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4 ways to help hesitant students to speak in the classroom

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Teen girl looking shy and quietSpeaking is one of the hardest skills for a language learner to master. In this post, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, shares four simple tips to help get even the most hesitant students speaking in class.

Getting students to speak in class may be the most difficult task many teachers face. I remember a group of adult pre-intermediate students, all of whom had previously studied at least 6 years of English. They had little difficulty with the grammar exercises or the vocabulary. Reading texts were easy and although they were nervous about listening, it presented little difficulty.

But, when I asked them to say a sentence from the grammar exercise we had just completed, without reading it, the whole class went into panic. I was shocked. Then I remembered that for these students a simple slip of the tongue and you can have the whole class laughing at you.

So, how can we help these students to overcome the difficulties of speaking in class?

1. Talk to them

Ask them how they feel about speaking. Is it important to them? What are their difficulties? This will let them know that you are aware that you are asking them to do something that is not necessarily easy. Maybe the class can share some ideas on how to deal with this. Mention to them that actors study their lines before they perform in a film or a play. Emphasize that they have to do a scene many times until they get it right. This should re-enforce the need to practise before speaking in class. This conversation will usually relax them and give them the confidence to try.

2. Start with the familiar

Correcting grammar and vocabulary exercises is a familiar activity in most classes. It is also a great opportunity for students to hear their own voices in a foreign language. They have had time to prepare as they completed the exercise and they have had an opportunity to make any corrections as the exercise is corrected in class.

Most teachers go on to another activity once the answers have been confirmed. I suggest using the completed exercise as the first speaking practice activity. Give each student a number corresponding to a sentence. Then, allow them to practise it individually for about a minute. Now, ask them to close their books. Elicit the sentences randomly. If a student forgets, they can simply open their books and look at it again. However, they cannot look at it as they are saying it.

As this gets easier for them, give them a time limit of five seconds, holding out your hand and counting down. This, of course, will add pressure. Explain to them that this is necessary because their speaking needs to become automatic. Remind them that if this were easy, they wouldn’t need to do it in class. Joke that the world won’t end if they make a mistake.

3. Use the board

As students get used to speaking, increase the challenge by increasing the distance between them and the English they will need to use. As we increase the difficulty, we are also going to give them more preparation and practise before they have to speak.

Assuming the same type of exercise as described above, ask students to come to the board and write the sentence correctly. They cannot take their books to the board with them, they must write it from memory. Any mistakes will show them the parts of the language that they still find difficult. If students are very nervous about doing this, allow them to come up in pairs, so they can help each other.

Once all the sentences have been correctly written on the board, elicit them from different students. Obviously, all they have to do is read from the board. Now, take the board eraser and wipe it across the sentences diagonally. Elicit the sentences again. Students will still be reading, but now there are gaps in the sentences. More importantly, with the eraser still in your hand, they can see the direction this activity is taking. They focus more.

After eliciting the sentences a second time, take the eraser and wipe it across diagonally in the opposite direction. Elicit again. Do this 2 or 3 more times, erasing horizontally and then vertically. The erasing of the sentences leads students to focus more each time, helping them to remember. Listening to the other students also helps them with any doubts concerning language and pronunciation. My students usually continue looking at the board for words that are no longer there.

4. Using pictures

You can also use pictures for the same type of activity as described above.

Two girls playing playground gamesTake this picture for example.

Ask students to look at the picture for about a minute without telling them why. Look at your watch to re-enforce the time limit. Then, hide the picture so they can’t see it.

Now, ask them to tell you about the picture. What can they see? What is happening? Who are the people in the picture? Ask them to write the information on the board. Now ask them to open their books and look at the picture again for another minute. They should confirm the information on the board, make any changes, and add anything new. With the corrected sentences on the board, you can follow the procedure described above.  This activity is a bit more challenging as the sentences may not follow the pattern that grammar and vocabulary exercises usually do.

