Getting Students to Talk

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Recently someone was kind enough to fill out my Magic Wand Survey. This kind, anonymous soul made the following comment, versions of which I’ve heard many, many, many times over the years:

“My students seem to have the most difficulty in actually using the language they know (or seem to know). I teach 16-30 year olds in China and it is at times extremely difficult to get them to speak so it is hard to know if they are ignorant of the language or simply too shy to use it.”

There are soooo many factors potentially at play here that it’s often difficult to know where to start, especially if you’re new to the old language teaching game and you’re a naturally gregarious person who likes to have a chin-wag.

Why are those darn students so reticent to talk? It’s not normal! Surely they like to talk about stuff in their language, right? So why won’t they have a go in English? Et cetera.

Now, I’m not trying to belittle anyone here or have a go because it truly, truly is a frustrating thing. Students SIGN UP for a conversation class and then (appear to) stubbornly refuse to open their mouths! What gives?

THE NUMBER ONE reason, both in my own classroom experience early on and observing other teachers’ classes is…

… no actual PURPOSE to communicate.

Simple as that.

There are plenty of other factors that I don’t want to get into in this article (I could go on at length about this one), but the main one is a complete absence of FOCUS or PURPOSE for the task.

It’s a phenomenon I refer to as “Do it coz I said,” which translates roughly as “I am the teacher and you are the student. We have a kind of contract here which says you agree to do what I say. And, uh, I’m telling you to do this so, uh, do it. Now, go. Start. Do that thing I just said to do.”

This phenomenon applies to ALL classroom activities, but when it’s applied solely to communicative tasks — or even more specifically, to discussion tasks — I refer to it as “Talk ya bastards!”

I’ve even seen teachers (trainees, mostly, but not all!) say to students (and this is the absolute, no-word-of-a-lie God’s honest, by the way!):

“Okay, talk about these 3 points with your partner. [waving arms as if chasing away geese] Okay, go! Discuss! Discuss!”


I first struck upon my “Talk ya bastards” theory just a couple of years into my teaching career. I’d certainly experienced my fair share of conversation classes which were like pulling teeth, but somehow I’d managed to stumble upon SOMETHING which had resulted in it not really happening any more. Obviously some kind of accident; I don’t recall any epiphany. Yet I still heard the laments of other teachers in the staffroom “Why won’t they speak?!”

So I dug into this a little bit and took a look at what I was doing and then casually chatted with the frustrated teachers about what they were doing. And I found two glaring commonalities: lack of support for the task and lack of purpose for the task. It’s the latter, obviously, that I’d like to discuss further in this article.

Without any real purpose to do the task (whatever the task is, incidentally; where, admittedly, some tasks require very scant purpose), the students will, not unreasonably, be reluctant to do it.

Now, combine that with being asked to speak in a public “forum”; in a language over which they (rightly or wrongly) perceive themselves to be no good at (a separate issue for another day), and you’ve got a problem, I’m sure you’ll agree.

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So what’s the solution?

Well, I wish I could wrap it all up in a box with a neat little bow and you could open the box whenever you needed to. Alas, if only it were that easy! There are just too many factors at work simultaneously. BUT…

The single most important thing you can do is reframe your tasks so that there is a more “genuine” purpose for communicating. I put “genuine” in quotes because it’s debatable just how “authentic” or “genuine” ANY task in the context of a language learning class can actually be (again, a topic for another day, perhaps).

Nonetheless, students are much more willing to “play along,” so to speak, if there is even the “illusion” of purpose.

An example:

“Okay, please talk in groups about these three questions:
1. Where did you go for your last holiday?
2. Who did you go with?
3. Did you have a good time? Why or why not?

I’ll give you 10 minutes. Please start.”

Good luck.

There are probably one or two keeners who are willing to chat about things regardless of their issues with accuracy or limited grammar and vocab or what have you, but if no one else even looks like they’re going to open their mouths, then neither will they. Sad, but true.

And before you judge too harshly, have you ever been to a meeting or a conference with a bunch of EFL teachers? The speaker asks “How are you? Are you having a good time?” and about 3 people answer. Usually the organisers.

People are people are people.

I absolutely love live music, but positively hate it when the vocalist insists on getting everyone to shout back something inane and appears to ask a genuine question: “Are you having a good time tonight, Sydney?” Sure, lots of folks shreik their response. But we’re talking FANS here. Most of ‘em drunk, at that.

Transpose to a meeting room. The boss says “Are you having a good day today, people?” and he or she is likely to get 3 or 4 murmured responses — quite possibly from the very same people who will scream and wave their arms for some rock singer.

