QUESTION: My elementary and pre-intermediate learners are very shy and reluctant to speak. I'd like ideas on how to build their confidence and activities to provide them with oral practice.

ANSWER:  Here we'd like to suggest, under the title Back to Basics:  Engaging Learners in Beneficial Oral Practice,  a number of drill-like activities which promise to be light and fun for the learners to partake in and attractive to teachers to conduct.


to lead question and answer practice of useful everyday conversational exchanges

See example with   Rose and Rick


video 1 Teacher Presentation of short exchange (24")

Learners' controlled practice  (36"):

video 2  Learners perform exchange (16")

2. GROUP DRILLS to create a very short and humorous 'story'

 This idea was made popular by Carolyn Graham, in her work on Jazz Chants.

In this Group Chant, we've written, Group 1 is in 'character' as The Gossips, relaying the exact words of  John's mother.  Group 2, as The Reports, tell us of John's actions -- until the last line, when they relay John's final remark.

T can elicit the verbs in the story by cueing Group 1 with picture/word cards (e.g.  get ready for school, wash your face, get dressed, eat your breakfast,  . . . )  After several verb-object actions are practiced, the story can end with a final card to cue Group 2's  final remark: 'John said, "Please leave me alone. I'm busy!" 

Group 1 - The Gossips

John's mother said, "Get ready for school, John."

Group 2 - The Reporters

"He didn't get ready for school."

Group 1:  She said, "Wash your face."

Group 2: "He didn't wash his face." . . .


 A.  Both For Young Learners / Playful Adults

A quick question and answer practice  can move quickly around the classroom, when Learner 1 asks Learner 2, seated at their side, a question.  Learner 2 replies to this question and, then, turns to Learner 3 to ask him/her the question.  This chain continues until all learners have asked and answered.

Chain drills can be done in any normal seating, if the order of turn-taking throughout the class is made clear from the start.  Alternatively, learners can form a circle or even a row parallel to a classroom wall or two.

Any type of transformation drill,  e.g. question plus reply, a negation of an affirmative sentence, a statement made and repeated as an exclamation (for intonation practice), can be performed with the learners in two rows, facing each other.

B. A Variation With Visual Prompts

 Colourful paper cut-outs, especially for children, can be used in place of  picture or word cards to cue varied responses.  In an example (See photo) with fruit and vegetable cut-outs, the patterns:  "We put oranges in fruit salad.  I like peppers on my pizza."


An effective use of other visual prompts, e.g. a soft ball, a microphone or a talking stick,  begins with the chosen prompt in the teacher's possession and eventually is passed on into the hands of each individual learner, indicating how learners are empowered to engage and interact, taking turns one at a time.


With what we now know about the essential benefits of multi-sensory teaching, it is time to revive the practice of training teachers on the basics of oral drilling.  A smooth, subtle and quick paced oral drill conducted by a professionally trained language teacher can provide learners (especially those at beginning to pre-intermediate levels) with multiple opportunities to speak some English in class every session, without being put on the spot to speak alone but rather with the support of their classmates.

Teachers often feel uninspired or self-conscious about conducting drills because their role shifts from the kind, personable leader of individuals to  a slightly more distant 'orchestra conductor' cueing group(s) or individuals when it's their turn to speak.  Teachers need to keep in mind the importance of rhythm and pace; these drills take very little time and because of their repetitive nature, it is necessary that they be executed quickly with a lively pace and spoken with fairly natural intonation patterns.

Once new teachers experiment with the technique of conducting drills successfully and see (and hear) the results, they readily add it to their repertoire.  Seasoned teachers can further develop their own style by drilling with a flare!


Drills themselves can provide the needed variety for elementary learners who have fewer opportunities to speak than the more advanced ones, due to  limited command of patterns and knowledge of vocabulary items.

These drills suggest how to add variety to what could be boringly repetitious; varying drill types can mask the drills repetitive nature.

Remember that drills take pace with books closed, which helps learners  build confidence and fluency in speaking English and excellent auditory memories.

"Homo ludens"  people like to play.  Drills can add a touch of  playfulness for adults, especially for  those who need fluency and subtle pronunciation practice.

Suzanne and Lilika

March 2020