What do you do to encourage your students to speak in class? Share your tips in the comments below.

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Author: Verissimo Toste

Veríssimo Toste is a teacher trainer working in the Professional Development Department at Oxford University Press in Oxford. He has taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for over 25 years, having taught students from 3 to 93 years of age. He has completed a Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from the University of Edinburgh. Veríssimo’s interests include using readers to learn English, and how students learn a language naturally. Although he enjoys teaching young learners, he finds teaching adults challenging – and he loves a good challenge.

12 thoughts on “4 ways to help hesitant students to speak in the classroom

  1. This is a very interesting article! 😉

  2. This is a very nice post, helping to remind me of some simple steps to take to get my students to talk in the classroom. I usually don’t have the problem of them talking . . . just not in the Target language!!
    I
    I really enjoyed reading your tips. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Pingback: What I’m Reading Today . . . 5/16 « Just a Word

  4. What I’d try hard to do in every lesson is to put my students at ease by listening to them without pressing them, giving them the time to build their confidence, recast instead of correcting them much…….good tips though, thanks

  5. I think a more holistic approach is needed. The whole class needs to be comfortable with speaking and so the class needs to be a place where everyone feels comfortable about speaking and – importantly – about making errors. There should be a tacit agreement that errors are allowed in the classroom. After all, in a lot of cases students are afraid to speak out loud for fear of making mistakes.

  6. Nice article. Yes most of the students are haunted with committing mistakes, especially when it comes to speaking, as others would mock them. I think a cooperative environment where everybody has the right to make mistakes and be listened to, should enhance the speaking opportunities.

  7. Nice advice. I think the key exists in the relation between students and teacher.Be close to your students and build a strong relation with them that will open all doors.

  8. Pingback: 4 ways to help hesitant students to speak in the classroom (via Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Global Blog) | Varee Schools Chiang Mai

  9. One of the main obstacles in the way of students’ speaking in the class room is the fear of being mocked / laughed at when they are asked to speak in front of their teacher and class fellows.Now the question is how to over this problem that a teacher faces in the class room when he / she asks them to participate in the class activity? We, as teachers, should make them realize that you all are here to learn how to communicate in the target language and you are here as learners, and a learner always naturally makes mistakes. If a learner does not make mistake, we can never call him / her a learner because the one who does not make mistakes in one’s learning process, cannot be called a learner. Secondly, we all learner from our mistakes. So take your making mistakes as your right way to learn. Let’s start then with the notion that we all are learners, we will naturally make mistakes and will also learn from our mistakes. Logically we can motivate and encourage a learner to go ahead, be confident and friendly to feel relaxed in front of your class fellows who will also make mistakes on their turn, this will give him / her confidence and a sense of satisfaction that he / she is not the only one who makes mistakes in the learning process.

    • TO THE TEACHERS WHO WORK WITH NEW ENGLISH FILE:

      I’d like to know how you cope with the lack of model dialogues in this series. How to encourage speaking when there are no models for students to follow (specially in lower leves, such as basic and pre-intermediate? Do you have any suggestions that can help me? The impression I get is that they can’t develop speaking properly basing their production on their own phrasing – it ends up being the translation of whatever they nedd to say from their mother tongue to English. Eventually, they convey a message with some difficulty, but not in the most effective accurate way.
      I’d appreciate any help.
      Thanks!

  10. Thanks for the tips. They are feasable; however, it depends on the level of the learners and their linguistic competence.
    I think, and this is what I always do with my learners, Role -Playing is a perfect way to help learners speak and dissipate their panic. I always start with a listening task. Most of the time they watch and listen. Then they imitate the conversation by just modifying some info in the coneversation they watched and listened to. For instance, when it comes to teaching fruits and vegetables, they watch and listen to a conversation about favourite fruits and vegetables then they just change the name of the fruit and / or the vegetable. Most of the time I use real situations and contextual patterns.

  11. Can l have the full refrence plz. ????

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