Developing speaking online

By Gergő Fekete

When teaching and learning a foreign language in the communicative classroom, there is a natural tendency to focus a lot of class time on developing speaking skills. This is the area most learners are interested in working on, and it is often seen as the most dynamic, interactive part of the class. 

Nothing beats the buzz of learners putting their heads together to discuss something in pairs or generate ideas, acting out role plays, or debating the pros and cons of an exciting, engaging topic. 

Transferring the kinds of activities we do in the face-to-face classroom to the online one can be a challenge. However, what is most important to keep in mind is that you don’t have to be extremely tech-savvy, or the most knowledgeable about the latest teaching apps, to develop your learners’ speaking skills online in a meaningful way. 

With this in mind, I’d like to share some of my favourite speaking activities for open class (ie not breakout rooms) that I’ve used in the online classroom. 

Warmers and stirrers 

  • Rename yourself 

Rename yourself in whatever video-conferencing software you are using, writing the first letter of an adjective that describes how you are feeling. For example: 

Gergő, I’m feeling… d... 

Ask the learners what word they think is missing (over time you can build up phrases to do this: ‘Are you feeling…?’, ‘Does it stand for…?’, ‘I think you might be feeling…’). 

Once they have guessed correctly (or you have revealed the answer), the learners can change their own names and the class guesses their secret word. Depending on the size of the class, you can do this with all or some of the learners. 

  • Tell us two things… 

Nominate a learner at random and ask them to tell the class two things that fit into a category (eg ‘Tell us two things that are cold / two fruits / two animals that live in water’). The more proficient the learner, the more complex the category can be (eg ‘Tell us two things that we can do to help the environment’). When learners get used to this game, they can nominate another member of the class and ask them to name two things that fit in a category they create. This means the learners must listen carefully to each other and think on their toes.

This is a great way to revise and extend vocabulary and pronunciation. Remember to elicit or check the meaning of any lesser-known vocabulary with the whole class, and record this in the chat box for learners to write in their own notes.

Using images 

  • Show and tell 

This is even easier to conduct in an online class than in a face-to-face one, as learners don’t have to remember to bring anything into class! Ask your learners to find something in their house to present to the class in the main classroom. This might be: 

  • The thing you have had the longest 
  • Something you are proud of 
  • A souvenir from a trip 
  • A pet

Remember to encourage learners to ask questions to each other about their objects (or nominate them to do so). This can be set as a project over several weeks so that two or three learners give presentations each week. 

Of course, learners don’t have to show anything personal if they don’t want to. Instead, they can find an image of something online to describe as if it were their own. 

  • What’s this? 

Screenshare part of an image (paste a shape over it on a slide, or zoom in very close to the image) and ask learners what it is. Over time, you can build up useful phrases for guessing: 

  • I'm pretty sure it’s... 
  • I think it’s… 
  • It might be… 
  • I have no idea what that is. 

The idea here is not necessarily to get the right answer, but to practise this language and interact with each other, so ensure learners are listening to one another by nominating them at random and asking if they agree with what the last learner said and what their guess is. An alternative is to show parts of a famous quote, or incomplete sentences with key words missing. 

Breakout room follow-up discussion 

  • Pyramid debates 

Open-class discussions after breakout room work can be made more engaging when learners need to decide on something, eg the five best inventions of all time. Learners should all make their own lists, then discuss, compare and agree on five in small breakout room groups. Following this, groups nominate a speaker to describe or share their group list with the whole class. These can all be discussed until the class has agreed on the top five. Encourage learners to disagree and justify their ideas. Help build up their language, but allow room for fluency (especially if they get passionate). 

Open class story creation 

  • Yes, but... 

Ask one learner to start a story, then nominate another one in the chat box to continue it with a set phrase (eg ‘Yes, but...’, ‘Yes, and…’, ‘Suddenly…’) until you have built up a story. Let them know they can be as imaginative as they want, and add something yourself to inject life into the story if it starts to sound dull. 

There are many more ways to encourage and develop speaking in open class discussion, and I highly recommend experimenting and having fun with activities like those above to discover what does and doesn’t work for your learners.


Trinity Teach English Online 

You can find further ideas on the above, and more, in the following Trinity Teach English Online units: 

  • Unit 2.2 Developing speaking skills 
  • Unit 3.1 Tasks and activities 
  • Unit 3.2 Resource adaptation 
  • Unit 3.3 Resource design and creation 

To get an idea of what the course is like, try our free sample unit containing examples of videos, interactive tasks, texts, and lesson packs from across the 10 units. 

Take your teaching to the next level with our online teaching course and qualification:

Full course of 10 units plus
CertOT qualification entry - £299.99

Alternatively, you can take just the modules or individual course units.


Article by Gergő Fekete
Gergő Fekete is a teacher and trainer based in Budapest, Hungary.

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