How can I make sure my speaking activities are effective?

20 March 2019

I’m just back from a teacher training event in Jakarta where I was presenting on “Advancing your learners’ spoken production”. I had previously delivered a similar session that was very practical, maybe too practical actually, and I was looking to add more depth and reasoning behind why we should use those activities and what were some of the commonalities in terms of key principles we should be considering when designing speaking activities. A moment of inspiration also came from watching a great webinar by David Spencer (author of the Gateway series for teenagers) which focused on a variety of key principles for speaking activities.

In this blog I will review these key principles and then give a few activities that connect to them. I hope you can also connect to these principles too!

Key Principles

Example Activities

Here are 3 activities I tried out during the workshop. Some are my own adaptions and some I credit to David Spencer (if you want to find out more games from David, then check out his Gateway facebook page)

Activity 1: Odd one out


  1. Show students 3 pictures from the lexical set you are teaching e.g. 3 sea creatures.
  2. Individually first and then in pairs or groups, ask them to try and think of at least 3 different odd one out scenarios. Give them some sentence prompts to help them form their answers e.g. I think _____ is the odd one out because _______
  3. Give them an example first.
  4. Ask a few students to share their ideas. (Number the students in the pairs or groups – and you say “ok, number 2s are going to feedback)
  5. You could ask groups to come and write their answers on the board. You can award points for the most creative answers.
  6. If you want to extend the activity you could give students a tri-Venn (three interlocking circles) and they write each sea creature in each circle. As they listen to the ideas from class mates they write onto their tri-Venn. Once they have finished they can try and re-tell the differences (and similarities) with a partner).

Reflection on connection to the key principles

  1. The interaction patterns ensure that everyone has a chance to share and talk
  2. The activity is measurable i.e. at least 3 odd one out scenarios
  3. By numbering the students for feedback you avoid only the strong speakers speaking
  4. The sentence prompts can help provide structure for the activity.

Activity 2: Pass the pen


  1. Prepare some pictures from a story. It works best when you have an on-going story of 4-6 scenes. You can have pictures or you can put these on a PPT.
  2. Put the class into groups of 6 (they need a pen and a piece of paper per group) and ask them to stand or sit in a circle.
  3. Play the music and pass a pen around the circle (pre-teach useful language “Here you go…thanks” as they pass the pen).
  4. When the music stops show the first picture, the group discusses a sentence to describe the first picture, the student holding the pen writes down that sentence. Set a time limit. If need be the teacher can hold up a key word that they need to use in their sentence.
  5. As an extra challenge, when the time is up, ask groups to try and add one word to the sentence if possible.
  6. Repeat process until groups have done 4-6 pictures and they have a basic story.
  7. Number students in the group 1-6. Teacher roles a dice and the number it lands on refers to the number student who will share the story to another group. They have to walk to another group and share their story. Once they have finished they return to their original group. Repeat the process.
  8. If you want to extend the activity you could ask groups to vote on their favourite story and then give some basic feedback on what story they liked and why.

Reflection on connection to the key principles

  1. The activity has a clear goal and gives them a fun reason to communicate.
  2. By numbering students and then rolling a dice the speaker is unknown so all members of the group must be ready to speak. This ensures the great speakers don’t dominate.
  3. The activity is measurable i.e. write one sentence to describe the picture and add one word at the end.
  4. You may want to add some sentence prompts for students to choose from to support them through the activity.



  1. Choose an engaging picture (use a picture of yourself when you were young) and put it on a PPT.
  2. Tell students you will flash the picture for 3 seconds and they have to try and remember as much as they can from what they saw. Flash the picture.
  3. Individually students think about what they saw. Show sentence prompts on the PPT (think of at least 1 thing for each sentence prompt). Set a time limit. Prompts may include the following structures:

                             I saw a/an…

                            He/she was……ing

                            I think there was…

                           There may have been a/an/some…

  1. Put students in pairs, and number them 1 and 2. Number 1 starts and they have one minute to tell their partner what they saw. After one minute stop them and ask number 2s to speak for one minute.

Ask for feedback e.g. “Tell me something your partner saw”.

Reflection on connection to the key principles

  1. By numbering students both members of the pair have a chance to speak. This ensures the great speakers don’t dominate.
  2. The activity is measurable i.e. write one sentence for each prompt.
  3. You give a reason to speak with the activity by giving them a competitive challenge
  4. You are building an atmosphere of mutual trust if you use a picture of a ‘young you’ – as they are getting to know you more also.

So, I hope that gives you more understanding about why we might use certain speaking activities. By thinking more about the principles behind the activities can help make sure the activities are more effective. Next time you are planning a speaking activity, connect to those principles and see how the activity runs. Good luck!

John Cruft is the Regional Professional Development Senior Manager for Macmillan Education, Asia and MENA. He has been working in Asia for over 16 years as both a teacher and teacher trainer. John has taught in both the public and private sectors. He has also designed and delivered professional development workshops across the Asian region in many different contexts, including government INSETT projects in Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

John holds a Master’s degree in Education and International Development from the Institute of Education in London, where the focus of his study was on education systems across Asia. He also holds a PGDip TESOL from the University of Nottingham, UK.