Free Talking for ESL Students: Why I Hate It

Free-Talking for ESL Students

I recently attended the Kotesol International conference 2015 in Seoul and want to talk about a presentation that I attended by Tina Zaman called, “English Conversation Workshops for Fluency.”

The gist of it is that she begins her classes by having students talk with their partner about a single open-ended question for 15 minutes. She made no mention of whether or not this question is related to anything else that her class is studying, or whether it’s stand-alone. I tried asking her, but she wasn’t open to answering questions it seemed. A few people questioned how it was possible that her students were able to do this for 15 and not move into just speaking Korean, but again, she didn’t give an answer.

I’m cool with like people doing whatever in their classes, but she kept mentioning that she recently took a CELTA course and was really influenced by it. Now, I also did the CELTA (and the next level-the DELTA) and feel like if I did this in my observed teaching sessions, my tutors would have been horrified. And, I would have failed the lesson. And failed hard. Like our tutors specifically told us not to put an aim like, “To practice speaking” in our lesson and instead replace it with, “To practice using the simple past in conversation.”

Anyway, here’s why I think free-talking for ESL students like she does is bad, bad news for our students if you actually want to them speak English fluently.

Chunks: If you really want to become fluent in speaking a language, you need to have a core of multi-word chunks that are at the level of being automatic. Chunks are things like collocations, phrasal verbs, idioms, sentence frames and discourse markers to name just a few. In order for these things to become automatic, you need targeted practice. So, targeted conversation practice that focuses on some of these things can be far more useful that just random speaking. You can see more details about this stuff in Scott Thornbury’s How to Teach Speaking, Chapter 2. His argument is pretty convincing.

It’s not a Task: Completing tasks is motivating and it’s our job as teachers to design ones that students want to complete. Harmer, in How to Teach English mentions that there are 3 reasons why students want to complete tasks: rehearsal/role-play, feedback and engagement. It’s certainly not a rehearsal for anything because when would you be expected to talk about a single question for 15 minutes. It also doesn’t lend itself to meaningful feedback, like you could give if you had students doing something far more targeted around a specific grammar or vocabulary point. Nor is it engaging as far as I can see. If I were a student, I’d have a hard time understanding how this was actually helping me.

Task-Based, Communicative Approaches? If you really want to get your students working on their fluency, wouldn’t task-based or communicative activities be a better use of class-time? They’re far more motivating in my opinion.

What the Gurus Say: Now, I’m perhaps not totally up to date on all the current research, but like I can’t say that I’ve ever seen something like this mentioned as a good thing to do to help our students. I’d welcome a correction though so please send some studies my way!

Let’s Talk CELTA: Now, just because she brought it up in her presentation, let’s talk CELTA. What she does certainly does not fit into any framework that they teach. At the beginning of a speaking lesson, you should activate prior knowledge, by doing a warm-up activity of some kind such as talking to your partner about a question for 2-3 minutes, or making a prediction based on a headline, or describing a picture, etc. Then, you get introduced to the language usually through a reading, or listening and there can be some pre-teaching before this happens. Then, there is a short presentation of the target language, which you can often do through some sort of self-discovery. After that, you do controlled practice and then less controlled practice that usually involves some degree of personalization. I just don’t see how 15 minutes of non-targeted free-talking fits anywhere into this.

Maybe my View is Tainted: I remember way back to my first year or two teaching in Korea. I had this class of middle-school students where all they wanted to do was free-talking. They’d been doing it for the previous year with the last foreign teacher. I took over the class and soldiered on with the same. Every single day for an hour. Now, if you are in an English class every single day for an hour, you think you’d be quite good after a year or two. Except they weren’t. These students made the same basic mistakes over and over and over again every single day. They had extremely limited vocabularies and grammatical range simply because they were using the 20 things they knew and not pushing themselves to use new stuff. It would have been far better for them to use a textbook of some kind an systematically incorporate new vocabulary and grammatical structures into their knowledge base and then work on these things moving to the level where they became automatic.

Your Thoughts?

How can we actually help our students get better at speaking English fluently? Do you think something like free-talking for 15 minutes at the beginning of class would be useful?

And, here’s one activity that will actually help your students speak English fluently: 3-2-1 Retell the Story. Remember, free talking for ESL students = mostly bad news.



  1. Hi. I teach English conversation to university students in Thailand. Free-talking for even 2 minutes is a no-no how much more 15 minutes. As to your question, I have nothing solid to impart. I am in the dark. I checked out your retell the story activity, but sadly this does not work. I did try teaching them about chunks. Unfortunately I guess I failed. However, the targeted conversation practice sounds promising. I will re-teach chunks, and do some targeted conversation practice. Thank you.

  2. What about table topic cards?. I think that it is important to let students speak freely without being worried if they are using the correct grammar pattern, or the unit vocabulary.
    I did an activity with taboo cards in a EFL classroom and it was the first time that I heard English during the entire class. They don’t feel pressured, they see the English as a way of communication and not as “you must speak in English”, you know?
    I think that 15 minutes for only 1 question is too much but if you give them different questions it may work. Even you can give them questions using (for example) the grammar patterns that you are seeing in the unit.

    In my country (Chile) there isn’t much exposure outside the classroom, and students feel anxious when they have to speak because of the same reason and also because they fear being mocked by their classmates. So I believe this kind of activities are good for them 🙂


    • I really appreciated your comment. I sometimes do a kind of similar thing. “Guided” free-talking with the questions cards like you mentiond and it can work out well.

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