Getting adults and children to talk

Both adults and children need practice at talking to be able to develop their speaking skills, but that things that stimulate them to talk are often quite different.

Clare Lavery

This tip contrasts the different approaches to getting adults and children talking.


Children need to be encouraged to learn through play and to focus on a task rather than on practising a language item. They need:

  • To enjoy themselves
  • To pretend
  • To feel they can speak the language quickly

Activities suitable for encouraging children to talk are

  • Role play: children enjoy being someone else and acting out a situation. For example: at the shop, at the Doctor’s. Children naturally use role play in their own language situations.
  • Story telling: a natural way to promote repetition of structures and vocabulary. Choose stories with repetition like The Three Little Pigs or The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
  • Puppets and props: Another way that children can imagine dialogue and practise through pretending to make puppets talk. Props like dressing up or masks help them take on roles and focus.
  • Games and puzzles to solve: Children want to play games and become very involved and motivated to use the language to win the game. Try games like I spy, Describe and draw/colour, Find the difference.
  • Songs and rhymes and classroom routines which provide phrases that are quickly learned, repeated and used again and again.


Adults need to know why they are doing an activity (which language items are being practised) and to feel the conversation reflects something they would want to talk about. They need:

  • To feel the situation reflects a context they would find themselves in (they prefer reality to pretending)
  • To feel they are not being scrutinised every minute (by the teacher!)

Ways to help adult students want to talk are

  • Reduce your input while they are talking to you or each other – say nothing and listen
  • Keep a low profile so they not too embarrassed to talk in front of you (don’t stand at the front during pair work) Children are less concerned about being watched.
  • Make it clear that mistakes are a normal part of learning and focus on them after you give positive feedback on the content of what they said (ideas, opinions)
  • Let them do the task – try not to do the task for them by taking over group discussions with your comments. Monitor, reply to requests for help briefly and keep your comments until they have completed the task.

The best types of task involve

  • Contributing information about themselves and their experience of the world, their work or families (if relevant) through questionnaires
  • Role play and dialogue building in social situations they would need for travel, their jobs or meeting foreigners in their own town
  • Reading and responding to articles, case studies or songs about issues relevant to their age range
  • Decision making in groups based on ranking items, eliminating statements from a list, ordering events and facts to come to a group consensus.
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