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How To Get Your Students to Speak Up

Need your students to speak up in English class?  Dread the sound of a silent English or ESL classroom when you are super excited about a speaking topic you want them to discuss? I hear you!

I can hear that pin drop silence!

As teachers, we definitely don’t want stares of despair and fear to speak up. Or, worse,  looks of boredom.


Energize Your Class  – Avoid Sleepy Stares!

So, let’s change that, shall we? How can you energize your class and have them speak up?

Whether I’m teaching in the ESL classroom, helping ESL students in tutoring sessions, or even helping native English speakers with their presentations, getting students to speak up is always a bit of a challenge.  Luckily, I love teaching speaking (and learning to speak foreign languages). In fact, I decided to do my PhD on just that! That’s a story for later, though…



Myth: Adults Don’t Like Games

Keep Talking Games Book


Are games for kids?  Nope!

Definitely not!

Trust me on this one. I use them every week when I’m teaching teens and adults. My students love them.

Sure, at first adults are skeptical.  Game cards, really? *Looks of disapproval and puzzlement*.

What’s this Canadian teacher all about?!, you can almost here them thnking. Games, I say.

I’ve convinced students aged 16 to 60 to play and it’s all been positive feedback from then on.  In fact, you can get one of my favourite tools, the Speaking Game Board I made, for free in the Printables Library.  (You have access, right? If not, sign up and grab your password at the end of this post!)

Have you read Frederik Klippel’s book  Keep Talking?  His book is one of my go-to resources to get students to speak up in class. It’s small, paperback and fits in your teaching tote.  While this book was written a while ago, its content is still relevant. There are even photocopiable game card pages at the end for every game! Grab your copy here if you’re in North America, or here if you’re in the UK or Europe.

So, while I use these games in the English classroom, they most certainly apply to second language teaching classrooms, too.

Tutor privately? Of course, my private tutoring students love games, too, so make sure yours don’t miss out! I’ve added an adaptation tip at the end of each description, with the exception of game #4, as that one works better with groups.

5 Tips To Get Your Students to Speak Up


1.  Have a DebateDebate

Debates are the ultimate way to engage even the most skeptical adults.  Use controversial topics that your students can relate to. I’d suggest doing this after you know your students a bit, maybe a few weeks into the term. Can’t think of a topic? Head to for a great list.

I had a professor at McGill University once that claimed there were three main keys to running a classroom   –  Movement, Water and Laughter.  Now, I’m sure your adult classes can bring their own water, but the movement and laughter part have definitely worked wonders for me!

University students aren’t often used to getting up.  Get them to get up and speak up!  Split your classes into two teams and randomly assign which side of the debate topic students will be on.

  • Turn the desks or tables so Team A is facing Team B
  • Students have 10 minutes to discuss Pros and Cons of their side with their team. Emphasize that students need to understand opposing arguments their opponents may make
  • Encourage students to make a list of transition words, too. This way, they can practice their argumentation skills!
  • Flip a coin to see which team starts
  • Each team has 30 seconds to argue their first point, after which the opposing team has 30 seconds to rebut.
  • Judge which team best argued their point. This team gets 1 point.
  • The losing team starts the next round
  • Play until the time limit you set is over.  For more fun, have a few students act as a panel of judges instead of team members.

For private tutoring, simply play the role of one of the teams.  You’ll be surprised how much fun students have trying to convince you their side is the best!


2. Do A Jigsaw Activity 


No, I don’t mean a jigsaw puzzle!   Actually, a jigsaw activity is a collaborative game where the whole class works together. If you have a big class, have a few teams. You’ll need four equal teams: A, B, C and D.

Each team gets part of a story that they learn. They don’t know the other three parts.  Then, students form a group with one member from each team – A, B, C and D. They teach each other the story by explaining what happened.

Together, the team pieces together the story (by speaking, not writing!).  Have students ask clarification questions to ensure their teammates understand their part of the story.

This also works in small group tutoring sessions, too.

ESL Jigsaws has a great selection of Jigsaw activities with instructions and a freebie you can try out, too!  Give it a try in your next class!



3. Discuss a Controversial TED Talk




I used this technique A LOT  with my University of Barcelona first year English students last year. It was a hit!  Students are very engaged while watching TED talks, especially when it’s about a culturally specific or personally relevant topic.  Here are the steps I use:

  • Prepare a short list of discussion topics that relate to the talk. Write these on the board or give them to students as a handout
  • Ask students to brainstorm a pros/cons list for the main arguments
  • Watch the TED Talk
  • Let students discuss their points of view in small groups of 2 to 4. This part is crucial! If the groups are too large, some students won’t talk
  • Walk around the classroom and listen to the conversations. Give pointers and join in the conversations when possible. 


So, which TED Talks are some of my favourites? I’ve listed a few below, but stay tuned for an upcoming post on my ultimate favourites!


4. Play the Fluency Circle Game


Now, tip #4  may only be applicable for a few of you. ESL and Second Language teachers, this one’s for you! (If you teach high school English to native speakers, head to tip #5.)  I absolutely love this game and I’m sure you will, too!

Here’s how you play:

 1. Have a list of simple questions ready   (E.g. What’s your favourite movie?  What career would you like to have? What do you study? etc).  If you need more ideas, check out the speaking topics on my Speaking Board Game in the printables library. If you don’t have access, grab it now at the end of this post!

2. Set up chairs in a circle.  

Also, set up chairs facing those chairs.  Have students sit in the chairs, so each student is facing another.

3. Choose a question and set the timer for 1 minute

Students answer the question for one minute each  (Outer circle students go first, then inner circle students).  After both students have spoken for one minute each, the students sitting in the outside circle move to the left.  Inner circle students stay in their seats. 

4. Use the same question and set the timer for 30 seconds.

Students now answer the same question, for example  Tell me about your favourite film with a new partner.

5. Use the same question and set the timer for 15 seconds.

Repeat the step above with a smaller time limit.

Why does this game work?  Students practice speaking about the same topic several times. Also, they must speak within a shorter time frame each time. You’d be surprised at how much easier it is for students to speak the third time!

The Fluency Circle game works well in foreign language classrooms, too!


5. Play A Speaking Board Game

Want more ideas?  Frederik Klippel’s book is a must-have  in my tutoring bag. Grab your copy here if you’re in North America, or here if you’re in the UK or Europe and get your students to speak up!

My favourite one is the Speaking Board Game. All you need is the board, game pieces (pen caps work, too) and dice. (Don’t have dice? Grab them here.) Students must talk about the speaking topic they land on for 30 seconds (as a minimum). The first student to the FINISH spot wins!

Oh, and I love the Speaking Board Game so much that I made my own, colourful Speaking Board Game, inspired by Klippel’s book, just for you.  I can’t believe there are a hundred and two of you who signed up in the last two and a half weeks. You are awesome and I’m so thankful to have you as a reader on The Teaching Cove.   


Speaking Board Game – Free in the Printables Library!

Simply head to the printables library, scroll down and download your board game (and any other resource you’d like).  If you don’t have the password yet, you can sign up at the end of this post!

Have you used any of these speaking game techniques in your classes? Which resource are you going to use next? I’d love to hear your comments below.

Happy Teaching!


P.S. For anyone who is curious about the main photos, I took them in August 2013. That’s how sleepy my Labrador was after pulling an all-nighter with me as I was writing my MSc. thesis!

P.P.S  Don’t forget to grab your Speaking Board Game in the printables library!

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