These six low-prep ESL speaking activities have been life-savers for me when in a pinch to develop a lesson. They can be adapted to most teaching situations.
I will be detailing some of my go-to ESL speaking activities that have saved my butt on more than one occasion. We all know the situation: you plan your lesson meticulously, every minute is precisely planned and accounted for, and you’ve spent hours honing the best lesson that will engage, excite and educate the students, only for things to fall apart five minutes into the lesson.
It’s just a reality of teaching; when dealing with people, things never work out as planned. Someone forgets their homework, you have uneven numbers because a student is absent, they don’t understand yesterday’s lesson so you have to spend 30 minutes explaining it again, and the list goes on. Often I’ve been caught scrambling for ideas mere moments (or during) the lesson.
Teaching has taught me to think on my feet, to be agile and to change an entire lesson at the drop of a hat. I don’t brag when I say this, because I have fallen flat on my face more than a few times. Through these experiences, I have found six activities that are “the pull a rabbit out of a hat” life-savers.
Below I have outlined the six ESL speaking activities. Click on the title to read more about each one.
Make me say, “Yes!”
This is a game I like to use as a warmer, especially with new students.
The game is simple enough. Students (or teacher and student if you are private teaching) take turns asking each other questions. Pretty simple! The aim of the game is to pose a question which forces the other student to answer, you guessed it, “Yes!”
It might sound like a pretty basic concept, and at its core it is, however, with some tweaking, the game can be quite fun. I usually play for points; for every “yes” answer, the questioner gets a point, and the first person to five points wins. To begin with, students usually go for the obvious, “Do you have hair?” questions. You can encourage them to think of harder, more complex questions by assigning the more difficult questions with more points.
This game is great from an assessment standpoint because you get an idea of a student’s ability to deal with many different tenses, and you also get a sense at their ability to construct questions, which can be tricky at the lower-levels.
Scenes from a bag
I so wish I could claim I created this game or idea. However, I really must give all the credit to Theatrefolk.com for being the real MVP on this occasion.
When teaching one of my students, they had mentioned that they enjoy drama and wanted to be an actress. We had done some role-playing and they REALLY got into it, so it got me thinking, “How I could incorporate my ‘acting’ into the lesson?” Through hours of scouring the internet (yes, I ended up on page six of Google — I was that desperate), I thought about the American TV show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” For the uninitiated, this show features four comedians who perform different improv games and skits. The show is largely off-the-cuff and extremely entertaining. I remember a particular segment called “Scenes from a Hat”, in which audience members write down scenes for the comedians to act out that are drawn out at random from a hat. The results are usually hilarious.
After this revelation, I stumbled upon Theatrefolk’s game of “Scenes from a Bag”. They had some great scenes to act out, including “Two friends are hiking in a forest when they encounter a bear”, “An athlete has just won a gold medal at the Olympics, and a reporter interviews them about their win”, or, my favourite, “A child tries to convince his/her parents to let them get a pig as a pet.” The lesson went better than I could have planned. The range of situations, functional language, and natural communication we were able to do in just 45 minutes was incredible. On top of that, both the student and I had a blast. Honestly, we could have done it for hours.
Obviously, I recognise that doing something like this takes a certain personality type, and students do really need to commit to it, otherwise it could be pretty boring. However, this game has great application. An alternative approach could be to have the students write the situation much like the TV audience. Or, perhaps you as a teacher could present several real-world situations in which students may need to quickly access language.
This one is an oldie, but a goodie. Most people are familiar with the game Taboo. This version is played in teams, where a person tries to explain a particular word or concept with a list of words you can’t use in your explanation. The teammates must guess the word or concept.
A twist to this game that I picked up on my CELTA teacher training course turns this game into a fast-paced competitive one. You divide the students into teams (I would suggest three or four students per team). Then, the “guesser” must stand with their back to the board, and the other students in the group must face the board. The teacher then writes a word on the board and on “go”, the group must describe this word to the guesser. When the student guesses correctly, the group raises their hand.
As you have probably now realise, everything I do is usually for points, so the first team to guess correctly gets a point. This game can be played for time or points.
Some tips for this game:
- If you’re teaching in a monolingual classroom, only English can be used. I usually give a warning if I hear native languages being used, after that I deduct points. I know it seems harsh, but what’s the point of keeping score otherwise?
- If you want to make it harder, you can always add words that CAN’T be used in the description, much like in the regular game of Taboo. On the flip side, if you want to make it easier, you can allow the students describing the word to use their books or phones as an aid.
- This game isn’t a spelling competition. If students are really stuck, I’ll usually give the first letter, but that’s it. Otherwise the game turns to “First letter is A, second letter is P” and so on.
- Be ready for it to get LOUD. Most of the time when I’ve played this, it ends up with teams yelling out to me, “NO, WE WERE FIRST!”. I encourage a somewhat rowdy classroom, so I don’t mind, but some classroom management techniques should probably be used.
This was a game I quasi-invented when trying to think of a way to teach reported speech.
Setup and learning outcomes
You need groups of three (four if you have to because of numbers, but three is really the best). Students are positioned in a line. Student 1A needs to be on one side of the room, Student 1B needs to be in the centre of the room, and Student 1C needs to be on the opposite side of the room, all in a line facing each other.
