Five Ways to Teach Speaking to YLs

by Maria Conca

Can we teach speaking to YLs?

One of the most frequently asked questions on YL training sessions I have been to or that I have run is ‘Can we teach speaking to YLs?’. While many ESL/EFL teachers agree with the idea that ‘it is not necessary (or even possible) to teach speaking in any real sense’ (Richards,1990:78), I believe many of us would agree that as language teachers we should always provide opportunities for oral interactions in the classroom. This is particularly important when you are teaching in a non-English speaking environment and your learners have generally limited practice opportunities out of the classroom; it is crucial when you are teaching teenagers aged 10-14.

Before you carry on reading, think for a moment of the practice opportunities and the interaction tasks that you set to your learners in your class and answer these questions:

  • Which speaking activities do you integrate in your lesson?
  • Do your learners have to complete a task?
  • Do your learners actually use the language?
  • Do your learners enjoy speaking?

I have asked a group of EFL teachers I’m currently training. Unsurprisingly, they admit that they had never thought that they could teach a speaking lesson. They would rather plan a speaking activity at the end of the lesson to practise the grammar and vocabulary they have taught. Speaking activities are mainly games, acting out conversations/dialogues, role-plays, Q&A, questionnaires, which learners usually enjoy. It is quite rare to see learners using the language meaningfully and spontaneously in a less controlled speaking activity.

Types of speaking and approaches to teaching

 There’s nothing wrong with using games or role-plays as speaking activities to practise or reinforce grammar, but is that the objective of speaking?

When we speak, we hardly do it to show off our vocabulary or excellent grammar. In real life, people speak to get their message across, to get something done or simply socialize. YLs aren’t that different. Their motivation to speak is socializing, sharing information, learning new things from their peers, expressing their own world of feelings and ideas. Teaching speaking to YLs is therefore possible and necessary for learners’ language development. How can we do that effectively? Speaking tasks and activities need to reflect the motivations and the purposes of real life communication. Think of the last five conversations you have had this morning.

These are mine:

  1. I talked to a restaurant manager to book the end of term dinner
  2. I chatted to a colleague about her weekend in Rome
  3. I interviewed a Job applicant for a teaching position in my school
  4. I invited a friend to see a play next week
  5. I recorded a Whatsapp voice message for a parent to let him know exam dates & times for his child

You may have had completely different conversations to mine with different people and on different topics. However, the purposes of your conversations are likely to be the same:

Transactional vs Interactional

to convey/obtain/exchange information


to create or maintain social relationships

(Brown & Yule, 1983)

Depending on your habits or situations, your conversations may have been on-line, face to face or off line/delayed and planned or unplanned.

Speaking activities for YLs need to promote learners’ ability to manage exchanges for a variety of communicative purposes relating to their interests and real life situations, in which the motivation is given by the expected outcome, both social and practical. This is why, among the wide range of speaking activities available that teachers can use in class, task-based activities with a clear objective are the most suitable to deliver a speaking-based lesson. Interactive tasks in order to be communicative need to feature the following:

  • An information gap
  • Immediate feedback
  • Choice (Johnson and Morrow,1981:62-63)

In order to maximize YLs’ oral output, the context or the situation must be set very clearly through a variety of inputs as well as pre-speaking tasks, e.g. visuals, realia, vocabulary activities, videos, short listenings/readings, dialogue reconstructions, class surveys, presentations. Pre-communicative activities (Littlewood, 1981) will introduce the topic and offer practice opportunities, in which YLs can gradually build their own set of words, chunks, phrases required to complete the speaking task successfully.

 Planning speaking activities

 How can we make speaking tasks more motivating, effective and targeted for meaningful language use in the classroom? Think real life. What would YLs do or say in a given situation in their real life in their L1? Observe your learners: make notes of the things they like doing or talking about. Plan activities that will provide them with authentic models and the language they need to perform a task. Give them time to plan, prepare and rehearse if necessary. Set a manageable task they can perform with a peer while having fun. Here are some examples of speaking activities that work with teens aged 10-14.

