6 Tips for Teaching Impromptu Speaking

ELs are often called on to speak extemporaneously in content classes. They might be asked to outline a scientific process, explain a literary term, or compare two historical events.

Having to speak without preparation can be stressful, even in your first language. Some students freeze; others dive in and start speaking without a plan and end up rambling.  Trying to formulate thoughts and deliver them in a second language is an additional challenge.

However, your students can learn strategies to make answering impromptu questions easier. With a step-by-step plan and regular practice, you can help them gain confidence and master the skills to give clear, organized answers. Following are six tips for teaching impromptu speaking skills in your classroom.

1. Teach Hesitation Strategies

First, students need time to think, and they can buy this time with a few simple strategies. These include repeating the question or using gambits like “Let me think about that.” Students should practice this skill by itself, memorizing a few gambits and trying them out before they actually start answering impromptu questions.  You can find detailed instructions for an activity on this skill here.

2. Give Students a Framework

In composition classes, students learn that thesis statements, topic sentences, and transitions make it easier for readers to understand their essays.

The same is true of a short, impromptu speech. It should begin with an announcement of what will follow, then answer the question, including a few details or examples to illustrate the point—connected with transitions—and conclude in a way that makes it clear the speaker is finished.

This structure not only helps the listener understand, but it also gives the speaker a roadmap with clear starting and ending points.

For instance, a student asked to compare their first language and English might start their response with a simple statement: “There are several interesting differences between Chinese and English.” Differences might include verb tenses, politeness, and writing systems, each illustrated by an example. A final summary might be “Those are three ways in which Chinese and English are different.”

3. Start Small

The end goal might be for students to stand up and speak for over a minute in front of the class. However, students should initially work in pairs and build up to a larger audience.

It’s also good to start small time-wise. Students who are still struggling with fluency might find speaking for 30 seconds more than enough of a challenge. Have students use a timer and establish minimum and maximum lengths for their answers. While impromptus in a classroom should never be too lengthy, they might want to build up to a minute or more depending on the complexity of the question. “What’s the best way to get to this classroom from your house?” will require a much shorter answer than “How can a student at this school reduce their carbon footprint?”

4. Lower Affect

To reduce stress, begin with familiar topics and questions the students can answer easily with evidence from their own experience. That way, they can get used to using a formulaic structure and transitions without a huge cognitive load. Such simple questions might include “Do cats or dogs make better pets?” or “Why did you choose to come to this school?”

5. Add Skills One at a Time

In addition to practicing hesitation strategies before answering actual questions, you can teach one type of question at a time. For instance, you could focus on compare/contrast questions in one class and process questions in another. Each type of question will demand different introductory phrases and transition words.

Another skill to add on is gesture. Moving a hand downward to emphasize a key word or turning a hand over to show contrast can add another layer of sophistication and make the answer clearer to the listener. To practice, give students a list of 10–12 statements, such as “There are three main reasons I support this idea” or “Now, pour the next ingredient into the solution.” Ask pairs of students to brainstorm gestures for each statement and review visual answers with the whole class. The next time they practice impromptus, ask them to incorporate one or two gestures into their answer.

Also, remind students that eye contact projects confidence, even online when they are looking at the camera instead of other students. When we are thinking, we tend to look up, but as students become more comfortable with the structure and more confident in their delivery, they should focus on making eye contact consistently as they answer.

6. Practice Regularly

It’s a good idea to keep working on these skills throughout the semester in short practice sessions. One method I use is to put students in breakout groups of three to four and give each student a question to ask another group member. The question can be given on a slip of paper in person or sent by private chat online.  Students should have a set amount of time to answer the question based on its complexity. Even with brief peer feedback, this exercise can be done in as little as 10 minutes.

These are some techniques I use in my classroom to help students improve their impromptu speaking. Do you use others? Please share in the comments below.

About A. C. Kemp

A. C. Kemp
A. C. Kemp has been a lecturer in English language studies at MIT since 2007. She has a master’s degree in applied linguistics from the University of Massachusetts/Boston. A. C. has also presented extensively on teaching strategies for vocabulary acquisition. Since 2002, she has been the director of Slang City, a website devoted to American slang and colloquial language. She also has a strong interest in ITA training, for which she created the User-Friendly Classroom Video Series in 2016.
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5 Responses to
6 Tips for Teaching Impromptu Speaking

  1. Любовь says:

    For many of us it s the worst case scenario suddenly having to deliver an impromptu presentation. Being asked to speak in public is a major challenge for many leaders. Being asked to speak spontaneously as well as publicly can catapult the task straight into the very-difficult, to-be-avoided-at-all-times-I’d-rather-die category. The negative possibilities appear grave your brain freezes, you mumble incoherently or you appear to lose all gravitas.

  2. j. mehta says:

    This was exactly what I was looking for today. Great stuff!

  3. LED display says:

    Useful post; your articles are best. Thanks for Share.

  4. Lavinia Acosta says:

    Thank you for your post. I also use this practice of impromptu speaking by asking students to do a comercial using descriptive words and to tell the audience of two benefits in using the item. It makes it fun, students can get a little silly, but it relaxes them to speak or use words they know and mimic a commercial they have already seen.

  5. Yeşim Erdoğru says:

    Dear Ms. Kemp

    Great post. It summarizes the framework so clearly that the vague notion of “Let’s do speaking” can be turned into a step-by-step plan.
    Thank you for sharing.

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