5 Things to Talk About in ESL Class

Sometimes the biggest challenge in a speaking class is running out of things to talk about! This month, I’d like to share some ideas that get the conversation going. These activities are all appropriate for online or in-person classes.

1. A Photograph

One way to use a photo is have each student bring in a picture they have taken of something—or someone—that is important to them. It could be anything: a place, a family member, a pet, a building or an event. Students share their photos with classmates, describe what’s in them, and explain the stories behind them. This can be followed by questions from other students.

Photo credit: “Lurking Danger” by Ashok Boghani (CC BY-NC 2.0)
What is happening? What happened before? What will happen next?

Another possibility is to use photos of people doing activities that you bring to the class. Give each pair of students a different photo, and ask them to build a story about it:

  • What is happening in the photo?
  • What happened before the photo was taken?
  • What will happen next?

You can also give all students the same photo and see how their interpretations differ.  If you don’t have a collection of interesting photos already, you can find images of people in interesting situations online. Try searching Google Images or flickr.com for people in specific locations (e.g., “park people” or “campground children”) or for particular activities (e.g., “women working” or “people dancing”).

2. A Newspaper Article

There are several ways to use newspaper stories for speaking activities. First, each student could report on a different news story they read outside of class, which is a great way to practice tenses. Second, you can create a role play for students based on an article they have read, asking them what they might do in the same situation. That also offers students the opportunity to practice using the conditional (if…would) statements. A third option, if your students have a flair for drama, is for them to work together to re-create an article they have all read, taking the parts of the people involved.

3. A Person

Some of the most interesting people are the students in your class! Ask students to interview each other about a personal story, then report on what they have discovered. Be sure to give students guidance on what to ask, and be specific—it could be a vacation they took, their best day ever, or how they became interested in their favorite hobby.

4. An Event

Typically, we ask students in ESL classes to talk about holidays in their country, and for good reason! Do they have similar holidays, such as harvest festivals? How are they different? What is each student’s favorite holiday and why?

But don’t limit yourself to holidays—students can discuss an event they’ve attended together, such as a class session, field trip or party. Who was there? What happened? Alternatively, students can take turns playing television society reporters and interviewing their classmates about the event.

You can also make an exciting event happen in the classroom! Before class, secretly ask two students to act out a sequence of several unexpected behaviors midway through the class, such as dancing with each other, singing, reading from a book, jumping up and down, or leaving the room suddenly. After the impromptu event is finished, ask the other students to work together to reconstruct what happened.

5. A Video

The most common speaking activity—if your students have watched a video for homework and have already answered comprehension questions—is to have them participate in an open-ended discussion. Ask questions that start with how and why. (E.g., How do you feel about the video contents? Why do you think people made the choices they did?)

However, if you’re showing a narrative video in class, a fun alternative is to stop in the middle of the action and ask students to finish the story. This can be a discussion, or you can assign roles for a prepared or impromptu dramatization.

These are a few things I use in my classroom to facilitate speaking practice. What do you do in your classroom? 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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One Response to
5 Things to Talk About in ESL Class

  1. Ruby K says:

    Thanks for sharing. Wonderful ideas!

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