How to get your English students talking

Do your students talk in class? Are you aware that they have the power of speech?

Maybe you have great trouble trying to get your students to talk about anything at all. You prepare fantastic lessons, use great activities, and do everything you can. But still, everything falls flat as soon as you enter the classroom.

What is going wrong?

If you are reading this I can only assume that you are having this trouble. No matter what you try to do in the class nothing works.

I know the frustrating feeling that comes with that.

But no need to fret. I have outlined below 17 amazing things that you can do in the class to make your students start talking. Then I list 8 things you should not do.

But first, let’s have a look at why your students are not talking.

 

Teaching outside of your own country is very different

 

The problem for many English teachers is that they are not teaching in their own country. They are working in Korea or China. Mexico or The Middle East.

These countries have an antiquated teaching system that believes in the idea of the teacher doing most, if not all, of the talking.

The first time I observed this I could not believe how little the students were doing. Sat there as the teacher droned on and on for 45 minutes.

I thought it must be so exhausting for the teacher to have to do four or five classes like that every day. No wonder they look so tired all the time.

And the poor students. Bored out of their minds, no chance to interact with the teacher or each other.

And how is this system useful? Surely the main reason people learn a language – any language – it to communicate with others.

If they have no chance or inclination to speak English how can they improve?

It’s no way to learn.

But that is how they do it in many other countries.

 

The problems that English teachers make

 

After a while, I think the local teaching method starts to rub off. You start to emulate the method and use it yourself in your own classes.

The students don’t complain. After all, that is what they are used to and they can remain in their comfort zone.

The local teachers are happy because it looks like you, the foreign teacher, is busy. Yakking away at the front of the class while all the students sit staring back at you with their mouths closed.

The fact is that the more the students speak in class the more they learn. This is a known fact. Allow the students to speak and they start to engage with the subject matter and they learn far more effectively.

But most teachers don’t consider this. Most teachers talk up to 75% of the time in class.

That only leaves 25% for the students. And how many students are there in the class?

Having the right amount of TTT (Teacher Talking Time) takes special planning and careful preparation. But this pays off by seeing much better results in the class and making your life easier as you are not talking all the time to fill the dreadful silence.

 

The Value of TTT vs. STT

 

You need to think about the correct ratio of TTT vs. STT.

How much do you speak compared to your students? What is the percentage split?

For beginner classes, it is best to have a 50/50 split.

The students are beginners and need the teacher to help them out and fill in the blanks more often.

But as they develop the ratio gets wider.

For intermediate students, the best ratio is 30/70.

You are now only speaking for 30% of the class time. The students are far more engaged and connected and speaking for the majority of the class.

Then the students reach advanced stage and the ratio widens to 10/90.

Now the students are talking for 90% of the entire class time.

This is how it should be.

Is this how it is in your advanced classes? If not, why not?

 

I have had classes where the students are connected and all engaged with the subject of the lesson. I engineered it so that every student has the chance to speak. Me, stood to the side, my stress levels under control and not using too much energy.

I left the class feeling that everything went tremendously well. That the students did exactly as I wanted them to do. And all the objectives and goals of my lesson plan were met.

Then I have had classes where it has been the complete opposite.

I went into the class and not one of the students was willing to speak more than one word.

Blood. Stone.

Of course, I left the class and did what any self-respecting English teacher would do. I blamed the students.

But if this happens, rest assured it is always the teacher’s fault.

 

Why are they not talking?

 

It is natural to believe that the problem lies with the students.

We try to dig out reasons why they just sit there like clams. Mouths closed and shaking their heads. No. Not talking today.

 

Are they just quiet?

 

It could be that the students are naturally quiet. Maybe they are quiet in every class they have. Maybe they are just shy.

But that doesn’t mean that they never speak. They do have the ability to speak. Just not in your class.

Whose fault?

Yours.

 

Do they have any friends in the class?