Anyway, rant rant rant… let’s look at a re-take of that same activity:

“Okay, let’s get into groups here… Wei Li, Xiao, and Ting, [etc. grouping students by name and physically moving chairs, if necessary]…

… right, now… I have three questions here…

[teacher reads out questions and/or writes them on w/b. Teacher then clarifies the meaning of anything in the Qs. In this case, for, say, a Pre-Int class there would be nothing worth clarifying - possibly only rephrasing "Who did you go with?" as "Who went with you?" accompanied by some body language to reinforce the idea of "togetherness"]

“I’d like you to discuss these questions together AND… [pause]… listen to your partners’ answers. We have groups of 3 - and one group of 4 over here - so please listen to the other people BECAUSE… [stressing this and then pausing] at the end I’m going to ask you a question. [Most students will listen very carefully at this point. You might even see them physically lean forward slightly!]

“At the end, I want you to tell me which holiday sounded the best to YOU and why. Which holiday would YOU like to go on if you had the chance? So, for example, if Yang listens to Ling and Chiang and she thinks Chiang’s last holiday sounded really really good, she needs to ask some questions to find out more information. Why? [rhetorically] Because after 10 minutes, if I ask her and she says “I liked Chiang’s holiday” what will I ask her after that?

Students: “Why?”

Teacher: “That’s right! So please ask lots of questions about the holidays.

“And… and… and… I want you to listen carefully to all the stories because holidays are often very similar. Maybe you went to different places, but I think at least ONE thing [gesturing] was probably the SAME. So I want you to listen and find out… what was the same for all 3 of you (or four over here [gesturing]).”

Then check your instructions. And let ‘em rip!

You may have noticed that I actually built in TWO purposes for this task. Can you identify them?



Neither of them is particularly “genuine” or even particularly clever, but I’m pretty confident that their inclusion will help that activity work more smoothly. :grin:

The other thing I need to say before this goes on waaaaay too long (told you I could go on about this point for days, didn’t I?) is that this example presupposes that you have done a whole raft of other things (which we’ll talk about some other time) BEFORE getting the students to do this task! (The “support for the task” issue that I alluded to, above.)

Okay, to wrap up…

Earlier in this article I mentioned how I came across this phenomenon: by asking other teachers what they’d done which hadn’t worked so well. Many of them told me (in so many words) that they’d gone in and chatted about the topic, told a story or two and then put up the discussion questions.

When you look at it like that, it’s kinda obvious that it’s gonna bomb, innit?

I hope this article was useful. Take whatever your discussion tasks are for the next week or two and think about how you can build in some kind of simple PURPOSE or FOCUS for the task. Don’t go wild. Start out with something simple or you’re likely to overcomplicate it and overwhelm your students.

Then come back and leave your comments below; I’d love to know how you go!

And if you’re working with high-level students (i.e. “really good, near-the-end-of-their-course” Upper-Int students and above), you might like to check out this book:

Full details here…

And finally…

…because the person who inspired this response works in China, I thought I’d add this one. It’s a nice blog if you’re interested in doing the Middle Kingdom thang:

Clark Neilson for the Win.

I don’t know the dude and to be honest I have ZERO interest in ever working in China, but I find myself pulled back to his blog because he has a really erudite writing style and a wry way of looking at the world that appeals to me. Also, I’m not too sure how old he is (I’m guessing mid-20s), but there’s an interesting tension or disjunction between his being relatively young and sort of wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, but not at all naive.

I like it. If you’re already living in mainland China or thinking about going there for work, I recommend Clark’s blog.


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3 Responses to “Getting Students to Talk”

  1. I’m not sure if this *exactly* applies to EFL, but I studied languages in University and thus got some ideas from studying OTHER languages as foreign languages. A couple of things I remember doing: one is to read something or watch something first and discuss that. If it’s fresh and your mind and you’ve JUST read about it, the desire to talk about it is much stronger. You can provide discussion questions that use the content.

    We often also did “debate style” conversations, where you present some sort of hot topic and then we had some time to forumalate arguments either for or against, and then discuss. You obviously can’t do these for every class, but of all my conversation classes those are the ones I remember the most because I found them most interesting.

    I guess these were in a Western setting, too, so it is possible that these activities might work less well in places like China, where people might be more hesitant to be seen as “wrong”.

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    •  Leslie says:

      Hi Alana

      Good comment; a useful addition. :grin:

      You make two points - let me pick up on each in turn:

      1. Doing a reading or watching something and then discussing that.

      Absolutely! This is a great approach. The input/stimulus-response model.

      Still, this is a very easy one to abuse, where a terrific opportunity to build support for the task and provide engaging themes for the students to respond to can easily become yet another “talk ya bastards” style lesson.

