Get Your Students Talking! TEFL Discussion Questions & Activities for Adults

By Krzl Light Nunes
August 10, 2020

As an online or in-person English language teacher, have you ever struggled with adult learners who held back in speaking or participating in class because of shyness or lack of vocabulary? Let’s look at why conversation matters when teaching English online or in the classroom and review some TEFL discussion questions and speaking activities to get your adult classes talking.

Why is it important to get adult ESL students talking?

English teaching has evolved from the traditional “chalk and talk” method, where teachers do most of the talking, to an approach centered on reinforcing students’ speaking skills. Here are some reasons why getting English learners to talk more should be a priority in your ESL lessons:

Less teacher talk time


While being an English teacher requires you to explain concepts and chat with students, you should pay attention to how much time you spend talking during a lesson.

As a rule of thumb, there should be more student talk time (STT) than teacher talk time (TTT). If learners have ample time to talk, they have more opportunities to practice their speaking skills in English, interact with their classmates in group classes, and be more active in class.

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Adult students have goals that involve using English


Why are your adult students taking English classes? Perhaps they’re working for an international company or preparing to move to a native English-speaking country. Be it for personal, academic, or professional reasons, most adult learners need to practice speaking in English as much as possible so they could be ready for situations where they’ll have to communicate in English.

Limited opportunities to practice English


Many adult ESL learners who live outside native English-speaking countries complain of being “rusty” in speaking in English because they don’t have a lot of chances to practice it. Therefore, your class could be their only opportunity to talk in English and refresh what they had studied in the past.

Beat students’ English speaking jitters


Adult students could easily get tongue-tied or resort to talking in their native language when fears of sounding silly, losing face, or failure to express themselves well block them from trying to speak in English. However, with the right ESL speaking activities for adults, it’s possible for them to overcome these speaking hindrances and build their self-confidence along the way.

Learn about the differences between TEFL/TSOL jobs teaching English to adult students vs. teaching kids.

How do adults learn English?

Adult learners often have questions like, “How can I use do and make correctly?” or, “Which situations do I apply the present perfect tense?” More than merely memorizing new words and grammar structures, adults learn English by seeing it in a context they would find themselves in. That’s why it’s important for them to know how each new lesson can be applied to their lives.

As adults get more engaged in English with relevant material, they also learn the language deliberately; once they’ve understood a concept, they want to practice it immediately. For instance, if they’ve just learned a set of words related to traveling, they try to create sentences with those words right away so they can practice the new vocabulary in case they need to use it in the future.

A student during an online class 1

ESL teacher Krzl’s business English student learning online.


What are some class activities to get adult ESL students talking (online or in-person)?

Now that we know adults’ learning processes and the importance of getting them to talk more in class, let’s look at some ESL speaking activities for adults you can use in the virtual or actual classroom to develop these productive skills in your students.

Warmers


Help students prep themselves to think in English through speaking warm-up games or activities. It could be as simple as playing “Two Truths and a Lie” or an exciting word guessing game, or a comprehensive but fun way to review last class’ lesson, like “20 Questions” or finishing incomplete phrases.

Debates


Holding debates is a great way for students to speak a lot in class, as you only act as the facilitator or judge during the activity. You can announce the debate topic in advance or spontaneously, then divide students into “pros” and “cons” or “for” and “against” teams.

Make sure that the topics or the range of vocabulary to be used in the debate would be appropriate for your students’ English levels. Also, be careful of bringing up sensitive or taboo topics like religion or politics, unless you know that your students will be comfortable in tackling them.

Jhonny and students in an online classroom

Venezuelan teacher Jhonny (top center) and his online adult English students.


Role plays


Aside from reinforcing and reviewing vocabulary and expressions that you taught in previous lessons, role-playing also helps prepare students for many real-life situations that require them to speak in English such as traveling, eating out, and socializing. For Business English, role plays can simulate job interviews, business trips, and various work situations.

For role plays with beginner students, make sure to provide the dialogue as a guide. On the other hand, more advanced students can write their own script for the conversations.

Class poll activity


Get class conversations going by asking about your students’ opinions on various topics that they can relate to. Adults learners undoubtedly will have a lot to say about recurring themes like culture, food, or lifestyle topics – the sky’s the limit when it comes to what you can talk about!

You can also spark a class discussion and survey based on a news story. For instance, you could interview students on how they maintain a healthy lifestyle during a global pandemic, or how their country is acting on climate change.

Meanwhile, instead of you asking the survey questions, why not let your students make the questionnaire and lead the discussion? You can even make this more fun in a group class by playing “Find Someone Who” as an icebreaker, wherein learners have to find a person in class who matches a certain description or answers a question they have created.

Brandon, from the U.S., tutoring one of his adult students in Thailand.

