Getting them to talk in English (when they don’t want to) – Penny Ur Webinar

Cambridge University Press ELT, Published on 22 Jan 2015

Getting learners to talk in English is one of the most difficult challenges facing the teacher. One of the major reasons for this is that speaking – unlike listening, reading and writing – can only normally take place directly in interaction with an audience, in real time: so if you express yourself badly, hesitate, make mistakes – such failings are immediately exposed to the listener(s). Many learners feel uncomfortable and stressed in such a situation, even within a supportive classroom, and often prefer to keep quiet or use their mother tongue.

In this webinar, Penny Ur, author of Discussions and More (, discusses these problems and suggests some practical ideas as to how we might get such reluctant students to speak in English and feel good about doing so.

Reasons why students do not talk

  • shyness
  • lack of confidence in English
  • afraid of making mistakes
  • losing face

Create situations where:

  • make sure everyone knows each other / is comfortable with one another
  • demands of the speaking task is not too difficult
  • vocabulary must not be too demanding
  • use language that they already know
  • students know they can do it – know they can succeed
  • achievable goal / clear and simple
  • short tasks
  • Give encouragement to students (but not effusive)
  • echo what students say
  • Don’t correct (during oral fluency)
  • Interesting and fun activity
  • opportunities for students to express their own ideas, opinions, experiences
  • game like challenges
  • visual materials
  • language play

Before you start:

(a) Set the stage

Introduction in L1? – explain why you are doing the activities – the importance of speaking practice

  • show awareness of the difficulty
  • explain that mistakes won’t be corrected by the teacher / each other
  • help each other

(b) teach some basic language

  • how do you say X in English
  • Sorry, what do you say / what do you mean?

Practical Activities

“Easing in”

  1. use standard vocabulary / grammar to move into oral fluency – rather than just matching vocabulary, you take out one column. Delete the prescribed choice of answers. Let students come up with their own answers; short and easy to complete structures. Opportunity for ‘modelling’ by the first responders; can be fun.
  2. oral fluency based on pre-learnt chunks – chants (rap) (jazz chants), performed in chorus, replicate the rhythm of normal speech; no possibility of making mistakes; shy students say them under the shelter of other students; dialogues – not the boring ones, but more adventurous, and then performed orally.
  3. oral fluency based on scaffolding – use a familiar pattern to construct variations – guessing games – yes/no questions / statements; conjecturing – no single right answer – doodles – draw on the board – what is it, or show a picture – guess about her; FSW
  4. oral fluency based on their own self-expression – no pre-set learnt text or scaffolding – reverse guessing – student stands with back to the board, rest of the class have to provide hints; picture dictations; say things about a picture – give each group two minutes;

Q&A (20 minutes at the end of the session were given over to questions, which I felt was a good idea)

  • Pair work – students just practising incorrect language? But, better to speak, and practice language, even if incorrect.
  • One to one class students who are reluctant to speak? Vocabulary brainstorming, conjecturing, can still be done in a 1to1 class.
  • Mix more confident and less confident, or match confidence levels? Perhaps mix, so that sometimes they are with similar ability, and sometimes with a different ability; try to so something in the middle.
  • Multiple L1s are easier to get speaking than mono-lingual classes?
  • Mixed ability classes – for example strong students who think the activity is too easy? Try to have activities which can adapt to the level of the student.
  • Avoid one student dominating? Speak frankly to the student; give that student the job as chairperson;
  • Error correction? Effective way of correcting errors? If students are more confident, can be stopped and corrected; even pause interaction – correct mistake – make sure it is corrected before fossilised; with less confident students try to avoid correcting.
  • Scripts acceptable? If use sometimes, but not all the time; provides a repertoire of chunks of language.
  • Let students know that they will be evaluated, or not let them know? Should tell them first. But, how are you evaluating them? What criteria?
  • Old but beginner learner, illiterate in mother tongue. How to help them learn chunks of vocabulary? Through repetition, but has to be interesting.
  • Use alternate words rather than as ‘what’s the word for’? But are valid and possible.
  • Role playing activities? She does not like it; much more challenging – speaking English and play a role; better to be themselves; role play for more advanced students.

Two links to activities from the book.


Penny Ur is pretty much a legend when it comes to learning how to teach EFL. I still have ‘Grammar Practice Activities: A Practical Guide for Teachers’ from 1988, and I think she was publishing well before that. This webinar is filled with common sense ideas; maybe experienced teachers will know most of them, but it is always good to be reminded.