 

It could be that they have no friends in the class. They don’t have anyone to talk to, no support network in the class. Yet.

Also your fault.

 

Is the subject interesting to them?

 

Or maybe the subject is of no interest to them. Maybe they find the subject boring.

I have had this many a time. The students yawn loudly and complain that the topic is boring.

I have got mad at moments like this.

How dare they?

How dare they show such a lack of respect at all my hard work over this fantastic lesson plan?

But of course, this was my fault.

 

If the students are not talking the responsibility lies with the teacher and the teacher only.

You need to make sure you are using the right skills to enable lots of chatting in the class. And not idle chit-chat chatting. Healthy chatting – in English – in relation to the topic at hand and centred on the activity in the class.

 

Want to find out what to do? Read on.

 

The Do’s and Don’ts of making students talk in your English class.

 

I’m not going to hold you up. I have 13 Do’s lined up below to help you so let’s jump straight into it.

 

Do Wait

 

You ask a question or raise a point in your class and the students just stare back at you with a blank expression.

The silence is deafening. So you fill it and answer the question yourself or clarify or explain the point you were raising.

The problem is you simply are not waiting long enough for a response from the student.

You hear the deafening silence crashing into your ears, a bead of sweat glides down your forehead and you have to open your mouth and say something to fill the void.

This is your biggest mistake.

The trick is to simply wait.

Wait for 10 seconds.

Wait.

Then wait a few more seconds.

Give the student time to gather his thoughts and think of what he needs to say. Allow him to surprise you and often he will.

Yes, it feels awkward. Yes, there is a small swell of stress building up in the class.

But wait and your student might say something fantastic and all is won.

The longer you wait the more chance he has of forming the right answer. It takes him time to fish out the words he needs to use and in what order to say them.

Give him enough time and the answer has a better chance of being more eloquent.

Maybe nothing that Oscar Wilde would be proud of, but not too shabby for someone whose second language is English.

This is by far the biggest mistake that English teachers make in class. You must wait it out.

Do so with a smile of encouragement of course. No need to stand right next to the student, tapping your finger on your watch while rolling your eyes.

Wait and he will provide you with a great answer.

 

Do Move

In many countries around the world, the teacher stands at the front of the class. They stay there for the entire duration of the lesson commanding respect and casting fear across the students’ heads.

The students are used to this. The teacher is. It has gone on for thousands of years so why change it?

 

Well, because it doesn’t work.

 

If the teacher moved around the class he could change the whole dynamic of the class. Move away from the front of the class and walk to the side of the room. It throws the students a little.

Now take a seat at an empty chair and you become one of them.

You are no longer the authority figure. No longer the strict teacher looking down upon them.

You are looking at them at eye level. You are nearer to them. You are among them.

 

Now try this.

 

Get one of the students to be the teacher.

Select one of the students to take a stand up front and teach the class.

“Could you introduce this idea to me?” you ask the student.

The first student up has to be one of those super keen eager beaver type students, but after they finish doing their talk you ask the other students for feedback.

As you are sitting among them they feel less threatened by you as the teacher (they shouldn’t feel threatened by you at all actually and if they do, I dunno, maybe a change of career?) and they feel more inclined to speak.

Try it. It works.

 

Do Throw Questions Around

 

I mean like all the time.

You write a word on the board and you ask the class: Have I spelt this correctly?

You’re doing an activity and you ask: I forget, what’s the next part?

Constantly throw questions around. They start to sound like non-teacher questions and just your common every day, I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing questions, but the students start to answer them all and then they are talking.

The trick is to turn every statement you make into a question.

You’re correcting an exercise and a student has an answer wrong.

Turn it into a question and ask the class.

Get into the habit of questioning everything.

The students get in the habit of answering you.

 

In discussion classes ask the right questions.

That means no closed questions.

Ask questions beginning with the words What, Where, Who, Why, When and How.

It’s easy.

What is hiking?

Where can people go hiking?

Who should I go hiking with?

