Ambitious ELT

Basics of Speaking Activities in the ESL Classroom

This blog post is based on a Teacher Development Session I have run twice with my colleagues, my sessions are designed for teachers in Kazakhstan who do not have CELTA. Teachers from Kazakhstan receive a more traditional type of training, and many of the newly qualified teachers I have talked to have expressed sentiments about not feeling prepared for the realities of teaching. This is not to say, however, that these teachers are under-qualified, but that they may not have had access to the same level of training that CELTA or CerTESOL qualified teachers have had. These teachers come to us with solid basics, but without the ability to knit those basics together.

Please feel free to leave any constructive criticism, feedback or questions in the comments section :)
Please note that while all of this is my own work, I have obviously been influenced by previous trainers and teachers I have worked with, as well as two years of trawling through the web to help improve my own practice. I have tried to reference all data and material taken from other writers to the best of my ability. Any similarities to other works is completely coincidental, please contact me if you believe that anything is referenced incorrectly.

Basics of Teaching Speaking

One of the things that students always request when we get feedback from them is “more speaking.” This presents us with several issues:

  • Is teaching speaking just activating language?
  • What are the sub-skills of speaking?
  • How can I teach natural language instead of just textbook language?
  • What types of activities can we use in class?

Two types of speaking activities (Piccolo, 2010):

  • Task-Based Activities: These are activities that ask students to accomplish a specific task by following simple instructions. These types of activities are generally preferred by students as they have a clear understanding of when they have accomplished what was asked of them. Tasks such as “reach an agreement,” “Find someone who,” “Describe the media” are common ways of presenting such tasks. These tasks are also an excellent way to activate language that has been presented in class, providing focused situations in which students will be forced to use the target language in order to continue.
    It is extremely important that students understand exactly what is being asked of them, otherwise it can be difficult for them to focus on the task at hand, and it’s possible that some students will end up doing something entirely different.

                 How does this help students in real life? – This helps students practice more practical skills that people might use every day. Tasks such as finding directions, navigating a city, finding people with which you have something in common, asking for help etc.

  • Topic-Based Activities: These are activities that allow the students more freedom. By choosing topics that your students will identify with, they are given a chance to express their thoughts and opinions in a more natural way. Activities such as Discussions or Debates are common examples of these types of activities. These tasks let students experiment with the language that has been presented to them in class over a longer period of time. It is a great way to see what students have retained from the lessons, as they must construct sentences by themselves.
    One must be very careful when choosing the topics to present in class. They must be age appropriate, appropriate for the cultural and religious beliefs of the students, but also thought-provoking and interesting. Remember that what your students find interesting can be very different from what you find interesting.

                How does this help students in real life? – This helps students practice interaction on a deeper level. This can help them prepare for interviews, making friends, talking to colleagues or classmates in a different country. This also gives students the freedom to experiment with language from previous lessons.

To figure out which type of activity to use, we need to identify which sub-skill we want to activate.

What are the sub-skills of speaking? (Lackman, 2010)


Identifying which sub-skill/s that you want to focus on in speaking activities is extremely important. “Speaking” is a very wide umbrella-term which refers to all of the things listed above. For example, a lot of the students we receive in our school who are between the ages of 16-20 come to us with high Accuracy and a good ability to use functions, but are weak in Fluency and Relevant Length. This is because of factors such as the educational environment in local high-schools, L1 interference and a lack of exposure to natural speech. If I were to focus solely on Functions for a month with one of my classes, I would be wasting my students’ time.

We also need to be able to identify which sub-skills are activated in the resources that we find in our coursebooks, supplementary materials library and with activities we find online.

For example, with an Adult B1 class we had covered Reported Speech and how to sequence events. I know that reported speech is a language point that many learners find easy to understand in class, but difficult to retain outside of class and difficult to use in more realistic situations.

To practice this, I printed out several “shocking” news articles from across the web and put students into pairs, I made sure that each article had quotes from eye-witnesses or from the victims, and highlighted those quotes before giving the articles to the students. I had 8 students, and I printed out 4 different articles. Students first paired-up with a partner who received the same article. They read it together and helped each other to understand. I did not include a written comprehension, as the focus was not on reading skills. I orally asked each pair some basic questions to check understanding, and when I was satisfied, we moved on.

The students were then told that they would be switching partners and would begin to work with someone who had a different article. They were instructed to retell the story in their own words, and that they had to make sure to include the highlighted quotes in their retelling. I gave them time to prepare with their original partner before having them switch.

