S is for Speaking (2)

7 05 2017


setting up speaking activity

photo by Ahed Izhiman

Following on from last week, here are five more of my favourite speaking activities that I included (or planned to include) in my talks in Palestine. As in the last batch, they require minimal materials, promote a good deal of productive language use, and have elements of task rehearsal and repetition built in.


Find someone who… This is a classic and hardly needs describing, but there are some interesting variations. It involves learners walking around (space permitting), asking all the other learners questions with a view to completing a survey or finding someone whose answers most closely match theirs. For example, in order to find out how adventurous the class is, learners (either singly or in small groups) first prepare three or four questions that fit this frame:

Have you ever …?  Would you ever…?

For example, Have you ever been sailing? (And, if the answer is No) Would you ever do it? Have you ever eaten insects? Would you ever eat them?) etc. They then survey the rest of the class, making a note of the number of affirmative answers. This will involve the repeated asking of the question(s), but in a context that requires that learners pay attention, not only to asking the right questions, but also to the answers. It is this requirement, the enforced re-allocation of attentional resources, that – in theory – encourages memorization of the forms. Reporting to the class the results of the milling activity (e.g. Maxim said he would never dive off the high board; Olga said …) is also another way of providing repetitive practice where attention is not only on meaning, but, because of the public nature of the reporting, also on form – i.e. on getting it right. Variants involve choosing items from a grid – e.g. holiday destinations, hotels, and months – and asking questions in order to find someone who is going to the same destination, staying in the same hotel, and in the same month.

Show and tell. Another classic: in successive lessons, learners take turns to make a short (two to five-minute) presentation to the rest of the class, e.g. about an interest they have, a hobby, a favourite object, a book they have read or movie they have seen. It is important than the presentation is spoken – not simply written down and read aloud. This requirement, along with the public nature of the task, encourages preparation and rehearsal. A question-and-answer session at the end ensures spontaneous language use. Ideally, learners should have a chance to repeat the presentation, either immediately or at a later date, in order to incorporate any feedback. An alternative organization is to put the students into small groups to share their ‘news’, while the teacher circulates and assists. One person from each group then reports some of the more interesting findings to the class. This is a great way to begin a lesson, and, if done regularly, trains learners to prepare in advance.

Discussion cards. Students in small groups have a set of statements or questions about a specific topic on cards. These can be prepared by the teacher, but, better still, by the students themselves, whose discussion cards can then be exchanged with another group. One student takes the first card, reads it aloud, and the group then discuss it for as long as they need, before taking the next card, and so on. If a particular statement doesn’t interest them, they can move on to the next one. The object is not necessarily to discuss all the statements: the teacher should decide at what point to end the activity. Groups who have finished early can prepare a summary of the main points that have come up. These summaries can be used to open up the discussion to the whole class.

Describe-and-draw race. The teacher pre-teaches or revises nouns relating to geometrical shapes, such as line, square, circle, triangle, and rectangle, as well as prepositional phrases such as on the left, on the right, above, below, outside, inside, so that learners can describe a simple arrangement of shapes. (Alternatively, they could be easy-to-draw objects, such as fruit, items of clothing or of furniture).

To practise, the teacher describes an arrangement so that the learners can draw it correctly. The learners do the same to each other in pairs, and/or ‘dictate’ a picture to the teacher.

communicative activity

photo by Tamar Hazam


Now the game element is introduced. The class is divided into two teams, and the blackboard is divided in two by a line down the middle. Each team has a representative at the board, each with a piece of chalk, or boardmarker. In advance of the game the teacher should have prepared a dozen or so different designs incorporating the geometrical shapes, large enough to be seen by all the class. The teacher ensures that the two team representatives at the board can’t see the designs, and then selects one and shows it to the two teams. Each team attempts to describe the design to its representative at the board, and the first team to do this successfully, so that the design is replicated on the board, is the winner of that round. The teacher then selects another design and the game continues, with new ‘drawers’ at the board.

Paper conversations. Not strictly a speaking activity, but one that simulates the real-time and non-predictable nature of spoken interaction, and therefore is useful preparation for it. Learners have a ‘conversation’ with their classmates, but instead of speaking, they write the conversation onto a shared sheet of paper. While the students are writing, the teacher can monitor their written ‘conversations’ and make corrections or improvements more easily than when students are actually speaking. The conversations can then be read aloud, using the ‘heads up’ procedure described in the previous post.

All these activities, and more, can be found in my book How to Teach Speaking (Pearson 2005).






15 responses

7 05 2017
Justin Willoughby

Thanks again Scott. I did a very similar activity to ‘show and tell’ for my DELTA module 2 diagnostic observation with a group of B1 adults. Everything went exactly as planned and I even fed in some language at the point of need and I put some language I had noted on the board to focus on with the students, however, even though on paper it had seemed a picture perfect lesson and plan, during my feedback, my course tutor asked “What did you actually teach them?”,”What did they learn?”. I did not have an answer. The purpose of the lesson was to provide students practice formulating grammatically correct utterances in real-time, but what did I actually teach them? What did they learn? It still plagues me as a lot of my classes are based on these types of activities.