When is the best time to go on a hiking trip?

How to go hiking?

All these kind of questions invite the kind of responses that create more discussion, more conversation.

Anything else gets you a yes/no answer.

Anything beginning with phrases like Do you, Are we, Can he, etc.

Do you like hiking?

Are we going hiking?

Can he hike?

 

And with a more advanced class ask the right kind of questions.

Don’t be lazy and just try to elicit the basic responses needed. Go deep. Pretend you’re their psychoanalyst if you have to. Your students on the couch talking about their childhood. (If your students are kids they won’t have to go too far back in memory).

Ask them deeper questions. Interview them. Find out what makes them tick.

Don’t just tick boxes and get all the stock answers when it comes to questions in a class like this.

 

Do get the students to read out loud

 

You should not be reading anything out in class. Ever.

Get the students to do it every single time.

Instructions to an activity? Get one of the students to read them out.

An introduction to a lesson idea? Get one of the students to do it.

This is a fantastic opportunity to get beginner students to build confidence and speak in class.

It’s not much of a push for them as all they have to do in theory is read.

They hear the sound of their voice speaking English in the class and it has a profound effect on them. They go home thinking to themselves, wow, I spoke out in front of the class today.

They take a small step up and feel more confident to speak in class next time.

Be fair and make sure you give all the students the opportunity to read in class. Don’t just let the super keen students read.

And any time one of the students reads for the class shower them with praise.

They will see that they did well, not so much for reading but speaking out loud in class.

 

Do dig for an answer

 

By dig I mean elicit.

But dig every time. Don’t let the student give you that pained look and a shrug of the shoulders and “I don’t know”. Keep digging.

But throw clues out for them.

For example, a student can’t remember what the word is for eraser.

You say: Oh you mean the thing in front of the board that I use to erase things?

That’s a pretty heavy clue right there.

Maybe he will be able to pick up on it. Maybe not. Certainly, another student should be able to.

The trick here is that you are not the enabler all the time. You are forcing the students to try harder and work harder.

Over time they will know that they have to keep trying to find the answer by themselves. They will get into the habit of doing this and it will become a regular part of your class.

It is too easy for English teachers to just bark out the correct word or answer.

Do not do it.

You are not making anything any easier for anyone at all.

You are just letting the students off the hook.

 

Do have mini-debates

 

There’s no need to have the same format for every class. In fact, you definitely should not. But a good idea is to start the class with a simple debate. Something short. Maybe just fifteen minutes.

It throws the students a bit of a curveball and keeps them on their toes and it creates energy for the rest of the class.

The debate should be something the students are aware of – could be something topical in the news or something that is going on in the school.

Avoid anything political or too heavy.

Better to have something the students can relate to easily.

Divide the class into two groups and have a simple for and against discussion.

If the students are not so advanced you could chair the debate but if they are more capable elect one of the students to be chairman.

The key here is to make it fun and engaging.

Debates could be something like White Sports Shoes – Yes or No?

The students come up with different ammunition to throw at the opposing team and off you go.

A great way to start the class and get the students talking with ease. Because there is an emphasis on fun and energy the students don’t feel so self-conscious and engage with it better.

This could become a semi-regular event in your classes. Then watch as the students start to ask for it.

 

Do measure your own talking time

 

I never thought about this before but this is a great idea.

There are apps that you can use that measure your talking time compared with the student talking time.

 

http://www.theearshotapp.com/

 

http://www.lookwhostalking.se/

 

http://teachfx.com/

 

These apps measure how much you are talking in class as it acknowledges your voice and the students’ voices and separates the two. The first two are not necessarily designed to test Teacher Talking Time but can be used as such anyway.

You might be pleasantly – or unpleasantly – surprised by how much you are talking.

And as the man said: If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Improve It.

 

Do prepare well

 

Quite easily the number one reason why the students are not talking is that you have not prepared well.

Preparation is everything.