                  Organize an end of term dinner with your teachers

Pre-speaking activities

v  Show pictures of local restaurants

v  Discuss options: What’s your favourite? Which one would you like to go to? Which is the best/the cheapest?

v  Set the context: End of term dinner is coming soon. Which restaurant would like to go to?

v  Brainstorming: What information do you need e.g. address, opening times, vegetarian menu, prices?

v  Revise vocabulary as necessary

  Speaking task


v  Divide the learners up into two groups

v  Give out prompt cards with questions/information cards

v  Learners A have information about the restaurants. Learners B need to find out menu, address, opening times, vegetarian menu, prices

Follow up

v  Call a friend or an English teacher to invite them to the dinner


 Chat to a partner who has just come back from a school trip

Pre-speaking activities

v  Ask learners about their last school trip: Where did you go? How did you travel? Was the weather nice? What did you see/do?

v  Do you have any pictures on your mobiles? Show them to a partner and say: where you were, what  you were doing etc.

v  Write a text message to five people in the class (for real or on post-it notes) to tell them about your school trip. Start like this ‘Hi there! You know what? I’ve had just been on a school trip to…’

v  Revise vocabulary as necessary

  Speaking task


v  Learners choose five more people in the class to chat about their last school trip


Follow up

v  Make 1 minute video about your school trip and share it

Interview a celebrity

Pre-speaking activities

v  Set the context using pictures, a short listening or

video of an interview, e.g.

v  Give learners a situation: You want to interview a celebrity for your school magazine

v  Ask YLs to give you the names of their international, local or even ‘school’ celebrities and write them up on board

v  Negotiate the three most popular celebrities with the class

v  Get learners to choose one celebrity to interview and make the groups accordingly

v  Learners write five questions in groups

v  Revise vocabulary as necessary

  Speaking task


v  Nominate or ask volunteers to pretend to be the celebrities. They can make up the answers if they don’t know a lot about them

v  Learners from each group take turns asking questions to their celebrity




                   Invite a friend to a school event or a festival for teenagers

Pre-speaking activities

v  Show pictures of events/festivals to revise useful vocabulary

v  Ask which events YLs have been to/are going to/would like to go to this year

v  Get YLs to fill in information cards with place, dates/times, activities

v  Give out a sample conversation to reconstruct and role play

v  Revise vocabulary as necessary

  Speaking task


v  Learners invite each other to the events

v  They can accept/refuse/make excuses


Follow up

v  Make 1 min video to advertise your school event on social media

                    Record a voice message to a friend offering help with his/her homework.

Pre-speaking activities

v  Set the context by showing the picture of stationery

v  Play a short recording or video about homework e.g.

v  Revise subjects, things you need and useful language, e.g. organize your notes

v  Learners think of problems they usually have with their homework.

v  They record a voice message with their mobile phone in which they ask for help or advice to peers

v  Revise vocabulary as necessary

  Speaking task


v  Learners exchange mobile phones and listen to the messages

v  Give them thinking and preparation time

v  They record a voice massage to offer help, advice or suggestions

There is an endless combination of topics, tasks and communicative purposes for a speaking lesson depending on your YLs’ situation, interests and language level. As language teachers, we should ensure that speaking tasks are sufficiently motivating, realistic and communicative in the sense that they actually provide a chance for interlocutors to negotiate meaning and acquire communicative competence through conversation and purposeful language use.

Author’s Bio: Maria Conca has been teaching English for over nine years in the UK and in Italy, where she’s based and has been running her self-owned language school since 2011. She took her CELTA at IH Rome in 2007 and has recently completed her Delta at IH Newcastle (Module two) and Distance Delta IH London (Module one & Three). She has worked as a teacher, teacher trainer in primary education and CLIL, DoS and academic manager. Her main interests are YL, Teaching oral skills, CLIL, SLA and materials development.


Brown, G. & Yule, G. (1983). Teaching the spoken language, CUP

Johnson, K. & K. Morrow. (1981). Communication in the Classroom, Longman

Littlewood, J. (1981). Communicative language teaching, CUP

Richards, J. C. (1990). The Language teaching matrix, CUP