Being faced with a class which won't speak can be very disappointing after all your planning. When there are rows of blank faces or questions that nobody will answer it can demotivating.

Telling the students that talking will help them improve their English doesn't always work. Don't rush to produce new lesson plans and more activities. First try to find out the reasons for their reluctance to speak. There may well be more than one reason and lots of solutions to try out.

Time to think

  • Have you given enough introduction to the topic before they have to speak?
  • Have you given them time to mentally rehearse what they are going to say?
  • Have you done a vocabulary task which gives them the words they will need?


  • Avoid coming in cold with "Today we're going to talk about X , what do you think?"
  • With low levels focus on yourself and a third person "character" before sending questions over to them. Give them time to listen, tune-in and absorb.
  • Plan a lead-in task which focuses on key ideas, words and structures
  • Don't rush to ask their opinion too quickly.
  • Look at other people's opinions on the topic before you ask them theirs
  • Give them time to look up words in a dictionary and jot ideas before a debate
  • Give them a light-hearted or thought-provoking questionnaire which gets their minds working

The type of topic

  • Do students know anything about the topic you chose?
  • Are they interested in the subject?
  • Is the situation in the dialogue or role play something they could imagine themselves doing?
  • Is there too much background cultural information you need to explain to help them understand?
  • Does the topic require too much explanation to hold their interest?
  • Is the topic okay but they just haven't got the vocabulary yet to cope with it?


  • Choose contexts very carefully. The language of ordering food and drink can be practised in a fast food context if students never go to restaurants. Slightly change the situation to get their interest as the language they practise will be the same.
  • Ruthlessly assess cultural topics as older learners will have more experience of life and how their society works. Learners should always be able to identify with the topic and have experience of it. If you can't find tasks they can do it will end up being a lecture by you.
  • Make a questionnaire or long list of possible topics or dialogue situations and get pairs or small groups to choose their 3 favourite topics. Try to give them some say in the future planning of topics.
  • Assess the language needed to do the activity. Will they have enough language to do the topic justice? It is fine to be occasionally searching for one or two words but if you stumble to string sentences together throughout this will kill the topic for learners and lead to a sense of defeat.
  • Accept their limitations but try to make the content more interesting to their age: practise numbers with football scores if they are football fanatics, do a spelling quiz with groups from MTV if they like music, do a very short and simple role play based on characters in a recent film they liked.
  • Remember that anything you find in a book will be written for a wide range of ages and could need adapting to suit your learners' interests.

The presentation of the topic

  • Have you sold the topic to them? They need to be reeled in.
  • Have you thought out an introduction with an anecdote, a picture, a piece of music or a prop which grabs their attention?
  • Have you given too much information about the subject too quickly? You don't need to reveal all straight away.


  • Avoid giving teacher type reasons for why you are doing the topic: "Today we are going to talk about pollution and this will be useful for you because you can try using your words/structures from the last lesson etc."
  • Aim to do something to arouse curiosity and which lets them see the theme without you explaining. This might be questions based on a strange photo, a cartoon with words missing, a quote from a song on the board or some photos you took last Summer to start the lesson.
  • Plan the whole lesson but allow for 2 short tasks at the beginning which draw them in to the topic. These tasks should prepare ideas, structures and vocabulary they will need for the main speaking activity in the middle.

Too much freedom

  • Have you rushed them to speak?
  • Have you given them enough time to practice in a controlled way?
  • Have you checked the whole class know what is expected of them?


  • You might have a great topic, the level is right, the students are keen so you can't wait for them to do the communication game. Stop! Take a breath. Go through the preparation steps very carefully in your mind. All communication games need loads of setting up, careful practice to get off to a smooth start.
  • Demonstrate rather than explain. Demonstration might seem to take longer than a few words but it is easier to know what to do if you see how rather than if you can't understand the written or verbal instructions. Practise with a student, get two more to give an example practice and then double check with 2 more students before starting. A few minutes of good practice in pairs or groups is better than 20 minutes wasted with half the class chatting to each other in their own language because they don't feel confident enough to do the task.
  • Always provide a pre task which prepares the language they will need for the more demanding performance task. The pre task might involve writing sentences or questions on the topic and asking their partner something simple related to the topic. This task warms them up but is not stressful.
  • Avoid focussing too much on their public contributions too early in the lesson. Silence is often the best form of defence when faced with possible humiliation in front of peers. Don't ask if they agree with something. Simply put them in pairs to tick a list of statements they agree with or not. Give them time to think before they discuss in a group or whole class situation.
  • Don't expect them to speak straight away. You may have them for only 40 minutes but at least 15 minutes of that will be reading/writing/listening and preparing your thoughts before you speak. Lead them to speak, don't push too fast!

Seating arrangements

  • Can they hear you clearly?
  • Can they turn and work with their partner easily?
  • Do they feel exposed by facing the whole class?


  • Plan pairs and grouping carefully. Some tasks need privacy for individuals to feel safe enough to express themselves
  • When they are making an effort in a group don't intervene and draw all eyes on them. Keep on the edge of their group and wait
  • Make an effort to speak clearly and project your voice. Practise in a mirror at home and in the classroom if you can. Enlist a colleague to watch or practise with you at break time. Make full use of your hand gestures and visuals to make sure the whole room can see and follow you. Slow down but don't artificially distort your voice.


By Clare Lavery

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