Created by Theo Navarro Feb 2014

Created by Theo Navarro Feb 2014

The students then, with their new partners completed the instructions, when both partners have told their respective stories, they read each other’s article and give feedback to each other. This was:

  • a task-based speaking activity (students had to retell the story)
  • an activity that practiced discourse markers (in order to correctly sequence the story)
  • an activity that focused on accuracy (in order to communicate the highlighted quotes appropriately using reported speech)
  • an activity that focused on repair and repetition (as their partners did not have access to the text, students had to make sure that they were fully understood.)

How can we practice more natural speaking in class, and why is this important?

Helping our learners to respond to formal invitations and survive in an interview is important, but we can’t forget to teach them how to use English for regular, every-day purposes. Drilling pre-canned phrases doesn’t quite cut it when preparing them to go and live in an English-Speaking country or to work in an international company.

Those of us who were educated in Commonwealth countries probably learned French at school. And most of us were probably taught the following phrase: “les chat est sur la table” (the cat is on the table). I have almost never needed this phrase in my L1, let alone in a foreign language!

We need to create realistic scenarios and situations in our classes. We can’t just teach our students a bunch of phrases and then hope that they’re not required to do anything else.

This becomes an issue for non-native teachers, mainly because they themselves have limited practice with using the language in real life, outside of the classroom (if living and teaching in a non-English Speaking country). This is not to say that non-native teachers cannot teach speaking, only that certain aspects might be a little more difficult for them.

First, let’s look at a few things which can hinder students from sounding natural:

  • Direct translation from L1
  • Issues with appropriacy, as many students use formal language in informal situations and vice-versa
  • Issues with understanding relevant length. Some students seem to go on forever when a short answer would suffice, and others don’t seem to ever elaborate enough.
  • Fluency issues, especially when students speak too slowly or leave unnaturally long pauses between words
  • Excess of fillers and false-starts

To go through each of these things individually will take forever, but as a piece of general advice, I recommend putting as much natural language in the class as possible. A really easy way to do this would be through video, podcasts and music. Our students need exposure to natural-sounding language, and the coursebooks don’t always deliver on that front.

Teachers should also try to sound as natural as possible in the class. Of course we must maintain control, and in some cases discipline, but our class should have a relaxed atmosphere. We should talk to learners like equals, not like inferiors. This is beneficial for a whole number of reasons, and definitely gives students a good model of what natural language sounds like.

We also need to include activities in class that simulate ordinary situations, like telling a friend about a holiday or inviting people to places. Our students need to actually DO this, not just see it being done. A great way to do this is through roleplay and drama activities. I like to use drama activities so that students can immerse themselves in a different personality and try to communicate as that person would. Longer drama activities are perfect for that, but even short drama activities (for learners of ALL ages!) can help students sound more natural, and feel more comfortable while speaking the language.

What types of activities can you recommend?

  • “Find-Someone-Who” activities (Task-based)
  • Roleplay activities (Task-based or Topic-based depending on the roleplay)
  • Discussions (Topic-based)
  • Debates (Topic-based)
  • Describe the picture (Task-based)
  • Retelling stories (Task-based)
  • Brainstorming (Topic-based)
  • Circle-Story-Completion (I would say this is a combination of Task and Topic)
  • Find-The-Difference (Task-based)


Lackman, K. (2010). Teaching Speaking Sub-skills. Retrieved from

Piccolo, L. (2010, July 17). Tips for Successful Speaking Activities in the ESL Class. Retrieved from Suite101:


8 comments on “Basics of Speaking Activities in the ESL Classroom

  1. damo04
    February 14, 2014

    Very comprehensive and well-researched post Theo, thanks for sharing.


  2. brieweuitdievreemde
    February 15, 2014

    Agree with Damo.


  3. Pingback: Basics of Speaking Activities in the ESL Classr...

  4. Daniel Neumamm
    February 15, 2014

    Congrats on the post.


  5. Marcus Higgs
    April 21, 2015

    Hey Theo, very good write up. Thorough, yet brief and clearly expressed. Thanks.


  6. André
    August 1, 2015

    Thanks, great post!!


  7. Cheptea Corina
    May 19, 2016

    very useful 🙂 thanks a lot!


  8. George R.
    December 19, 2017

    Thanks for sharing your ideas, and congrats on a very interesting, well-written and comprehensive article.


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