Unless you have prepared to a high level and to a professional standard there is a strong likelihood that your entire lesson will skid off the rails.

Preparation includes bringing activities and topics into the class that the students can engage with and that they find interesting.

Too advanced for a beginner class and they will just not be able to participate.

Too easy for an advanced class and you will just send them to sleep.

Make sure that what you have prepared is interesting to them. Many English teachers just fall into the trap of printing off a couple of random exercises off an ESL website and using that as an entire lesson plan.

This is terrible. Don’t just phone the class in.

Make sure that the activities and all exercises you do in the class serve a purpose and create an entire lesson that is of interest to the students.

Dig out interesting activities that are relevant to the topic in the class and adapt them for the students’ needs.

If the subject matter is of interest to the students they will join in and forget that they are even in an English lesson. They will just want to participate.

So, prepare well.

 

Do have guided discussions

 

This works well, particularly for beginners.

Bring a topic into class and get the students to write down ten things about it. Give them whatever time they need to do this.

Put the students into pairs and let the two students read each other’s answers. Again, give them time to do this.

Then each student has to talk about their classmate’s answers in their own words. They may summarise or add some other comments after consulting with him.

The point is that all the students know exactly what the topic is and they have had time to read their classmate’s answers. So it is not too much of a leap of faith for them to voice their classmate’s answers in the class as they have had time to prepare.

Throw praise and compliments on each student and have follow-up questions when required.

 

Do get everyone to share

 

Never wait for volunteers.

I have had classes where all I can hear are crickets and a church bell tolling as I wait for someone to speak.

If you ask your students for any volunteers to step up first and speak do not be surprised if you are met with the same response I had.

There are classes that just absolutely refuse to cooperate. No volunteers. No sympathy.

It is up to you to pick people out and make them speak. In speaking classes I have jokingly asked for any volunteers, pointed a student out and thanked him for offering to go first.

But but but, he cried.

By which time I am sat at the back of the class and all eyes are on him.

Nothing like a bit of peer pressure.

You have to pick the students out one by one. Don’t wait for them to raise their hand – they won’t.

And don’t go round the class in a methodical row by row fashion. They will know when they are next and you don’t really want that.

Go from one random seat to another, darting this way and that so they have no idea if they are next. Keep them on their toes. Go across the classroom until every single student has had a turn at speaking.

 

Do have seminars

 

Only really works well with advanced students. But I have used this to great effect.

Give them the seminar topic as a homework assignment. Overnight they prepare things to say in class. This may require a little research from them.

On the day of the class, all the students discuss the topic. They can use all the notes they prepared at home.

You sit outside of the group – not in front of the class, to the side – and observe.

You may find that the students will get stuck and look at you for help.

Be firm. Say nothing. Wait for them to continue the discussion.

As I mentioned above. Wait. Do not interrupt your students or try to help them out.

This exercise can work extremely well as long as you wait. And if the students have done the homework. If they haven’t done the homework, well, you have a different kind of student management issue on your hands.

 

Do have smaller groups

 

It is a good idea to break the class down into smaller, more manageable groups. Especially if you have large classes of 40 or 50 students. That could be anywhere in Asia, certainly Korea or China.

Break them down into small groups of four or five students then go round the class listening to each group. You can provide assistance where needed too.

The reason this works is that the students feel more comfortable to speak in smaller groups. They have more confidence to talk in a group of their closest classmates.

Usually, the students choose to be in groups with their bestest best friends forever so they are more willing to speak out with them.

 

That’s all the Do’s.

 

Here are the Don’ts. 7 of ‘em.

 

Don’t play ping pong

 

Ping pong is usually a two-person game. Do not play ping pong with your students.

By this I mean you ask Student A a question and he responds and you have a follow-up question and he answers that too.

Then you move to Student B and you ask her a question and you do the exact same thing as you did with Student A.

In the end, you will go round the entire class and you have been talking for more than 50% of the time.

