Monday, November 22, 2021

How to Encourage English Language Learners to Speak in Class

How can you get your English language Learners to talk more in your classes?  While that may seem counterproductive since it’s more common for teachers to want their students to talk less, with ELLs it’s often the opposite. ELLs frequently sit silently in mainstream classes, rarely raising their hands to answer questions or volunteering comments during discussions.  In this blog post, I’ll share 4 reasons why that may be happening, 4 things you can do if you’re a regular education teacher to encourage your ELLs to more actively participate orally in your classes, and 4 strategies for English Language Learners that you can incorporate into your lessons to help your ELL students talk more.

Why English Language Learners Don’t Talk in Mainstream Classes

When my regular ed colleagues visited my classroom, they were always amazed at how noisy my room was.  That’s because my ELLs were talking all the time – even when they weren’t supposed to be!  That was in stark contrast to their classes, where the same students just sat there without saying anything the whole period.  Here are some reasons why there was such a difference between my class and theirs.

* Some ELLs might be in a stage of language learning called the Silent Period.  My blog post explains this in more detail but essentially it means that students who are just beginning to learn English do not yet feel ready to communicate in the language.  If you have ELLs at beginning levels of proficiency in your classroom, this could be why they are not participating.

* Many ELLs may be more proficient but have a challenge understanding the concepts being taught in English.  They are trying to understand the material being taught in a language they are still learning.  This is frequently the case with ELLs at intermediate levels of language proficiency.

* Many ELLs are self-conscious about making errors when speaking.  This is especially true if other people have made fun of them – or if they just think they were laughed at – in the past when they were talking.  They may be unsure of the correct grammar or vocabulary to use, or struggle to keep up with native English speakers’ conversations, and feel it’s better to not say anything than to say something incorrectly or say something that other people don’t understand.

* Some ELLs are introverts.  These students may well understand what is going on in the class but they just don’t feel comfortable participating in an active way.  They aren’t extroverted even when communicating in their first language.

Why English Language Learners don't talk in mainstream classes
Source: The ESL Nexus

What Teachers Can Do to Overcome Barriers to English Language Learners Speaking in Class

* The most important thing is to create a welcoming and nurturing classroom environment.  When students – not just ELLs but all students – feel comfortable in your class, they will feel more encouraged to take the risk of speaking. Displaying multicultural posters of people from diverse backgrounds, displaying multilingual posters (such as these from my TpT store) on a bulletin board, having books in languages other than English in your class library, and recognizing holidays celebrated in other cultures are a few ways to create a positive atmosphere in your classroom.

* It’s also very helpful to share your own language learning experiences. For example, I told my students about my attempts to learn Mandarin Chinese when I went to China the first time to teach.  I explained how I was scared to go out shopping by myself because I was afraid a) I’d get lost and b) I wouldn’t be able to buy what I needed because my Chinese wasn’t good enough yet and no one would understand me.  But, I told my students, I realized that if I never tried to speak, there was no way I would ever improve my Chinese.  I related that back to how they also had to take the risk of speaking and being wrong in order to learn and develop their skills.  And if you’ve created a socially and emotionally supportive classroom environment, your students will be more likely to take those risks.

* Emphasizing that it’s okay to make mistakes goes in tandem with taking risks.  I always told my students that it’s by making mistakes that we learn.  Because when we say something grammatically incorrect, or use the wrong word, or have difficulty making ourselves understood, that’s how we’ll know the correct thing to say in the future.  

* I also always stressed that it was important for my students to ask questions.  Because asking questions shows an interest in what’s being said and that they want to learn.  It doesn’t matter if students ask questions using incorrect grammar, or if it takes them a few tries before they manage to ask their questions.  The point is that they want to know something and overcame their fear of speaking to ask.  So when that happens, ELLs should be praised and you should take the time to respond thoughtfully because that will encourage them to ask more questions in the future.

4 teaching strategies for getting ELLs to talk more in class
Source: The ESL Nexus

Teaching Strategies for English Language Learners that Encourage Oral Participation

* Working in small groups works great for ELLs!  With fewer people listening to what they say, ELLs will feel less nervous about talking.  But just putting students in small groups isn’t enough since some students can dominate the group and leave others out of participating.  Assigning a job to each student in the group will ensure that every student has to contribute something.  ELLs at a beginning level of language proficiency can be asked to draw something but make sure to include an oral component to the task, such as describing the picture in a few words.  ELLs at higher levels of language proficiency can be asked to do more challenging tasks.

* Turn and talk is a tried and true strategy.  But after telling your students the topic to discuss, give them some time to put their ideas on paper first before they share their ideas.  That way, ELLs can just read their thoughts out loud instead of trying to speak extemporaneously, which puts them on the spot.

* When asking students questions and during whole-class discussions, make sure to allow for sufficient wait time.  ELLs need even longer than the 3-5 seconds commonly recommended because they are not only processing the question or comment in English, they are also trying to figure out how to formulate their response in English.  If you don’t wait long enough and call on another student before your ELL has time to respond, then your ELL is not going to feel encouraged to try and speak the next time they’re called on.  So although you may think you’re waiting long enough, and although the silence may feel uncomfortable, wait even longer and you’ll probably be surprised that your ELLs will begin to speak more often in your class.

* But don’t cold call ELLs to answer questions or offer comments.  That puts them on the spot and they might be having a hard time keeping up with the pace of the lesson.  Instead, tell the class that you’re going to call on someone (use the student’s name) and after that, you’re going to call on the ELL (use the student’s name).  Doing this signals your ELLs that they’ll be called on soon and gives them time to prepare and figure out what they want to say.


These are just some ways to get your English Language Learners to talk more in your classes.  You may even find that after encouraging your ELLs to speak more in your classes, you have a hard time getting them to stop talking, but that’s a good problem to have!