Training a (Chinese) Class to Speak more English

Below is a record of a short talk I gave at a teacher’s conference in Chengdu, China. Chinese (and other far Eastern) students are well-known for being on the quiet side in class. This is very difficult for teachers who are using a communicative approach to teach language. In this talk, I shared what I consider an actionable process to get your students talking to each other… and to you! It’s less about activities and more about adjusting your mindset.


Today, I’d like to share with you my process for getting students to talk to each other, and to you. When I first began to teach Chinese students, I found some of the speaking tasks within EFL, such as free discussion questions or open class feedback, often fell flat.

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I often hear this is because these students are more embarrassed by mistakes, they don’t want to say the wrong thing and lose face. This is true, but not the whole story. Shame can come from using the language incorrectly, something that is likely especially for students with limited experience speaking. But these students are also more used to having a binary system for responses. Which means, they want a clear right and wrong to choose from. You might notice they are more confident speaking when they are telling you answers from a grammar exercise, rather than sharing an opinion.

The mindset of many of my students has always been: we want to give the answer not we want to use the language. This means that when you give students a discussion, they are unsure what the correct response could be and why they are even doing the task, if there is no right answer. This comes through during feedback which results in them losing motivation as there is no measurable outcome for them. They cannot know how well they did.

So, I want to share with you today how I train my class to speak more English over time, taking into account these ideas.

Step 1:

Classroom seating and a buddy system. Start this in lesson 1 and check in lesson 2. Develop a seating plan that allows effective monitoring and interaction, especially if you’re in an unsuitable room like a lecture hall or an over-sized classroom. Tell your students the plan in lesson 1 and don’t start lesson 2 until they are arranged how you expect. U-shapes or group tables are ideals but not always possible so think about how you can use your space.

Develop the buddy system in lesson 1 too. Each student will sit with a partner – the best friend. For group work another pair will join them and together they are okay friends. This is called pairs and squares. Check they have done this in lesson 2. And maintain both of these each lesson.

Step 2:

Shorter discussions. Tasks should have a measurable goal: such as ranking items, choosing from a list or solving a problem. Competitions also work well. These tasks provide a key objective for students to discuss during feedback. General discussion questions that immediately require them to share ideas are harder at this stage. For this, allow students to ‘write and share’.  1 min to note down ideas for the discussion question and then discuss. You can even give Student A and Student B separate vocabulary items they must use when they speak. This provides a measurable outcome that lets students know if they’re doing well.

Step 3:

Semi-controlled speaking. This is when a speaking topic has some helpful notes or keywords that students must use to build the response. It is not as imaginative as freer response but using a few of these types of tasks early on helps students feel like they’re giving the right answers.

Step 4:

Further this with information gap exercises. These not only have that measurable outcome, which is – do both students now have the same information? – but they also provide a motivation. Students want the rest of the information. This is great for longer discussions. For example, students can be assigned different topics to research for homework and share their information to reach an objective in class. They can be used with a complex listening task where students focus on different parts of the listening and then discuss their information. So, it’s a great way to get them talking and measuring their success. And they are starting to speak more.

Step 5:

Focus on quantitative goals. Let’s say you want to now do freer discussion. You want to stop holding their hands. Continue providing them with measurable goals. If it’s a discussion, brainstorm key vocabulary and have them choose 5 words to use when they speak. For an EAP discussion, they must use 3 different perspectives in their answer. In feedback you can then ask students about this and they can tell you if they achieved their goals or not.

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In fact, feedback becomes easier because they know what to say. They understand what’s expected of them. I have had some excellent self-reflection from my students to close my lessons and they tell me what they aim to do next or why they think they didn’t achieve something. And they do this without feeling ashamed of the mistakes they’ve made. Because it’s not just shame that’s holding them back, it’s a different approach to learning.

This process has helped my students and I hope it can help yours too. Of course, not all the steps are mandatory, but I hope I have at least provided some tips that might be useful for you in your future lessons.


This list isn’t perfect.

What tips and tricks do you have to get shy, quiet classes to open up?

Share them in the comments below!

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