embracing performance errors.

Whether they are participating in classroom discussions, taking an oral exam, or interacting with a native speaker whilst on holiday, these strategies should help your students’ confidence levels and improve their fluency. So, let’s have a look at them in a bit more detail.

As I move through the strategies, I’ve tried to include some related classroom activities you can use with your English language learners. If you use flashcards for teaching English, I have created a Quizlet set that summarises the advice in the blog and that you might like to share with your students.

Using context 

Sometimes, students know in advance, the context for a spoken exchange – they may understand, for example:

  • It’s an exam; there will be an examiner and an interlocutor; they will need to discuss a picture, and then present and answer questions on a topic chosen in advance.
  • They need to ask a railway employee for a return ticket to Bristol. 

The importance of using context 

Identifying context allows students to think about the vocabulary and skills they will need – and what to listen out for in the conversation. Although the examples above are very different, they are relatively easy to prepare for – students know the language they will need, who they will be talking to, and at least some of the potential questions they may be asked, or responses they may receive. Once the conversation has started, they can monitor the situation, not only by listening but by attending to tone of voice, body language, gestures and facial expression.

In other situations, students may have to assess the situation on the spot. Encourage students to think about:

  • What’s the situation? Where are they, and why are they going to speak?
  • Who are the other participants and what is the speaker’s relationship to them?
  • What are the likely topics of conversation?
  • Would it be most appropriate to use formal, informal or very colloquial language?

Once they have assessed the situation, and before entering into any spoken exchange, speakers should try to call to mind some of the language they might need and think about an appropriate way of starting the conversation. Encourage students, once the conversation has started, to listen carefully, note keywords and pay attention to any visual clues.

A good way of practising this is to use two volunteers and give them a card with roles and a topic to discuss. Encourage a third student to approach them and join the conversation. 

Employing formulaic language

Lots of phrases come pre-packaged and ready for use in certain situations – they are like extended, fixed or semi-fixed multi-word collocations. The beauty of formulaic phrases is that learners do not need to worry about learning the syntax – they can treat such expressions as discrete vocabulary items.

For any of you who use the lexical approach as part of your teaching, you will already be aware of the value of teaching these kinds of phrases. It gives you plenty of ‘bang for your buck’ in a very short space of time. Here are some examples:

Strictly context-dependent:

“Once upon a time...” | “Welcome aboard.” | “I now declare you husband and wife.”

Social English:

“How are you doing?” | “Thanks very much.” | “See you soon.” | “Nice to meet you.”

Situational language: 

“How much is that?” | “Do you fancy going for a drink?” | “Did you have a good trip?”

Formal discourse markers:

“By the way...” | “On the other hand…” | “To sum up…”

Functional phrases:

“Why don’t we...?” (making a suggestion) | “To put it another way...” (clarifying) | “What do you think?” (asking for someone’s opinion).

The importance of Formulaic language 

The strictly context-dependent language is probably the least useful, so don’t worry too much about this unless you are teaching very specialised classes. However: The social and situational English is easily practised using dialogues and role-plays (have students think about appropriate topics); Formal discourse markers can be practised through presentations (start with mini-presentations and build up from these); Use discussions and challenges to practise the functional language. Particularly useful are language frames - set phrases or sentence starters which students can easily adapt to a range of needs and situations. For example:

  • “Excuse me, how do I get to...?” (the train station, the bank, the supermarket, etc.)
  • “How much is...?” (that hat, a can of beans, a ticket to London?)
  • “I’d like to talk to you about...” (my homework, global warming, a problem I have).

