Motivating speaking activities for lower levels

These activities are all designed to motivate lower level learners to speak in pairs or small groups.

Anna Blackmore

Planning time has been shown to increase production in speaking tasks. Lower level learners often find it especially difficult to speak spontaneously, so these activities incorporate 'thinking time' during which learners can prepare for speaking by planning what they are going to say, and asking the teacher or using a dictionary to look up missing vocabulary. The following activities are relatively short, with minimal materials preparation time for the teacher. They are designed for use as a warmer or a filler in the middle or at the end of a class. 

1. Definitions lists

This activity is good for activating existing vocabulary or revising vocabulary studied in previous lessons.


  • Choose a vocabulary topic (this can be vocabulary you have recently studied or a topic you want to introduce). Tell students to write a list of ten words they associate with this topic. To make the activity shorter, reduce the number of words.
  • Pre-teach or revise structures for definitions, e.g. It's a thing which / that ... You use it for ... You find this in ... It's an animal / object / place ... It's the opposite of ..., etc.
  • Tell students to look at their lists and give them a few minutes to think of how they can define these words.
  • Now students work in pairs (or groups of three) and define their words to each other. Their partner must guess the word they are defining.

A faster-moving, fun alternative to this activity is a team game.

  • Change the vocabulary to lists of famous people / books / films / objects.
  • Each team writes a list for another team (students can also write three or four words each on strips of paper to draw out of a hat).
  • Pre-teach or revise structures for definitions, e.g. It's a thing which / that ... You use it for ... It's a film / book / object ... He/She's an actor / a politician ... He/She's British / American / Spanish ..., etc.
  • Each team nominates one person to define the words to their team.
  • Each team has one minute to define as many words as possible.

2. What were you doing ...?

This activity can be adapted to revise a range of tenses (present simple, past simple, continuous, future tenses) by changing the time prompts, e.g. What are you going to do tomorrow / next weekend?


  • Write a selection of time prompts on the board, e.g. yesterday at 6 o'clock, this time last year, on 11 September 2001, etc.
  • Tell students to choose some of the prompts and think of what they were doing at these times. Tell students that they are going to tell a partner / small group.
  • Give students five minutes to plan what they are going to say and ask for any vocabulary they need.
  • Students tell their partner / small group. Encourage students to ask for more information, e.g. Student A: I was watching TV yesterday at 6. Student B: What were you watching?
  • After speaking, students feedback and tell the class what they learnt, e.g. Marie was watching TV at 6 o'clock yesterday. She loves chat shows!

3. Adjectives

This is a variation on the above activity and is great for practising adjectives. Students personalise the discussion by talking about experiences and feelings.


  • Write a selection of adjectives relating to feelings on the board.
  • Tell students to choose several adjectives (increase or decrease the number depending on how long you want the activity to take). Tell them to think of a time when they felt this way, and that they are going to tell their partner / small group about their experience.
  • Give students time to plan what they are going to say. They can make notes and ask for vocabulary if they want to.
  • Students tell their stories.
  • Feedback to the class.

Cartoons, cartoon stories and unusual pictures

There are many copyright-free comic strips, cartoons and unusual images available online; you can also find cartoon stories in many EFL resource books. These can be used in class in a number of ways.

4. Information gap activity: Order the story

Information gap and jigsaw tasks have been shown to be beneficial task types in terms of promoting obligatory, as opposed to optional, information exchange and as a way of promoting collaborative dialogue in the classroom. In this activity, students work in pairs and the information, i.e. the pictures, are divided equally between them. Students must work collaboratively to put the story together in the right order. Suitable for strong pre-intermediate students and above.


  • Before the class, find a cartoon with at least four vignettes. The cartoon can be with or without dialogue. The more vignettes and more elements in the story, the more difficult the task.
  • Print the cartoon and cut up the vignettes. Put students into pairs and divide the vignettes equally between student A and student B.
  • Give students time to think about how to describe their pictures and ask for any vocabulary they need.
  • Pre-teach any difficult vocabulary that has not come up as well as phrases for talking about pictures and sequencing, e.g. In my picture there is ... I can see ... I think this is the first / second / last picture ... Then ... After that ...
  • Tell students to work together to put the story in the correct order.
  • Optional extension: Tell students to write the story.

5. Write the dialogue


  • Take a comic strip, cartoon or unusual image in which there are several people or characters. If there is dialogue or captions, blank it out.
  • Display the comic strip / cartoon / image and elicit ideas from students about what is happening in it. Who are the people / characters? What are they doing? What happens next? What are they saying to each other?
  • Put students in pair or small groups. Tell them to work together and write the dialogue and/or captions for the comic strip, cartoon or image.
  • Students practise their dialogues and read their version out to the class.

6. What's the question?

This activity is good for practising questions and for fluency practice on a range of topics.


