3 Ways to Motivate Students to Speak the Target Language

One of the first steps to language acquisition is allowing students the ability to practice what they know. While this seems easy in theory more often than not, our opportunities for students to speak in the target language amount to a select few participating while the rest of the class is idly sitting by. Speaking a new language for many students is a daunting task that is filled with a large amount of anxiety. It’s easier therefore for students to fade into the background and not make a mistake than practice what they know and risk saying something wrong. Fortunately, there are a few small changes that can be made in the classroom to help support student’s speaking skills and ease their anxiety about the target language.

Model the Art of Circumlocution

If you’ve ever had to hold your own in a conversation with a native speaker of your L2 language, you’d know that often times you lack the vocabulary to say everything you want to say. Fortunately, we can still communicate what we are trying to say through the art of circumlocution or speaking around the missing the vocabulary word.

For example, if I wanted to talk about a strawberry but did not know the word for strawberry, I might talk about a small, round, red fruit that I often eat in the summer. The other person to whom you are talking, might be able to provide the word you are looking for given the context or she will at least infer what you are trying to say.

Modeling to students how to speak around a vocabulary word they don’t know can help students see that they need not be completely “perfect” in what they are trying to say, that language in and of itself is flexible and can be molded to the speaker.

Practice It: This game goes by many names, but it is commonly called “Headbands”. One student is given a head band and a vocabulary card that they cannot see placed onto the headband. The rest of the class takes turns giving the students clues as to what the vocabulary word could be and the student with the headband tries to guess the vocabulary card. Circumlocution with a competitive edge guaranteed win.

Want more students engaged at one time? Try “Headbands” in small groups, or in partners.

Allow for Think Time

This idea comes from a technique used to teach students with language based learning disabilities from the Landmark School. Before asking students to speak in the target language provide a space for them to write or draw out what they want to say. You can provide a graphic organizer for students to use if you are focusing on specific language structures or provide a vocabulary resource sheet if you want students to speak using specific words. Allowing students the time to think about what they want to say before saying it and providing a resource that they can refer back to takes some of the anxiety of having to think on the spot off of students.

Practice it: The cooperative learning strategy Think, Pair, Share allows for three different opportunities to use the target language with a lot of think time.

  1. Think: Provide a graphic organizer, sentence frame or vocabulary sheet to scaffold students language. Ask them to provide their opinion or answer to a question, image or text.
  2.  Pair: Have students share what they wrote with one other student for a designated amount of time (Normally 1-3 minutes). If students have an idea in common have them put a star next it.
  3. Share: Share out responses whole class style. Watch how students who put a star next to one of their ideas are more willing to share it.

Circle Up

Circle activities involve students sitting in a circle and passing a ball or some object around. When a student has the ball they need to say something before passing it to the next person. You can even have the class say something in response to the student with the ball or make each student response have to build off of the one before it. Use circle activities as a warm up activity to break the ice each class or as a fun way to practice conjugations, list vocabulary or practice tense changes. Because students need to be paying attention when the ball is passed to them, this activity motivates more students to be paying attention. Additionally, if the activity uses repetitive phrases it gives nervous or struggling students the opportunity to hear what they have to say multiple times before they say it.

Practice it: Have students circle up. One student begins by saying the target phrase. For example: I am 5 years old, “Yo tengo cinco años.” The rest of the class needs to repeat back what the student says with a different conjugation: He is five years old, “Él tiene cinco años”.

You could create a circle activity where students have to add on to a story, say the days of the week  or the months of the year, describe a picture, or say the alphabet. Add a timer for an extra challenge or split into two groups and race to be the first circle to finish saying a target phrase. The possibilities are endless.

According to Stephen Krashen’s theory of language acquisition, when students feel comfortable in their environment, anxiety is low and motivation and confidence are high second language acquisition can occur (p. 38, 2009). Providing scaffolds and structure changes within a class can help students navigate around rode bumps to speaking, motivating students to produce more language and consequently acquire more language.




Krashen, Stephen (2009). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/principles_and_practice.pdf





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