This email message is from a lecturer in English.

“I teach English at an engineering college in Kerala (India). I’ve been asked by the college management to teach communication skills. I find it difficult to make all students speak; some students are always passive. It discourages me a lot. I don’t know whether the problem is with my approach or with my students. Please suggest some strategies that really work.”
I have received a number of similar queried from teachers ever since I started contributing the column ‘English Matters’ to a newspaper in India.

Trainers and teachers who are involved in developing students’ English speaking skills often get frustrated because some students do not attempt to speak at all. When the teacher wants the students to be active they prefer to be passive. This is a universal problem. The teacher faced with a serious problem of passivity among students looks for a solution to make them active participants but doesn’t succeed always. Why does it happen? I

n a typical classroom environment it is quite common to have students who are highly motivated or semi-motivated or unmotivated. Sometimes even motivated students become passive because the activities assigned to them to make them speak do not enthuse them. At times, we may have motivated students and good speaking tasks/activities but the teacher’s attitude and approach may put the students off.


How to make the unmotivated or semi-motivated students speak? As a teacher and trainer, I too have faced the problem of passivity; my colleagues at different institutes in India and abroad have experienced it. We have discussed the issue and tried various strategies that have proved to be effective. 


I’ve devised a formula called “MAP formula” to make all students in a class speak without inhibition. MAP is the acronym for Motivate, Activate and Participate.

 1. Motivate

According to Encarta dictionary, the word ‘motivate’ means ‘to make somebody feel enthusiastic, interested and committed to something’. A good teacher is a person who can motivate his (her too) students. The following are some tips to motivate your students:

  • Before you motivate others you should motivate yourself. You should be enthusiastic. Exhibit your passion for training your students.
  • Be a role model to your students. If you want your students to speak well, you should be articulate. Inspire them.
  • Establish a rapport with your students. You should attract your students towards you. The more the students like you, the better they learn and participate in activities.
  • Be a friend but not a philosopher. That is, don’t sound abstract when you speak to them. Give concrete examples.
  • Always give a pat on the back. Use phrases such as “Well done. It is a good attempt.” “I liked your argument very much.” “It is a good point.” “You have been very creative.”
  • Always sound positive. Instill confidence in your students. Tell them that it is easy to develop their speaking skills and make them believe your words. Make them believe that they have the potential to express themselves clearly in the target language.
  • Use strategies that do not threaten them. It is very important to learn and practise a language in a non-threatening environment.


2. Activate
The word ‘activate’ here means to make someone active or to cause someone be productive. The statement “Ignite, fuel, sustain a fire in the mind of your student” that I came across in an article best summarizes the meaning of the word. You can activate your students in a number of ways:

  • Enthuse and energize your students.
  • Create a friendly and conducive environment for students to speak and discuss topics and issues. The layout of the classroom, for example, matters a lot.
  • Make your students feel comfortable discussing any topic. Some topics may not arouse their interest at all. Recently, I gave the following topics for group discussion:
    1. A Baby boy is a blessing and a baby girl is a curse.
    2. Money is more important than values.
    3. Smoking in public places should not be banned.
    4. Most engineering students in India lack critical thinking skills.
    5. Ragging promotes friendship and unity among freshers and senior students and so it should be encouraged.
    6. Caste system is a blessing in disguise and so it should be strengthened.
    7. Success in life comes from money.
    8. Collecting capitation fees is the right of self-financing colleges.
    9. Brain drain should be encouraged.
    10. Politics and corruption do not go together.

The controversial nature of the topics listed above made all students express their views. Even students with low level of proficiency came forward to speak.

  • Encourage free discussion. The objective is to make your students speak fluently. At a later stage, you can train them to be coherent, logical, etc.
  • Tolerate their grammatical errors and correct them later. Are your students adults? If they are treat them as adults.
  • Allow judicious use of certain words and expressions in the students’ native language when they struggle to find the equivalents in English.
  • Even if your students violate the rule of speaking English, do not get angry with them. Gently tell them not to use L1.
  • Give more pair work and group work. Most students are comfortable being part of a small group.
  • Add humour to your presentation and have fun with your students.
  • Make students sit face to face during group discussion. Direct eye contact helps students develop their communication skills. 


3. Participate

The third principle is to ‘participate’. It means to take part in an event or activity. It implies that the teacher should come down to the level of students. It is possible only if he undergoes a paradigm shift and has a positive attitude towards his students and adopts a result-producing approach.


  • Mingle with your students and participate in activities such as group discussions and role play.
  • Empathize with learners who need your special attention.
  • Know your students’ strengths and weaknesses.

Students’ role

The MAP formula is not for the teacher alone. Students should also adopt the MAP formula for themselves. They should know how to motivate and activate themselves. After recharging themselves they should actively participate in tasks/activities that aim at promoting their communication skills.

David Martin in his book Talk a lot (2), published by EFL Press, Japan, says that he makes his students sign an agreement with him. Each student makes the following promises:


“I promise to try to speak as much as possible. I promise not to be afraid of making mistakes. I promise to use English to communicate. I promise to ask questions when I do not understand. I promise to try to have fun!”

Dear teachers, please let me know your comments.

Albert P’Rayan

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