Teaching Phrases for Buying Time

Sometimes we all just need a bit of extra time to think about what we want to say and how we want to say it.  Try to encourage your students to get into the habit of avoiding using too many fillers, like “Umm...” and “Err...” Here are some pieces of advice you can share with your learners to help them:

  • If you are presenting, don’t just start speaking immediately. Gather yourself, pause and breathe before you start. Also, feel free to pause if you have just made a point and you would like people to consider it. Also, feel free to pause between sections of a presentation.
  • When answering a question, use a phrase that signals you are thinking, and a pause that shows you are considering your response. People appreciate others thinking before they speak and if you signal this is what you are doing, they will stay with you (provided the pause is not too long!) For example: “That’s interesting. It’s not something I’ve really thought about.” (pause and look away slightly – but not down at your feet!) “Well... I suppose my feeling is...” (now answer the question).
  • If you just need a few seconds, you may not even need the introductory phrase. Just pause for a few seconds to gather your thoughts and then respond. Don’t rush to answer. It looks worse if you are struggling once you have started to speak. 

The Importance of Time-buying Phrases

It’s good to get your students to practise presentations, even if they are quite short. The counterpoint to this is to get students to practise responding immediately to questions – try something like a hot-seating activity, where students have to respond immediately to lots of quick-fire questions from the rest of the class. Another associated activity is to have students practise a presentation but keep interrupting with questions which they must answer before going back to their speech. 

Other useful conversational phrases used as ESOL speaking strategies

In regular conversation, there are a couple of other useful strategies you can practise with them:

Respond and add a comment, or respond and ask a question (although maybe best avoid this latter one if you are talking to an examiner!) Both these strategies avoid closed-off, one-word responses. If possible, combine both strategies. Compare the following responses to the question “Where are you from?”

  • “Canterbury.”
  • “Canterbury. Although I grew up in the North of England.”
  • “Canterbury. I don’t know if you know it – it’s a small city in the South East of England. What about you?”

Requesting help: repetitions and clarifications 

Learners should feel confident to ask for repetition and clarification if they have not understood something the first time. This is natural and we do it in conversation all the time. Here are some useful phrases you can teach your students:

  • “Could explain what you mean in a bit more detail?”
  • “I’m not sure I quite understand. Could you explain it in a different way?”
  • “Sorry, could you say that again?”
  • “Sorry, could you repeat that?”
  • “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch what you said.” 


If students don’t know or can’t remember a word or phrase, tell them not to worry. It happens to us all – even native speakers. Just talk around it. You can even acknowledge that you don’t know or can’t think of the right word. People don’t mind if you keep the conversation flowing and continue to communicate effectively - and you are likely to get credited for your skill in managing this. I certainly give students credit for this if I am grading an oral exam. Why not teach one or more of the following phrases:

  • “I don’t know the exact word but it’s….” 
  • “I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s…”
  • “I can’t remember the word, but it’s…”

Simply tell them to add a description of what it looks like or what it’s used for – or both! For example:

  • “I don’t know the exact word for it, but it’s what you attach to the end of a fishing line to attract fish. I think they’re usually made of metal and they spin round.”

How to Practice paraphrasing

There are many different ways you can get your students to practise using these expressions. For example: have a stack of word cards or picture cards. Without showing the rest of the class or group, students take turns in describing the words or pictures on the cards, without naming them. The rest of the class or group have to guess what is being described. Who can successfully describe the most objects in a minute? 

Embracing performance errors

Students often want to get things exactly right when they are speaking, and this can lead to them becoming shy or reticent. Understandably, they don’t want to feel foolish or embarrass themselves in front of their peers. Ironically, in my experience, this is often more pronounced with higher-level students, as they are more self-critical.

Because of this, it is important to emphasise to your students that everyone makes errors when talking. Even native speakers do it - they are just better at repairing errors when they occur.

Final thoughts on speaking strategies for TEFL students

In conclusion, give your students plenty of practice of fluency-based activities. The important thing is to make clear the focus is on fluency and communication. Clearly differentiate these kinds of activities and tasks from those where you are looking for a high degree of control and accuracy:

“In this activity, don’t worry if you make a few errors. The important thing here is fluency and communication.”

The more learners practice these kinds of activities, the more confident they will become. Start with shorter activities centred around Q and A or short role-plays. As they become more confident, work towards longer speaking activities such as discussions, debates and problem-solving tasks. For higher-level students, you might like to check out our ‘Discuss This’ cards, which provide a wealth of topic-based picture prompts and discussion topics, along with ideas for follow-up activities.