Top Four Ideas for ESOL Speaking Activities

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 5 min

Getting our students to speak can be the most rewarding part of a teacher’s job. However, from personal experience, I must say that it can also sometimes be the most frustrating part! In our latest blog, I talk about the top ideas for English as a Second Language (ESOL) speaking activities, and how to encourage students to be more involved.

For example, I have taught some students who are able to write brilliant essays, full of high-level vocabulary, but who become monosyllabic or even totally silent when they are required to speak. Below I list some of the key ESOL speaking activities I use in the classroom:

  1. Shouting Dictations
  2. Mingle Activities
  3. Drama Role Plays
  4. Discussion and Debate

Why are ESOL speaking activities so difficult for students?

  • Cultural conditioning
  • Personal shyness and fear of embarrassment
  • Fear of failure

These can be difficult obstacles to overcome. In the following paragraphs, I will give a brief overview of some of the methods and strategies I find most effective for encouraging students during their ESOL speaking activities. Then, I will give concrete examples of simple activities I find useful in the classroom. This article focuses on general, everyday speaking activities for TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) students. I will speak about practice for specific oral exams in a future post.

Effective teaching strategies for speaking activities involving English language learners. 

There are many methods of teaching English as a foreign language and it is not my intention in this short post to promote or criticize any of them. We all find strategies that match our personality, and methods which suit the students we are working with. Personally, my style is a mixture of Communicative Language Teaching and the Natural or Silent Approach. But to be honest, like most teachers, I will try whatever seems to work best in any given situation.

Top Speaking Activities for ESOL Students

Listed below are some of the speaking activities I use to build confidence and increase fluency when speaking. 

1. Shouting Dictations

Shouting dictations is a fun way to overcome shyness, improve diction and pronunciation, and enhance listening skills. This activity can be adapted for any level. The simplest way to set up is to put students in pairs (A’s and B’s) and have them stand at opposite ends of the classroom or as far apart as possible.

The A students have one half of a text and the B students have the other half. The objective is for the pairs to dictate their text across the classroom to their partner, and to correctly write down the information dictated by their other half. They should all be speaking at the same time. For added complexity, you can have several different texts being used at the same time.

Texts which include names (correctly spelt), times, dates and phone numbers are very good for this type of activity. Be warned, when all the students are speaking or shouting at the same time it can get very noisy and appear chaotic to anyone who doesn’t know what is going on. It might be wise to warn colleagues in adjacent classrooms ahead of time.

2. Mingle Activities

Mingle activities are useful at all levels and have the advantage of giving students a specific reason to speak and then collate the information they find. With beginners and “A2” level students I would suggest simple ‘Find Someone Who…’ activities.

Through the intermediate “B” levels more complicated classroom surveys can be set up or you could devise your own ‘Whodunit’ detective games. For the advanced “C” levels much more nuanced surveys can be used or you can introduce an element of role-play with ‘Town Hall’ style meetings and debates.

3. Drama Role Plays

Starting with heavily scaffolded dialogues, moving through semi-structured role plays and extending into more freestyle acting; drama of all sorts is an excellent way to get students talking! I confess I was rather shy about using drama at first but have found it extremely useful. As teachers, we each need to find our own way into drama, but it is worth persevering.

4. Discussion and Debate

With older and more advanced students I like to encourage as much discussion and debate as possible. I don’t have a problem with including controversial subjects as long as ground rules are firmly established. I find it useful to familiarise my students with various debate formats such as jigsaw, goldfish bowl and traditional debates and I often get students to research and argue a point of view that is not necessarily their own. Speed Debating around the classroom using a “Speed Dating” format is a fun way to get discussions going. I find the Discuss This Cards from TEFL Toolkit very useful to stimulate speaking about a range of different topics.

Building confidence during ESOL speaking activities 

I feel that building confidence is the most essential aspect of encouraging students to speak English. I want my students to believe that speaking in English is fun as well as useful. I don’t want them to feel that every time they speak it is a test or that they are being judged. Nor do I want them to believe they are being asked to do something beyond their abilities.

Therefore, particularly at the lower levels, I make sure they are familiar with the structures being used and give them plenty of scaffolding before setting them off on a speaking task. I use a lot of role-plays and dialogues to achieve this, in which key vocabulary and sentence structure are written on the board or on cards which they can keep and refer to. As confidence and levels get higher, the scaffolding is progressively removed.

Regular free-speaking practice 

I want my students to know that I will expect them to speak in every lesson. I do not interrupt to correct every mistake they make. I want them to understand that my classroom is a safe space to practise the language they know and try out new things. I think this is essential in building the student’s confidence in their speaking ability. I will however note down any significant mistakes I hear while they are speaking and return to them later as teaching points.

I try to begin every lesson with a short speaking activity. At the beginner levels, this might be a very simple Q&A session such as “How are you today? What day is it today?” In the intermediate levels, I will urge students to tell me in more detail about what they did at the weekend or talk about their plans for the holiday.

I encourage them to joke with me and ask me questions too. I also organise a rota of ‘Show and Tell’ type presentations or ‘Speak for a minute’ sessions where students can speak about their hobbies or interests.

Advanced ESOL Speaking Practice 

For more advanced students I encourage them to give their opinions on news and current affairs. I sometimes set up a discussion suggestion box or use ideas from TEFL Toolkit to spark discussion. The important thing at all levels is that my students should be aware they will have to speak in every lesson, and this is not something to be feared.

And Finally…

Clearly, this is a very brief blog post about ESOL Speaking activities. I know I have done little more than skim the surface. We can look at some things in more detail in future posts.