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How to Teach English as a Second Language to Adults (Part 2)

Updated on November 21, 2016

This is the second part of the article featuring advice about teaching English as a second language to adult learners.

In Part 1 of How to Teach English as a Second Language to Adults, we covered some useful tips about teaching both listening and speaking skills in an ESL classroom. As a continuation, this hub will concentrate primarily on improving speaking and conversation skills of adult language learners.

Below are a number of specific speaking activities that you can use in your classroom to engage your students.

ESL Speaking Activities

The main focus of every ESL classroom should be on elevating students’ speaking abilities through oral practice, pronunciation, discussion and various conversational exercises. With your course textbook, there are number of supplementary activities that can be used to coincide with the set lessons that you have in place with the curriculum.

The most effective speaking activities that you can try with your adult class involve using the classroom space for discussion, utilizing movies for feedback, and taking advantage of realia (or real life objects) in the class.

Utilize Classroom Space Effectively for Discussion

Whenever you have a conversation based aim or goal for your students, try to use the area of the class to your advantage. Most students are used to sitting at their desks the whole time. Especially in Asian countries, this has been the norm for most learners since grade school. This activity will get them out of their seats and on their feet conversing with classmates actively.

Arrange your classroom and desks so that there is space for students to stand up and roam freely. Assign the students into random discussion groups by giving them all numbers. On the board, you can do a basic diagram of the classroom layout and mark the numbers 1 to 4 on the layout. Tell the students to go to the area of the class which coincides with the number that they were assigned.

You could assign discussion topics for each location and tell the students to discuss the topic for a set time period. After 5 minutes or so you can get feedback from the groups and ask them what they talked about. Make note of any significant errors and either correct them afterwards or at the end of class providing tips for improvement.

Later, have the students rotate to another location in the room and tell them to change groups/partners so that they don’t have the same people in their group for the next discussion topic.

Watch Movies in the Classroom for Conversation Tasks

Using movies in class is always an engaging method for promoting discussion and to improve students’ speaking ability. There are various strategies for using content available online and adapting them to your lesson plans. You can find some really good free content on YouTube, Vimeo, DailyMotion and to use in your classes.

An example of a fun activity for all ages involves using movie trailers, notetaking and a post-viewing discussion exercise. Create a handout with a chart with a number of columns and rows. Have the class write out various categories on the chart, including things like the movie name, characters, genre, or star-rating etc. On YouTube or Apple’s site you can find all of the latest movie trailers. Play the first trailer and have the class fill out all of the categories on their own sheet.

After the trailer is done, have the class discuss the answers in groups. Encourage them to discuss what they think of the movie and make predictions about what will happen in the story’s plot and characters. The discussion topics are limitless.

If you want something more advanced to try with higher level adult classes, check out and adapt some of the shorter TED talks into your lesson. You could focus on listening for general information, specific details or develop some critical thinking questions based on the presentations.


Use Realia for Speaking Activities

One more method for improving speaking skills of adult language learners is using realia to help encourage discussion in the classroom. Realia is any type of physical object that can be seen or touched. So you could bring in flashcards, playing cards (casino style), food, clothing, hats, masks or any other kind of object relating to some specific theme.

An activity that works great for realia is one that uses cheap wooden chopsticks (or those wooden throat swabs that doctors have). You could also use paper, but it’s less solid and only lasts as long as the lesson typically. The chopsticks or swabs can be used over and over.

For the speaking activity using chopsticks, you can write a topic on each side of the stick. Hand out the sticks randomly to different groups of students in the classroom and have them discuss the topics that are written on each side. Assign a time limit for each topic, get feedback from the students after their discussion, then give each group a new stick.

Have them cycle through as many topics as you like or however long the segment of the class time is. Help them with any errors they make with accuracy, grammar, pronunciation or intonation.

More Speaking Activities and Ideas

For a thorough description of more classroom speaking activities like these, check out the ESL Speaking Activities for Adults and Kids on ESL Expat’s website.

The next article, How to Teach English as a Second Language to Adults (Part 3), focuses on how to improve students’ writing skills with various other helpful writing exercises for an ESL classroom.

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Suggested Video: Successful ESL Speaking Activities


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