  • Write a list of questions (one per student in your class) relating to your chosen topic. For example, if your topic is music, you could think of questions like: Who is your favourite singer? What is your favourite music to dance to? What's the best concert you have ever been to? Who is a singer / group you hate? etc. Adapt the questions to the level of your class.
  • Give each student a question. Tell students to write the answer to their question (but not the question itself) on a piece of paper or a sticky label. Tell them not to show anyone their answer yet.
  • Tell the class the topic (e.g. music). Give students five minutes with a partner to brainstorm possible questions related to this topic.
  • Now tell students to stand up and stick their label on their chest or hold their paper with their answer in front of them. Students move around the room and ask each other questions to try to discover the questions that the other students were originally asked.
  • Encourage students to ask follow-up questions and try to have a conversation, e.g.
    Student A: What's the best concert you've ever been to?
    Student B: Robbie Williams.
    Student A: When was the concert?
    Student B: 2017.
    Student A: Why was it good?
    Student B: Because ...
  • Feedback and ask students what they found out.
Language Level


Submitted by Lou-2 on Tue, 09/05/2023 - 08:39

I've realised why some of the speaking activities I've planned fall flat - it's because I haven't given learners time to "plan what they are going to say" - a very simple, common-sense thing to do! Thanks for so many activity suggestions that I can see that will get learners speaking.

Submitted by hazarhassan on Thu, 03/02/2023 - 09:32

Well. Anna I really appreciate your effort in this article especially when teachers focus on lower learners I guess we are in the right track. from my experience I noticed most of the teachers care about brilliant students and they ignore lower learners whom they are in need to their teachers caring and attention.

Submitted by AmirELT on Thu, 03/12/2020 - 04:28

I would like to thank you for such beautiful, obliging ideas. 

Submitted by Nataliya Orlyk on Mon, 07/18/2016 - 17:59

I have found some useful tips, some of them are being used already but it is good to remind us and inspire. Thanks a lot!

Submitted by sonia ahmed on Fri, 06/17/2016 - 23:56


Submitted by umudovna on Fri, 06/17/2016 - 08:40

All the activities are very interesting and useful, I'll use it in my lessons for sure! Thank you!

Submitted by LenkaZ on Fri, 02/05/2016 - 10:09

Thank you for this article. I will definitely try these with my Chinese student who is very, very shy. :)

Submitted by peterlupei on Sat, 09/05/2015 - 07:32

The activities are really good and can also be adapted into junior high school English class in China. Thanks.

Submitted by saccassuncao on Fri, 09/04/2015 - 13:10

I agree with the statement. Speaking is one of the most important skills to be developed and enhanced as means of effective communication. For ELT (Elementary Level Teaching) the question of how to increase communicative competence was and tends to be the most crucial one. Keywords: Speaking skills, communicative competence, enhancing, methods, oral communication background, motivation, psychological competence.

Submitted by Khuraman Safarova on Sat, 02/01/2014 - 17:31

Thank you Anna. Your activities are very good for improving speaaking skills.I often use these aactivities and encourage your ideas.

Submitted by Khuraman Safarova on Tue, 01/14/2014 - 14:03

This activity is good for preparing lesson plans and planning time.It improves speaking skills.

Submitted by Khuraman Safarova on Sun, 12/29/2013 - 14:51

Thanks ror your useful ideas I think it will help the young teachers and use these activities

Submitted by mechejazz on Tue, 11/05/2013 - 21:23

I liked cartoon stories. I'm gonna try it. Thanks Anna Blackmore

Submitted by emanuelameca on Fri, 10/04/2013 - 10:51

Thank you! Useful ideas , I'll try to use them in my classes.

Submitted by gr8bron on Sat, 09/14/2013 - 04:46

Thanks Anna, I will use these. May I highlight for clarity that the pics must not be revealed to the partner one is working with and only verbal descriptions given back and forth until both are satisfied with the story and sequence fitting the pics. Bron

Submitted by KarenJohnson on Tue, 07/09/2013 - 22:48

I love this activity. I often struggle to get students to generate questions using appropriate question words. I will try this activity when we resume. Thanks

Submitted by nadoura on Wed, 06/12/2013 - 09:10

I thank you so much for this idea .I personnaly going to try it with my pupils .

Submitted by Mimi' Fatchan on Thu, 02/21/2013 - 04:19

Thank you, Anna. That's very useful. Is the activity applicable for teaching-learning online? I sometimes provide an online lessons for my private teen-students.

Submitted by Sally Trowbridge (not verified) on Wed, 02/27/2013 - 11:40

In reply to by Mimi' Fatchan

Hi Mimi
You could certainly adapt these activities for your online lessons. Let us know which ones you use! Have you seen our 'Teaching teens' section? There are lesson plans and articles all focusing on teenagers.

Submitted by lailanarsingani on Thu, 01/17/2013 - 03:57

Thanks for sharing such wonderful ideas , I will defenately try in my class.

Submitted by richard_vijay on Tue, 12/25/2012 - 16:14

Thanks Ana. I think teachers must give students time to marshall, organize and compose their answers. This must be applied to elementary learners but it can be applied to basic learners, albeit , the teacher must help the students with ideas.

Submitted by Astina on Wed, 12/19/2012 - 08:19

Thanks Anna, It will be useful in preparing my lesson plans. Astina Malaysia

Submitted by zuhalolgun on Tue, 12/11/2012 - 19:51

The activity might be difficult for the elementary level students.I think they have a limited vocabulary. However, it is generally good idea.

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