Published 12th March 2021
Many people think that teaching English as a Foreign Language must be pretty easy. All you’re doing is chatting to someone in English, right? But unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Yes, we want to get our students to talk as much as possible – which is why we try to make our lessons as student-centered as possible – but this is easier said than done, for a few reasons.
a) If our students talk but they make mistakes and we don’t correct them, how will they improve?
b) What if our students don’t talk?
Every TEFL teacher knows the feeling: you pose a question to the class and all you hear in response is crickets. It’s quite possibly a teacher’s worst nightmare. What we need to do is unpack why this might happen, and what we can do to ensure that it doesn’t happen.
Why won’t our students speak during our lessons and what can we do about it?
There are a few reasons our students might not feel comfortable speaking in class, and if you avoid these issues you’ll solve your problem.
Firstly, they might be shy. As teachers, we need to make sure our students know each other – and ourselves – and feel comfortable enough to speak without worrying about making mistakes. We do this by getting to know our students, using their names, and building up a rapport in the classroom. In this way, the affective filter of our learners is lowered and they will be happy to talk in class as if they were chatting with friends.
Then, they might not have the language to say what they want to say. They might have a lot of ideas and opinions but not actually the words to convey their meaning. To deal with this, make sure your students know exactly what is expected of them by providing a model answer. The question also needs to be scaffolded adequately so they have the language available to them to speak their minds.
Get to know your students
Finally, they might not be interested. As hard as that can be to accept, sometimes our lessons don’t hit the spot with certain students. Again this can be avoided by getting to know your students so you can feel confident that your learners will be interested in the topic and will want to participate.
These points are valid for any classroom but especially for the online classroom. Silence in the virtual classroom is a lot more awkward than in a face-to-face classroom and it’s a lot more common. When you’re in the classroom, you’ll find that students vibe off each other and if one student is shy, another one will answer for them. In the online classroom, because the students aren’t in the same physical space, it can be more difficult to build rapport and for students to get to know each other. Plus, often you will be teaching 1-to-1 so the students cannot get help from anyone else.
While there most certainly is a time and a place for silence in our lessons, let’s look at ten easy speaking activities for online lessons which will ensure you will have as few silences as possible.
Ask the students a few questions related to the topic of the lesson. Use open-ended discussion questions rather than closed one-answer questions. After that, the students can come up with their own questions to ask you or other students.
Think of an object, but don’t tell your students what it is. Your students have twenty questions to find out what you are thinking of. The trick is, you can only answer yes or no. This can work for a specific person or movie or just an everyday object.
Change the question
Dictate a set of questions to your students. Ask them to change the question by changing or adding in a word. For example, What food do you love? can become What food do you hate? They then ask each other the questions.
Write down a number of topics or questions. These can be general or related to the theme of the lesson. Your students need to choose one and speak on the topic for a minute. Give them time to collect their thoughts and make notes before giving the presentation. Giving them the time to structure their talk will help them know what to say. This is an especially good activity for exam students.
Read more: Exam classes: How Not to Be Boring
The yes/no game
Ask your students a series of questions, but they are not allowed to say yes or no. This will give them good practice in speaking in vague language and thinking on their feet. If/when they make a mistake it’s your turn!
Two truths and a lie
This is a great activity for getting to know your students. Tell your students three statements about yourself. Two must be true and one must be a lie. Your students can ask you questions to try to figure out which is the lie. The trick here is to make the lie believable and also share something about you which seems unbelievable but is true. Once they have figured it out, they can come up with their own three statements.
If you’re old enough you’ll remember the advice columns in magazines which were popular a few years ago. Students love finding out about your personal life and people naturally love giving advice. Come to your students with a problem you have and ask them if they’ve ever been in that situation themselves or if they have any advice for you. You should also refer back to this conversation in later lessons to tell them the results of their advice.
The dinner party
Ask your student/s to come up with ten famous people (dead or alive). Tell them these people are all going to be having dinner together and it’s up to the student/s to decide where they will sit. If you have just one student, they can think aloud while they decide who would get along and who wouldn’t, and if you have a class they can discuss it together.
An alternative is for the student to discuss why they would choose to invite those specific people.
Flashcards can be used as a stimulus for a discussion or a creative exercise. For example, you can show two flashcards of different animals and ask the student to compare them. Or you could ask the student to come up with a story that involves the animals. This can be quite amusing if you show the flashcards one at a time as they are telling the story and they have to include the animal/object on the flashcard as you show it. In a class situation, one student can start the story with a sentence and the next student has to carry on the story.
In the news
Ask the students what has been in the news in their community recently. Once they have told you the story, ask them related questions about their opinions on the topic. This can be adapted very easily to the level and age of your learners. Remember to have your own news story up your sleeve.
There you have it: ten easy speaking activities for the online English classroom which are guaranteed to get your students talking. In a nutshell, remember to make your topics interesting and personal, make sure your students are comfortable speaking in front of you and their classmates and make sure your students have the language and ideas to convey what they want to say. These speaking activities will work for both 1-to-1 classes and group classes – and they are guaranteed to work every time!