Once you have the students situated, you explain that students on one side of the room are the Complainers, the students in the middle are the Translators, and the students on the other side of the room are the Managers, or the people dealing with the complaint. I have diagrammed it below for clarity.
|Student 1A||Student 1B||Student 1C|
|Student 1B||Student 2B||Student 2C|
|Student 1C||Student 3B||Student 3C|
The teacher describes the complainers a specific issue. For example: They are at a restaurant when they notice hair in their food. The Complainer must tell the Translator the problem, and the Translator then has to take this message and, using reported speech, report the problem to the Manager. The Manager then proposes a solution in which the Translator takes that message back to the customer (again, using reported speech).
The role play can last anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes, depending on involved the students get and also how creative the solutions are. I then rotate the students, so that everyone gets a turn at all positions.
This exercise is hardly anything new. In fact, I would highly recommend checking out Teach This, as they have fantastic materials for this activity called Island Adventure. I originally saw this activity on a different website, though, unfortunately, I can’t recall which site specifically (I have no intentions of plagiarism, just a poor memory).
The teacher begins by asking the students to select three items they have on them. These can be anything, from phones to pencils or wallets. At this point you don’t tell the students why they need these items, but only that they need to pick three items. Once everyone has selected their three items, then you set the scene. I tend to have a flair for the dramatics, so I usually begin to tell them a story (depending on the age level, you can really ham it up for them).
The story goes a bit like this: “We all decided to go on a boat ride (I live on the island of Malta, so it’s quite easy to create a scenario), and during the boat ride, the boat has had a terrible accident and is now sinking. All hope is not lost, as we can see an island off in the distance.”
After safely swimming ashore, the students check their pockets to see what supplies they have; this is where their three items come into play. The students now have to come up with ways in which their items may help them survive on a desert island.
I truly love this game as it can really get the creative juices flowing, helps develop critical thinking skills, and it challenges students to think outside the box. I have had some amazing answers, such as using their iPhone screen as a magnifying glass to create a fire, or using the cord from headphones to create a slingshot to catch and kill food. You can also group students and have them pool their resources. This incorporates team work skills and collaborative work.
I have done this activity with both teens and adults, and it’s usually a big hit. From a communicative standpoint, I have already mentioned a lot of the skills that it can promote. From a lexical and grammatical standpoint, there is a lot you can do with this. Most obviously there is teaching the lexical phrases associated with “survival” as well as teaching lexical items related to problem solving, agreeing/disagreeing, and giving opinion. From the grammatical side, I usually save this activity when teaching conditionals and have students present their ideas using the structure of “if I was stuck on a desert island, I would… Because…”
A follow-up/extension activity for this would be to either give the students a list of items or, for more advanced students, they can create their own list of survival items. They can then rank the items on importance, providing reasons and rationale how they would use the items. Again, this can be done individually or in groups.
Take me on a holiday (online activity)
I like to pride myself in my ability to be prepared for lessons, I think it’s very important to not just rock up to a lesson unprepared and wing it, although it does happen from time to time. This activity was one of those times, and I am very thankful that I wasn’t prepared.
This activity can work offline, although having internet access is very important to help make it successful. I originally did this activity as a one-to-one online lesson, so I will describe it as such, though it can be adapted for offline lessons.
You begin by telling the student that you want to go on a holiday, that the two of you are going to plan a holiday (again, me and my dramatics, I usually preface with the idea that I’ve won the lottery and want to take the student on holiday to celebrate and that the budget is unlimited — although I can imagine for a business English class, incorporating a budget could be a nice element). From there, you and the student plan out every aspect of the holiday, from the location to the activities, the hotel, transportation — you can make it as detailed as you want.
The student can Google research about the location as they go and then they tell you. For example, we had decided on the location and I asked the student, “Okay, so what shall we do there?” They then Googled “top activities in X”. The great part about this activity is that they were searching everything in their own language (Russian) and then translating it to me. They were engaging in a real-life situation of negotiating through language and ideas, but they were also having to translate and summarise the language to me. The student is in total control of the details and therefore they are really engaged in the task. The teacher merely acts as a passive listener. The student I did this with really loved it and not only did we have so much fun creating this fun adventure, I actually learned a lot in the process.
If you wanted to do this offline, maybe in a group setting, I would suggest allocating a set amount of time for research and discussion/negotiating and then the students/group can present their holiday to the class. You can then have a vote for which holiday people would want to go on.
All of these activity can be adapted for all learners levels, but as you can probably see, I am the type of teacher who likes to get students up moving around and to not take themselves too seriously.
I usually start the school semester or the first day in class with a spiel about how “in my classroom, there is no such thing as being embarrassed.” Trust me, I make a big enough fool of myself that students are not usually worried about looking silly themselves. Truly, though, I feel like once students let go of this idea of looking stupid or making a mistake, not only do they learn so much more, they can actually enjoy the lessons. So I would encourage you to firstly create an environment where the students feel safe to get out of their comfort zone. You’ll be amazed how much more they will learn after that. Hopefully this has been an interesting read and some useful activities in the future.
I am an energetic English teacher with a specialized education (Master’s degree in education from Durham University). Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, I later studied in the USA and England, so I am very familiar with both American and British English. I have worked as an ESL teacher in Poland and Malta, and I know how to find an approach to students of different ages and temperaments, from shy teenagers to demanding company directors. I enjoy coaching and playing basketball and spending time with my (new) family!