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Personalised speaking

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People spend a huge chunk of their everyday conversation time talking about themselves and the people they know, so the most natural thing in the world is for us to invite our students to do the same.

What our students bring to the learning environment is our richest resource. But if the lives they lead are to be at the centre of the courses we teach, are we guaranteed that students will talk freely and be interested in what their fellow classmates tell them? The answer is no. So what are some of the main challenges we face when doing personalised speaking activities and how can these challenges be met?

  • Two main challenges
  • Meeting these challenges
    • Teacher modelling
    • Visualisation
    • Setting peer listening tasks
    • Sharing classmates’ real-life experiences
  • Example activity
  • Conclusion


Two main challenges
Firstly, students might lack confidence in their ability to tell an anecdote, describe their feelings or confidently give their views in their mother tongue, let alone in English: 'I don’t know what to say or how to say it.'

Secondly, classes are made up of students who are thrown together by circumstance. They do not choose their classmates and they would not all mix socially if they met outside the class: 'I don’t have much in common with that student so why should I listen to her?'

Meeting these challenges
In the classroom our challenge is to create a world in which it feels comfortable and at the same time stimulating for students to talk about themselves and really listen to each other. One way to achieve this is by making use of some simple techniques, which help to bring students’ outside worlds alive in the classroom. The following four techniques are illustrated in the activity ‘Show me your shoes’ as described below.

Teacher modelling
This involves the students observing their teacher doing an achievable task that they themselves are about to do. Focusing on the teacher reassures students about what is expected of them and gives them ideas about the kind of content to include. There is an important distinction to be made between substitution drilling and modelling. We are not asking students to try and repeat back what we have said. We are instead providing students with a framework. Teacher modelling gives students confidence and is often more effective than abstract instruction-giving, which can more easily lead to uncertainty and inadequate task fulfillment.

The term visualisation suggests focusing on visual images in the mind’s eye. However, it can describe imagined auditory, olfactory, tactile and emotional experiences as well. Visualising a moment, scene or event whether real or imagined is an extremely effective and powerful way into extended personal speaking. The time spent on visualisation can lead to more thought-through and stimulating content from students during the subsequent speaking phase of an activity.

Setting peer listening tasks
It is inhibiting for students speaking in pairs and groups when their classmates appear to show little interest in what they say. Instead of genuinely listening, classmates might be planning their own speaking turn, referring to the dictionary, thinking about something unrelated to the lesson or perhaps even just pretending to listen. In the distracting environment of the classroom, it is easy not to listen actively. While setting up a speaking activity, it is important for teachers to set simple and interesting peer listening tasks which focus students on what their partners say. This might be as simple as remembering and reporting part of what they hear, deciding how much is true or giving their partner advice. When students are genuinely engaged in conversation in the classroom, there is a real sense of energy and purpose.

Sharing classmates’ real-life experiences
Drama techniques can make the difference between simply hearing about another student’s life and having a real sense of sharing in that student’s life experience. Kinaesthetic involvement on the part of both speaker and listener through mime and gesture helps bring the exchange alive, as does imagining being in another place or physically referring to things which are not actually present.

Example activity
Show me your shoes
Level: Elementary to Advanced / All ages

Teacher modelling

  • Elicit and pre-teach types of footwear (shoes, boots, sandals, trainers, slippers etc) and parts of footwear (laces, heel, sole etc).
  • Remove your shoes and put them at the side of the room. Describe truthfully one of your other pairs of shoes (or other footwear) while you mime holding and wearing them.
  • Let a student mime touching them or even trying them on for a moment.
  • Use the prompt questions below to bring your description to life.
  • Finally, invite students to guess if your description is true.



  • If possible, ask students to remove their shoes and put them away.
  • Tell them:
    'You’re going to describe one of your pairs of shoes or other footwear to someone who doesn’t know about them. If you don’t have a pair in mind, imagine a pair but remember that you need to make your description believable. Which ones are you going to describe?'
  • Check that every student knows the name of their type of footwear.
  • Ask students to close their eyes and to imagine their answers to these prompt questions as you slowly and clearly ask them:

    What kind of shoes have you brought here today?
    What size are they?
    What do they look like?
    What about colour, shade, shape, style?
    What are they made of?
    What do they feel like to wear?
    When do you wear them? Why?
    How do they make you feel?
    What sounds do they make?
    Have they got their own smell?
    How did you get them?
    How old are they?
    What sort of condition are they in?
    What do other people say about them?
    What do you like best about them?
    Is there any kind of problem with them?
    Is there an interesting story you can tell


Peer listening and sharing real life experiences 

  • Students open their eyes and mime wearing their shoes. 

  • Say:

    'Stand with a student who doesn’t know if these shoes are real or not. Your partner is going to listen and decide if your shoes are real. Show them your shoes and describe them. You don’t have to include the answers to all the questions I asked – just tell them what you want to. Let your partner try on your shoes. When you’ve both finished, ask each other questions for more information. Don’t say if your description is true or not. OK? You’ve got 5 minutes.'

  • As each pair finishes ask them to hold or wear their partner’s shoes and quickly show them to another student who has finished. 

  • Form a standing circle. Invite each student to say whose shoes they’re holding and find out if they’re real, e.g.'I’ve got Juan’s blue trainers he wears for jogging and I think they’re real.' Juan: 'I haven’t really got any trainers.'

The most important result of regularly using such techniques in the language classroom is an increase in reciprocal self-disclosure. In other words students tell each other about their thoughts, feelings and experiences in greater depth and detail. The more one tells, the more the other tells, so leading to deep interpersonal sharing. It follows that students involve themselves more in each other’s lives, so the classroom becomes a social meeting place as well as a learning environment. In turn there is a positive impact on group cohesion and dynamics. 

Further reading

Heathfield, D. 2005 Spontaneous Speaking: Drama Activities for Confidence and Fluency. DELTA Publishing

David Heathfield, Trainer, Writer, UK

This article was first published in 2007