      It doesn’t take super-cleverness to generate discussion from a short text, or an excerpt from an online interview/podcast, or a short section from a film or cartoon or current affairs show or even a TV commercial.

      What I’m about to say really is a post for another day, but the teacher needs to facilitate the learners in processing the text for meaning first.

      I don’t know how many times I’ve said that one: Process the text for meaning first.

      Just as if you were doing a receptive skills lesson - only simpler because you’re not especially focusing on those skills. You’re just using the text as a “springboard” for the discussion (in our example).

      Then, you simply go back through the text and identify key THEMES and ISSUES that the text raises. I see too many discussion questions centring on the details of the text. That’s not a discussion. That’s reading skills done as a discussion.

      Instead, identify which themes the text deals with and write some questions that would be relevant to your particular group of learners.

      Caveat: A lot of teachers (both novice and experienced alike - and including me when I started) make the mistake of thinking that controversy is a surefire winner for the discussion class.

      It’s not. Again, I’ll post about why not another day. (Lordy me! All these tangential threads that keep popping up here!)

      Controversy alone does not a discussion make.

      So, where was I? Oh yeah, dig out the main themes and a couple of minor or related themes from the text and formulate some discussion questions (or design a discussion task - again, for another day) which focus students on those themes and which… wait for it… give them an opportunity to respond personally to the text.

      Then, harking back to the main article, give the students a purpose to actually discuss those questions.

      2. Debates

      You’re right that debates do need to be handled with care, but I’m not sure that there’s necessarily any reason to not do them in cultural contexts where saving face is a big deal and tolerance for ambiguity is low.

      China, for example, has a pretty well-established tradition of literary rhetoric as far as I’m aware. But I’ve never lived there (or even been there!) so I might also be talking bollocks. Anyone care to comment on this point?

      In some ways, given that there isn’t really a “right” or “wrong” answer in a debate, it could well be a way to provide an incredibly structured format for oral communicative practice.

      Students get to share ideas, plan, edit, rehearse and then present their part uninterrupted for X-amount of time (say, 1min or 2mins max) and you build up to the ability to respond to the previous speaker’s comments and then later introduce the idea of a whip. And who says it has to be 3 vs 3?

      I think that, if approached in the right spirit, i.e. one of highly structured and directed oral practice without actually being a highly controlled task to practise specific TL (target language), you could slooooowly build up to some quite accomplished stuff, even from relatively low-level students.

      I think the biggest hurdle to debates in countries with a heavy Confucian influence would be fostering the independent critical thinking skills needed for debating.

      Now, before anyone gets bent out of shape about that last paragraph, I’m not suggesting that, say, the Chinese are imbeciles. On the contrary, someone told me an interesting factoid the other day (which, could, indeed, be complete fiction!): Given its population, in 20 years, China will have more MENSA-level geniuses than the entire population of the United States. :shock:

      My point is simply that the manner or approach to dealing with problems/conundrums/etc is quite different in the Confucian tradition as compared with the Socratic tradition… making it, in my opinion, the most likely stumbling block to running successful debates.

      Perhaps this is what you were getting at, Alana, when you said “people might be more hesitant to be seen as ‘wrong’.” We might be looking at the different ends of the same stick; I’m suggesting that the stumbling block would be students who shut down or paralyse or short change their own ability to come up with great ideas because it’s not THE correct answer that they expect the teacher to dole out to them like scripture.

      But on the whole, I see no particular reason that debates wouldn’t work if, like I said, you approached them from the perspective of highly-structured speaking tasks rather than antagonistic ego-fests rife with condescending quips, scathing rebuttals, and brazen inferences that the other team all have their heads up their arses — which is how we get trained to think of them in our school tradition (and why debating is a “dirty” word for many folks, who associate it with erudite rugby-playing tools in dinner jackets and pony-owning princesses with pursed lips like a cat’s butt - both of whom think that the world and everything in it is theirs to take because Daddy’s the CEO of Pillage Inc., a member of the Lions Club, and an otherwise all-round good bloke and he said so!).


      P.S. You have a really nice blog over there, btw. Interesting concept to have multiple writers on the same blog. Interesting content, too! :smile:

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  2. Roni Roni says:

    Trouble getting them to talk!!! You’re joking, right? I can’t get the buggers to shut up!!! Although they speak mostly in Spanish and I always respond in English (and remind them we’re in ENGLISH CLASS so we should be speaking English) and then we bat back and forth until something is understood… and the task is finally started, and by that time the bell rings and class is over… To be honest, I’d rather teach kids who want to learn, not kids who are in class because they have to be… “We gotta get outta this place, if it’s the last thing we ever dooooo!!!”

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