Brandon, from the U.S., tutoring one of his adult students in Thailand.


Customized lesson fillers


While you have a curriculum or syllabus to follow for your English course, you can deviate from the list of topics from time to time by creating a special, engaging lesson based on your adult students’ interests, after you’ve taught or known them for some time. For example, you could show a video about tourist destinations in Europe to your student who loves traveling or share a story about an interesting start-up business to a learner who wants to launch his own business.

Presentations


An oral presentation activity, which can be given at the end of a lesson or as a course project, is great for boosting your students’ confidence, especially in public speaking. If you are teaching a group class, you can assign topics to individual students or have them work on a single presentation as a group.

Learn creative ways to use this popular medium with your student in this free Bridge Micro-credential course: Teaching English Using Podcasts.

Podcast-based activities


Whether it’s about famous musicians or tips for shopping abroad, you can find a plethora of podcasts on iTunes, Spotify, or other podcast providers. You can listen to a podcast in class and create a discussion about it afterward or have your adult ESL students listen to one as homework and report back what they’ve learned from the podcast in the next class.

  • Pro tip: Do a pre-listening activity to prepare students for the vocabulary they will hear in a podcast.

Learn how to use podcasts for engaging ESL learners through Bridge’s free micro-credential course in Teaching English Using Podcasts.

What are some TEFL discussion questions or topics for adult learners?

The advantage of teaching English to adult learners is you can talk about a wide variety of topics because of the diverse life experiences these students have to share! Here are some ESL conversation topics for adults that you can present in your lessons:

Hobbies


Most students, regardless of whether they’re beginners or advanced, love talking about their hobbies, interests, or free time activities! Let your learners elaborate on their favorite music, books, sports, or anything they’re passionate about. You can also get their reviews on artists, authors, even new album releases of the singers or bands that they like.

Work/career


Whether it’s about their particular job responsibilities or their latest projects, adult professionals usually have something to say about the work they do. Focusing the conversation around their profession or the industry in which they work also provides the opportunity to present and practice contextual vocabulary adult students can use.

Food


Food is one of the most universal topics for fun conversations. Talk with adult students about their favorite dishes, international cuisine, restaurants in their neighborhood, or any gastronomic topic under the sun!

Traveling


Adults English students are always up for sharing about their holiday or business trips. If your students haven’t traveled much, you can ask them about their bucket list vacation plans, or about aspects of other cultures that interest them or that they’d like to learn more about.

Current events


Discussing recent local or global happenings with your intermediate or advanced learners improves their skills in giving and exchanging opinions and broadens their vocabulary, in addition to providing a real-world context for the language they’re learning and practicing.

Goals and plans


More often than not, students are keen on sharing what they want to achieve in their personal and professional lives. Aside from asking them about their future plans and goals, you can also pose hypothetical questions as conversation starters, e.g. “What would you do if you suddenly won the lottery?”

TV or other pop culture


Even if your students aren’t pop culture fans, they can always talk about a movie or TV show they’ve watched. Why not turn your adult English students into entertainment critics for a day by having them give their review of a film or deliver a presentation about their favorite Netflix series?

Tricks to get your adult learners talking

Aside from incorporating the TEFL/TESOL speaking activities for adults above, here are some sure-fire tips to make sure your adult students maximize their speaking time in class:

  • Build rapport with your learners. If you have a good connection with your students, they feel comfortable in your class and engaged to participate more!
  • Instead of making inquiries that generate a simple “yes” or “no” response, ask open-ended questions that prompt detailed answers.
  • Be sure that your adult students are engaged and comfortable with speaking about the topic you’ve chosen. Be aware of the cultural norms of your students’.
  • If you sense that your students feel they’re not doing well speaking English, encourage them and remind them how much they’ve progressed. Let your students know that mistakes are welcome in your classroom and that they form part of the learning process.
  • Be patient and give your students time to think and respond to a question. Beginner learners, for instance, tend to translate words in their head before finally saying them in English – imagine how much time that could take!
  • Always look for ways to reduce teacher talk time. For instance, students can read instructions for class activities, lead homework review, summarize the last grammar lesson you’ve practiced, or answer a classmate’s question, instead of you.
  • Make it a point to connect every speaking activity to a real-life context relevant to your learners. It could be as simple as a situation they expect to be in, like making acquaintances, or something more meaningful, like voicing their opinion about issues.

When encouraging your adult English learners to talk in class, choosing the ESL speaking activities and lesson topics is key. Your efforts and the motivation you give to get them speaking is sure to result in a chattering classroom of adult learners who are not afraid to speak their minds, even in a new language.

Take a deeper dive into this topic by downloading this free Bridge eBook: Teaching English to Adults.