Why Won’t My Students Talk?

We love our students to talk in the classroom, but sometimes they just won’t. Why won’t my students talk?! We want to avoid this uncomfortable silence where getting students to speak is like pulling teeth.

Luckily there’s usually a pretty concrete reason why your students are reluctant to speak, and there are tried and true solutions…

Problem: Students Haven’t Warmed Up

Your students probably haven’t spoken a word of English for the last 23 hours. They’ll feel nervous and shy. They’ll find it hard just getting their mouth around the sounds of English, let alone producing sentences.

Solution: Start With a Warmer

Start every lesson with students talking to students, in a fun activity using familiar language. In a good warmer students talk in groups (more foolproof than pairs) or mingle. It’ll build students’ confidence, and create a great buzz that will last for the whole lesson.

Problem: Students Aren’t Used to Talking in Class

In most language classes (not just English classes!) around the world, learners don’t get to speak much. Most involve a teacher lecturing out the front.

Solution 1: Start With Structured Activities

Just asking a class to ‘talk’ has a high risk of falling flat. Start with structured speaking activities – for example, where students practice a conversation using prompts, or, in groups, list things they know about a topic.

Solution 2: Choose Concrete, Unthreatening Topics

Think about what students are comfortable talking about and have the vocabulary to cope with. Don’t think ‘discussion’ has to be a profound life-changing issue – it may be the best place to buy clothes, or students’ favourite food.

Solution 3: Prepare Students Before a Discussion

Before students share their opinions, give them some input – for example, an article on the topic. Make sure they understand the text, and pull out useful language they can use. Then give students time to prepare, for example to note down their ideas.

Solution 4: Make Students Feel Safe

Many education systems emphasise accuracy, and insist students should not say anything unless it is correct – and if they’re wrong, they’ll be brutally corrected. By contrast, you can reassure students you want them to be confident and fluent, and tell them in speaking activities you won’t correct them. Enforce a class rule that no student can make fun of another for making an error.

Problem: Each Student Has a Book or Handout

If every student has something in front of them, no matter how much you urge them, they won’t talk!

Solution: Make Sure There’s Only One Per Pair or Group

If students are in a pair, get one to put their book away. Give one handout to each group, not each student. If students are chatting in groups, instruct just one student in each group to write.

A Final Thought: Sometimes Silence Is Good!

Don’t be afraid of silence. Students may need time to process what you’re saying. Students also need to practice skills other than speaking, so a quiet session where students are engrossed in a reading text is a good thing.

Just make sure when you want students to talk, make it easy for them!

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