Get English Learners to Speak

How to Get English Learners to Speak More

“Use it or lose it,” a common English proverb, can be applied across most of life’s disciplines, but never is the saying more apt than in the context of language learning. Research shows that active learning helps students retain much more than passive learning methods, so when it comes to accelerating English speaking fluency, it is crucial to get English learners to speak more.

With the help of teachers Janice Alguire, Victoria Branchini, Mandy Brooking, and Frank Noriega  – with a combined 20+ years ESL teaching experience between them – we will show you how to get your English learner speaking more.

1. Teaching Techniques to Engage Hesitant or Shy English Learners

In an 1-on-1 setting, it is important that the teacher’s level of energy matches the hesitant speaker’s. This can help students get more comfortable in the classroom.

“When I have a shy student, I tend to tone down my presentation of a lesson to them. I will still use TPR [Total Physical Response], and bring great energy, but I try to channel my inner Mr. Rogers [a legendary American children’s television host known for his calm delivery] persona to help them feel a bit more comfortable,” says Mandy.

In a classroom, giving learners the space to talk to one another, rather than asking them to speak in front the class, can put shy students at ease. At the same time, it gets English learners to speak more.

“When I think of taking some anxiety away from ESL students, I always think that being centered out can be uncomfortable. Allowing students a chance to turn and talk to a friend as they practice correct pronunciation often gives them time to get comfortable before showing their teacher. Strategies such as think-pair-share and smaller group conversations in English, these can help children take the risk to speak without having to do so in front of a large group,” says Janice. 

2. Build Rapport Early

The key to creating a teacher-to-student connection is learning more about each other. There are several ways to learn what students like without asking them directly.

“I encourage students to show me some of their things with a scavenger hunt-style game based on colors. By seeing some of their toys and possessions, I can start to get a better picture of what students like and dislike, and, hopefully, tailor some things to their liking,” says Mandy.

In cases where there isn’t enough time for a scavenger hunt, some ESL classics can help teachers break the ice.

“When I ask a student, ‘How are you?’ I like to have my happy/sad prop to show as I make facial expressions to match the prop. This helps break the ice,” says Janice.

“So many of my students LOVE pizza, so I have used this in countless ways to get a laugh or smile from  them,” Victoria adds.

“I have had luck getting them to talk to my dog puppet instead of me – he is WAY cuter,” says Mandy.

Props may even work with older students.

“I once had a very shy 12-year-old boy, who would not greet me nor respond to any questions. Considering his age, I was hesitant, but when I ultimately decided to introduce him to ‘Rory the Lion’, my puppet friend, his demeanor completely changed and, well, he was suddenly no longer shy!” says Frank. 

“Also, I like to use my globe to point to China and ask if it is day or night in China (using Total Physical Response/TPR). I will then point to America, where Teacher Frank lives, and tell that it is day, or night, where I live. Often, this seems to initiate more dialogue, while also serving as an opportunity for cultural learning.”

3. Positive Reinforcement Goes a Long Way

When working with hesitant English speakers, “slow but steady is the best way to go,” says Janice. “Some students may begin with just copying my TPR, looking at my props, or even just observing what I do. As I carefully progress through a few slides, I’ll notice their facial expressions change and their body relax. Before long, I’ll hear one or two words. When they begin to speak, I use gentle encouragement to keep them talking.”

Once a hesitant speaker starts talking freely, teachers are often unable to contain their excitement.

“If a student is reluctant to say anything, I celebrate any little word or sound that I can get. Building the student’s confidence is key…being playful and genuinely happy to see them is also important,” says Mandy.

Keep in mind that learning a new language is hard, so maintaining student motivation through consistent positive reinforcement goes a long way.

“English, or any new language, should be taught in a way that allows the learners to feel good about themselves. If they leave class with confidence, they’ll continue to come back and build their skills. Students may feel afraid of learning a new language if they feel they are not good enough, or they make too many errors. Errors are ok. This is how students learn. We just need to support the learner with praise and model the correct response for them to practice. With continued practice and a chance to converse in English, not just memorize sentences, they will soon get it and sound more like a native speaker,” explains Victoria.


In a pressure-free and engaging learning environment, young learners feel more comfortable trying new things. Teachers should be encouraging, accommodating, and engaging so to get young learners talking. By supplementing teacher-led learning through increased speaking practice, technology can also provide a solution for pressure-free, gamified learning. This is what we are building at Chatterize!

To see TalkTown, our pressure-free English learning environment, click here.

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