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ESL Conversation Starters

Instructor: Erin Rowe

Erin is currently teaching English at a university in South Korea and has a Master's degree in Education.

Sometimes, getting your students to speak in an ESL class can be like pulling teeth. These activities will help students gain confidence in speaking and increase their motivation to learn the English language.

Sparking Conversation Among ESL Students

As an ESL teacher, you know that getting students to speak up in class can be challenging. Often, students feel embarrassed due to their imperfect language skills, which is why it's important to help students understand that it's OK to make mistakes, particularly when learning a foreign language. You can also use the following in-class conversation starters to get students talking in the ESL classroom.

Question and Answer

On the first day of class, most students are feeling incredibly anxious. This first-day activity will help students come out of their shell and help you gauge their skills with English pronunciation.

How to Play

At the beginning of the class, tell the students that they are all going to have the opportunity to ask the teacher one question. There is one simple rule: A question that has already been asked by a student can not be repeated. It can be very helpful to write a variety of question words on the board before this activity begins.

As the Q&A begins and the most common questions are asked, it's interesting to watch students try to think of another question once the question they have been thinking of gets asked. Sometimes, a student struggles to think of a question, so give that student some 'thinking time' and come back to them at the end. The game gets really fun when the teacher decides to get the students to guess what their answer will be for a certain question.

Interview Your Partner

This activity is great to use the first day of class, as it will encourage students to get to know each other by learning personal details about their classmates. If you are teaching a 4-skills class (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), this activity translates well into a writing task by having students write a paragraph about their respective partners. This task also practices students' reading, speaking, and listening skills.

How to Play

The teacher will create a variety of interview questions on a piece of paper, leaving a space after each question so the student can record the answer given by their partner. This activity can be tailored to student level by the questions the teacher develops. For example, for low-level students, questions can be focused on one main topic, like favorite things:

  • What is your favorite color?
  • What is your favorite food?
  • What is your favorite animal?

For higher level students, questions can become more complicated. For example:

  • Can you tell me about a time when you felt very frightened?
  • What is your proudest moment?
  • Who do you most admire in your family?

Liars Poker

This is a great activity to use at the end of the week because it's fun and energetic--ideal for the end-of-week energy of the classroom.

Materials needed: Poker chips or some other type of game pieces

How to Play

Break the class up into small groups of 4-5 students. Each student will receive 6 poker chips or game pieces. One student will start the game by saying three sentences--two are true statements and one is a lie. The other students try to determine which of the sentences is a lie by asking the student to give an explanation or ask questions regarding the statements. The students then bet one of their chips and guess which statement is a lie. If they guess correctly, they keep their chip. If they are incorrect the 'liar' collects their chip. The student with the most chips at the end of the game is declared the winner.

Just One Minute

This is a fluency activity that works well with older or upper-level students who have a high level of confidence in their English-speaking ability.

Materials needed: A chalkboard/whiteboard and a sticky ball

How to Play

The teacher will write a variety of topics on the board. A student will come up and throw a sticky ball at the board. Which ever topic the ball is closest to is the topic that the student must speak about.

You can add another dimension to this activity by having the other students ask questions to the standing student once they have finished their 'one minute' of speaking.

Would you rather...

This speaking activity can really turn up the laughter in the classroom.

Materials needed: A list of 'would you rather' questions

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