TAPIF | Activities to Get Your ESL Students Talking

Prior to my TAPIF experience, I had never taught an ESL course before. Given that I was just coming off of considerable exposure to French courses, I had some ideas and was comfortable with the concept. However, I could have really done with one coherent list of activities that (nearly) always work. Alas, I was stuck with some interesting trial and error. Luckily for you, dear reader, the following ideas are sure to work with most of your classes (but don’t hunt me down if they don’t).

All of the following activities are designed to get the students talking and interacting as much as possible.

Two Truths, One Lie

This is my favorite introductory class because it allows the students to ask questions about me and get more comfortable speaking right away, as there is a clear goal. The activity itself is as simple as it gets:

  1. Write three sentences about yourself on the board, two of which are true, one of which is false. (Come up with your sentences beforehand.)
  2. Explain to the students, typically in several ways, that they are to ask questions to figure out which statement is false.
  3. Make clear to them that you are and will be lying about one of them and that it is their job to come to a consensus on which one. For the purposes of this activity, you must pretend that all three are true. The students will catch you based on how well you can lie about your false statement. (As I did the activity more and more, I had to change my false statement because I gradually became really good at convincing people that I owned two snakes and the students had no hope.) If the students are not keen to volunteer questions, you can use the popcorn selection approach to get everyone involved. (See below.)
  4. Ask the class if they are ready to vote on the false statement.
  5. If you have time left over, have one of the students come up and do the same thing, making clear that they should avoid facts that everyone knows about them. (I typically say, “Don’t write that you have 9 siblings if everyone knows that you are an only child.”)

Picture Drawing

Before even attempting to start this activity, I explain the concept of describing an object that you do not know the word for. I tell my students that the activity is ridiculously pointless if they slip into French; typically, they find the activity intimidating at first, but really fun once they get into it. I usually end up miming a lot of the instructions, but it works out.

  1. Pick a bizarre picture to project onto the board. (If you do not have access to a projector, some pre-planning will suffice; you can arrange to have enough copies for half of the students.)
  2. Have the students partner up. One partner is to turn physically away from the board. This is the partner that is attempting to replicate your image by drawing it.
  3. After you project the image (once half of the students cannot see it), the second partner is to describe the scene.

In addition to being entertaining, this activity is good practice for their oral bacs.

Speed Dating

You can do many alterations on this activity, and it depends on how much time you want to fill. If I wanted to fill the entire hour, I would typically start with a clip describing the concept of speed dating, discuss what the students thought of it, do the speed dating activity, and wrap up by asking if the students had in any way changed their minds after participating.

  1. Have the students line up their chairs facing each other. If you have an odd number of students, you will have to participate in the activity yourself.
  2. Hand each student a list of speed dating questions and explain that you would like them to take turns asking and answering the provided questions. Make sure they are practicing introducing themselves.
  3. Time each round to be 5-10 minutes. (This works best if you have some sort of alarm, perhaps on your phone.)
  4. After each round, have half of the students rotate one position over and begin a new round.

I Love My Neighbors Who

  1. Have the students arrange their chairs in a circle. To begin the game, stand in the circle yourself to demonstrate how the game works.
  2. The person in the center is like the monkey in the middle. It is their task to make a sentence beginning with “I love my neighbors who…” and choose a quality. Everyone who shares this quality is to then stand up and switch chairs. The person in the center, if quick enough, can now occupy one of the abandoned chairs, leaving a new person in the center. For example, the person in the middle can say something like, “I love my neighbors who have a driver’s license.” Everyone who has a driver’s license should then stand up and find another vacant chair.
  3. At first, the students tend to talk about what people are wearing, but I eventually encourage them to go outside of the box a bit.

The Agony Aunt

I used this activity after having my students write New Years resolutions and during Christmas, but you can be creative in your themes.

  1. Have the students write down either resolutions or themed problems.
  2. Choose a student to read his or her problems out loud. Write this problem on the board.
  3. Have students come up with advice on how to achieve this resolution or solve the problem. If the students are not all participating, use the popcorn selection approach to get everyone involved. (See below.)
  4. After noting some minimum number of pieces of advice on the board (3 to 5, typically), move on to the next example.


* The ‘popcorn selection approach’ is not an activity in itself, but rather a way of forcing communal participation from each student in the classroom without knowing names yourself. Known to practically every student that spent elementary/middle school in America, the approach involves a student reading an excerpt (a sentence/paragraph) or contributing a snippet of information before choosing the next student to do so. For example, if Student A reads the first sentence in a paragraph, he or she then says, “Popcorn, Student B,” or “Popcorn, Student X,” as he or she wishes.


2 Responses to “TAPIF | Activities to Get Your ESL Students Talking”
  1. Clément says:

    Hi. I was one of urte’s students in Metz, I find it really interesting to see the other side of the teaching with our assistant, and it gives a complete different viewpoint on the matter. Also, it’s kinda exciting to know more about a teacher we didn’t know anything about: I mean, her ways of life, and what she has gone through to come there, the importance and the role of this experience in her life, and what this travel means to her.

    I had a great time working with you, it’s a shame we only had very few hours lessons with you. And yeah… for a moment we really thought you had two snakes x)
    Thank you. I wish you well.

    • ciaourte says:

      Clément, it is nice to see your perspective! (Sorry to be so late to reply to your comment; it got lost while I was in ’email jail,’ as they say.) I’m glad you had a good experience in our classes. I had such a wonderful time in Metz and warm memories of my students. Guess what? I now have two alpaca! Do find me on facebook, as I would love to catch up with you!

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