Four ways to encourage speaking in the ELL classroom

As a language learner myself (Spanish), I am intimately aware of the challenges involved in speaking a new language.

When I was beginning to learn Spanish, there was nothing scarier than trying to communicate in that language to a proficient speaker, nothing more satisfying than when I felt understood, and nothing as deflating as being met with a blank stare.

Here are four ways I encourage my Beginning English Language Learner students to speak English:

1. Use the English Central website 

English Central is well-known to teachers and students around the world. Partially funded by Google, students are able to view and hear videos with subtitles, repeat what is said, and the software then "grades" pronunciation accuracy. Though many activities require paid registration, many others are available for free. The videos are engaging, the immediate feedback is helpful and generally accurate, and the ability to make mistakes with nobody knowing other than the software makes it a safe way for ELLs to develop confidence.

2. Practice engaging and fun dialogues

Groups of two-or-three students practice and perform short dialogues in front of the class and I model it in the most exaggerated way possible! The key to make it humorous, as you can see in this one for Halloween:


KOU and KAO: Trick or Treat!

ADULT: You scared me! What do you want?

KOU: We want a treat!

ADULT: I only have one piece of candy left and there are two of you. Will you share?

KAO: No, I want it!

KOU: No, I want it!



ADULT: Since you can’t share, I’ll eat it.

KAO and KOU: We don’t like you!

After students become familiar with kinds of dialogues, I provide versions where they can add the words they want to use.


Teacher: How is everybody feeling today?

Juan: I'm so tired.

Bao: I'm so frustrated!

Keng: I'm so angry!

Teacher: Why are you feeling those ways?

Juan: I feel so tired because ______________________.

Bao: I feel so frustrated because __________________.

Keng: I feel so angry because _____________________.

Teacher: If I gave you all A's and lots of candy, how would you feel?

Juan: I would feel ___________________________.

Bao: I would feel ______________________________.

Keng: I would feel _______________________________.

Teacher: That's nice, but I'm not going to give you candy or A's because I'm a mean teacher!

(Students then playfully attack the teacher)

When students become even more advanced, I provide dialogues where they make choices and determine more of their own script.


(Student 1 has just driven to his date’s house to pick her up.)

(Honks on the horn) “Hurry up! We’re late!”

(Gets out of the car and walks to the door and knocks) “Hello. I’m _______. I’m here to pick-up ____________ and take her to ____________. Is she ready?”

(Gets out of the car and walks to the door and knocks) “Hello. I’m ________________. I’m here to take-out your daughter for the greatest night of her life!”

(Student 2 is the parent)

“Stop honking the horn! Get lost! You’re not taking my daughter anywhere. I’m calling the police if you’re not gone in ten seconds!"

“ Hi. I’m _______________ mother/father. She’s not ready yet. Let’s talk while we wait.”

“ Get out! The only thing you are going to take out of this house is my fist in your nose!”

(Student 1)

What do you do to get the parent to calm down?

What do you say to the parent?

What do you do to get the parent to calm down?

(Student 3 is the girl) What do you say?

(Student 1) What do you say?

(Student 2 – parent) What do you say?

3. Encourage students to practice academic language 

It's one thing for students to develop confidence in conversational English, also known as Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS). It's another to feel comfortable in using Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) - the ability to us academic English language (learn more about the difference here). I use explicit instruction - in an engaging process - to introduce new academic words regularly and have students immediately apply them in writing, reading and speaking. You can read details about these speaking strategies on my Edutopia post, English Language Learners and Academic Language.

4. Use the Three-Two-One Speaking Activity 

You can read more details about this at one of my previous British Council posts

You can find even more tech tools and teaching strategies at The Best Sites To Practice Speaking English.

I'd love to hear your strategies to encourage English-speaking in the classroom!

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He has written eight books on education, include three on teaching English Language Learners, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. He writes regular posts for the New York Times on teaching English Language Learners.

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