7 05 2017

Perhaps we should be asking the learners what they have learnt from experiences like this. As a beginner learner of Arabic, I can honestly say that ‘show and tell’ is one of the most powerful and memorable learning experiences I’ve had, mainly because I was learning to say the things that I wanted to say, not following the teacher’s agenda about what they thought I should be learning https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drOjAqv4CfY

8 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nick. And I hope that your teachers and the other learners are providing you with feedback on your presentation, and that you are given the chance to repeat the task, taking this feedback into account – if not immediately, then at some later date.

8 05 2017

Yes – masses of opportunities for repetition. The video above was made after quite an extensive planning stage where I was able to try things out and ask for some of the language that I needed. I’m still right at the edge of my abilities here though and I like the way the teacher, Isra’a, gives me just the right amount of support – actively listening and feeding in language as I need it, without over-correcting. It’s also great to have the video for further reflection and analysis- not least to remind me that I really need to start that diet again 🙂

8 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Justin. With all respect to your course tutor, the question ‘What did you actually teach them?’ seems misconceived. It’s generally accepted, both by researchers and experienced teachers, that the relation between teaching and learning is tenuous at best: learners learn things we didn’t ‘teach’ them, and they don’t learn things that we did. Some will take one thing away from a lesson; others will take something else. Some will learn from each other; some won’t. Language learning by its very nature is idiosyncratic, capricious, resistant to external control, and unstable. What we can do as teachers is provide the optimal conditions for learning – and for practice of what has been learned. ‘Find someone who’ (in my opinion) offers these conditions. It allows learners both to practise fluency of already acquired items, and to acquire items through repetitive practice. It is focused yet sufficiently flexible to allow a degree of creativity on the part of risk-takers. It requires interaction. It takes place in conditions to ‘psychological authenticity’. (For more on the benefits of this type of communicative activity, see the post A is for Automaticity).

9 05 2017
Justin Willoughby

‘Find someone who’ also provides students practice with ˋhypothesis testingˋ(asking about information in each other’s stories), which, according to Rost and Ross’ (1991) study of paused texts, improves comprehension at all levels. So it’s also quite beneficial in terms of helping students to develop their listening strategies.

10 05 2017
Justin Willoughby

Sorry, I also forgot to add: ‘Language learning by its very nature is idiosyncratic,capricious, resistant to external control, and unstable.ˋ
I think that’s what I love and hate about language learning.

11 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

It ticks all the boxes, including the following: the need for a focus on form and a focus on meaning; the need for creativity as well as for formulaic automaticity; the need for accuracy as well as fluency; for speaking as well as listening; for teacher vs learner input…. It’s tempting to think you could base a whole program on just doing Find someone who… – the only negative being the extent of learners’ tolerance of repeatedly doing the same activity!

7 05 2017
Peter Alfano

Hi Scott
Thank you for posting these activities. As a CELTA trainer (and assessor) I can say that almost all of these activities are used at one time or another on the courses, whether in Teaching Practice or in input–I use Describe and Draw in our Young Learners input, for example, and we demonstrate Find Someone Who as a Day 1 icebreaker.

Any of these activities can be adapted for levels and, more importantly, the activity becomes very student-centered.

Peter Alfano (MA TOESOL 2010!)

8 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Peter – that’s good to hear!

8 05 2017

Good morning, Scott! thank you for the post. What a wonderful Sunday treat! “Comprehensible output” is much more difficult to initiate than “comprehensible input”. Yet why students come to the lesson is mainly learn to talk “comprehensibly”. So how to encourage students’ talk without “repeat-after-me” violence or pressure “to follow the model” is a life long CPD (Continuing professional development), isn’t it?
Can I share a variation of ‘Find somebody who’ that I learned from a German teacher at the Goethe Institute? Instead of questions given in one vertical column, she used a grid, let’s say five squares by five. There is a question in every square. In order to play and to win students have to find somebody and write down their name in the square either vertically, horizontally or diagonally like in noughts and crosses. This grid helps to sparkle a great variety of simultaneous mini-talks.
And I am going to try “Paper conversations” on Thursday with my pre-intermediate students. Have never tried it yet. Thank you for the idea!

8 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Svetlana – it’s nice to have you back too! And that’s a neat twist to Find someone who!

9 05 2017
Derek Keever

I use a selection of these on TT courses along with a couple of others (a pyramid debate and a ranking task) for a session on speaking. The key task for trainees is to match activities that are stuck up around the room, to descriptions on a grid. After they match activity to description, they analyse each and consider principles behind their effectiveness, i.e. opportunities for personalisation and repetition, reciprocity, and so on. I finish off by giving each pair or group one or two activities for which they must become ‘experts’. They then re-group and share ideas.
It provides a bank of materials for use throughout the course and allows for interesting pedagogical discussion (think loop input) of how the whole process was managed.
Thanks for sharing and initiating the discussion– good to have you active here in this space again.

9 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

That’s a great training session, Derek. ‘Loop input’ after me own heart!

16 05 2017

I must say, I’ve truly enjoyed this post. I think ‘find someone who’ is definitely a wonderful way to not only practice and teach English, but also a great way for the students to interact and get familiar with each other.

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