No good.

Play basketball instead.

This means you throw the ball at Student A and ask him a question. You give Student B a look and she responds to Student A’s answer and adds to it – either agreeing and saying why or disagreeing and saying why and explaining.

Bounce the ball all around the classroom getting everyone involved.

If it is a conversation class this is how to do it well. This is how conversations take place.

This also comes down to effective group work. Where in the end you are sitting on the sidelines, saying little to nothing at all, and observing only.

It takes time for some students to adapt to this kind of work but once you lay the ground rules out and push them into it they will start to take the lead.

You can, of course, pick on the lazy student that just decides to sit back and let all the others do the talking.

 

Don’t drone on and on and on and on and on

 

Just say what you need to say. Be economical with the words you use.

There is absolutely no need for you to bore the students to death about what you did last weekend. Or talk about the traffic on the way to class.

You must keep what you say to a minimum and make sure the students are talking more than you.

Do not fill the silence with your unnecessary jibber-jabber.

Shut up already.

 

Do not summarise

 

That does not mean that your English class has no summary at the end. Or no reviews at the end of an exercise.

What it means is that YOU do not do it.

The students do it.

Every single time.

Make sure you choose fresh students each time to do the summary or review.

Make the students get into the habit of doing this and all shall be well in your world.

The added benefit of the students doing any summaries is that they are really thinking about what they have done in your class. Instead of just waiting for you to stop talking and leave the classroom.

Now they are processing the information and understanding it.

 

Do not answer the question yourself

 

How many of us have fallen victim to this problem?

I have gone through entire classes asking questions of the students and answering most of them by myself. The students had no need to be there at all.

Never answer any question you ask yourself.

Get the students to answer you – every time.

Again this comes down to the waiting game and just having the nerve to wait it out until someone comes up with an answer.

It’s pretty obvious. But many English teachers do this in their classes.

Wait.

Every time.

 

Do not repeat yourself

 

I used to do this. I often overused the word ‘ok’ in class. Repeating the word ‘ok ok’ like a mini-mantra to fill the void.

In the end, the word ‘ok’ had zero meaning to the students. Just some sound that the teacher made every few seconds.

Of course, there are times when you have to repeat yourself to ensure that there are clarity and understanding. But don’t just repeat things just to say something.

The students get accustomed to this very quickly and start zoning out when you do it.

Say something once, check for clarity by the unglazed look in their eyes. Then move on and let them speak.

And this segues nicely into…

 

Do not explain things

 

Never explain anything unless you really have to.

Get the students to do it.

Find that one student who understands and drag them to the front of the class and get them to explain a point you made.

This works especially well because the student doing all the explaining is learning at a rapid rate because she is also teaching the other students.

 

Do not yakk on and on when having to discipline a student

 

A student comes into class. He is late. He is always late.

You think this is the right time to bring this to his attention. So you raise it with him.

You point out the issue of his tardiness and he denies it. You reject what he is saying and it becomes a battle over who is right.

Meanwhile, the rest of the class is just sitting there enjoying all the amateur dramatics.

 

Sometimes a teacher might spend far too much time reprimanding a student who is late or forgot their homework.

The teacher wastes a ton of time doing this when all that is required is a stern look.

You know that well-practised look your teachers gave you when you misbehaved in class? Practice that and use it. Far more effective if done well.

 

Conclusion

 

So there we are.

13 do’s that you can use in class tomorrow.

7 don’ts that you need to be aware of and stop doing.

 

All of these skills are great at helping your students speak out more and will increase their confidence.

 

It is really just a simple case of habit. Implement all the do’s as habits and the students will soon come to terms with what they have to do and what is expected of them.

 

Quite often students become lazy and get used to the teacher doing most of the talking in class.

It’s no good for you but really bad for them as their development just goes up in tiny fragments.

 

Try using these skills in your next English class and see what happens. You will be pleasantly surprised at how adept your students really are if pushed a little.

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