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December 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

‘Speaking’ in Isolation: 20 Topics to Get Your Students to Speak in Class or Online

Sezgi Yalın has been teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language and training teachers for more than twenty years. She earned her B.A. in Journalism and English Literature at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and her M.A. as a Fulbright scholar in teaching English as a foreign language at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She worked as an English teacher, teacher trainer and director of studies in the USA and Poland, and gained additional experience in the field in various countries such as the UK, Spain, Egypt, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Israel, China, Nepal, Tibet, Vietnam, Cyprus and Turkey. She is currently a freelance teacher trainer working for Pilgrims Teacher Training Center in UK and Cambridge University teacher trainer courses (CELTA) around the world.


Thank you note

Suleika Jaouad - thanks for the inspiration…



Just like many other EFL/ESL teachers, it has been exhausting and challenging for me to adapt to online teaching. When I was asked to virtually teach some French students from A1 to C2 level and to focus on helping them improve their speaking skill, I had to quickly produce some materials that naturally prompt speaking practice. Considering the fact that these students are adults and all work for a banking company during the Covid-19 lockdown, I needed to design my materials so that their interests, levels, and needs were targeted. Each online lesson was designed for one-to-one, 40-minute lessons. The fact that I only had a few days to prepare, I focused more on the content of my speaking lessons and less on overcomplicating things by trying to use many different types of online tools. I wanted to keep my lessons simple to ensure better teaching and ultimately, better learning. I only used some basic tools such as digital worksheets, Power Point, and a whiteboard where to show pictures, questions, tasks, language clarification, and language errors. There are lots of good tools out there, but it does not mean these good tools make better teaching. What makes good teaching, what produces quality lessons is the better use of tools whether basic or sophisticated.

Most of the designed activities introduced here contain only discussion topics and the tasks with related prompt questions. They can be used at any level if the language used in them is graded.

Here what is not provided are pre- and post- tasks for these discussion topics, but by following the speaking teaching framework introduced below, students can be easily prepared to discuss the suggested speaking topics, and then be challenged to focus on correcting their language errors, if any. When using the speaking teaching framework, the two things that need to be done are:

1. ‘plugging in’ one of the discussion topics presented here into the ‘speaking stage’ in the framework;

2. and then making changes to the stages ‘before’ and ‘after’ the ‘speaking stage’ so they fit in with the given discussion topic.

Every single ‘speaking stage’ during my one-to-one lessons was always followed by an error correction stage as suggested in the speaking frame below. Depending on the needs of a student, my error correction usually focused on grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and register.


The lesson

Speaking Teaching Framework – 40 mins

Each stage of this speaking teaching framework is designed so that it is highly student centered. Therefore, there is a lot of pair/group work; it can, however, be adapted so that it can also be used in a one-to-one teaching situation.

Aim: By the end of the lesson, students will have had practice in speaking during a speaking lesson in the context of…



5 minutes

Interaction patterns: T-Ss, S-S, T-Ss

  • Set a context for the speaking and get the students to work in pairs or a small group so that they are engaged with the topic of the speaking before they do the task. Conduct brief class feedback after the students have discussed.



10-15 minutes

Interaction patterns: T-Ss, S-S, T-Ss

  • Prepare the students for the speaking task by giving them tools (examples of the language) you want them to use in the task, as well as useful information to help them create a context for the task.


Speaking task

10-15 minutes

Interaction patterns: T-Ss, S-S, T-Ss

  • Set the speaking task. As they are speaking, monitor while making a note of any typical mistakes you notice - you will use these for feedback at the end.  Depending on time, you can circulate the students so that they speak to more than one person.



5-10 minutes

Interaction patterns: T-Ss

  • Ensure there is some kind of feedback at the end – ideally this would include feedback/ corrections on the content, as well as the language they used. Use the examples you made a note of during the speaking task. 

(Thanks to Gabriella Megyesi for creating this framework, and to Samantha Birkett for developing it).


Discussion Topics and Prompt Questions

1 My Photograph

Choose a photograph. It does not have to be beautiful or good. It might be a photograph you saved for a reason, and it means something to you:

  • It might be a photograph YOU took;
  • You might be in it;
  • It might be cut out from a magazine just because it makes you happy.

You should NOT describe the picture. You should tell your listener HOW this photograph takes you somewhere. Here are some questions you can answer to help you with this:

1/ How does the photograph make you feel?

2/ What does it make you remember?

3/ What’s your relationship to the people or place in the picture?

4/ Is there a story behind this photograph?

5/ Do you remember when the photo was taken? If yes, do you know what happened the moment before or after the photograph was taken? If not, can you imagine what happened before or after it was taken?

6/ Is there anyone who is not in the picture? If so, why not?

7/ If you could, what would you ask the photographer or the people in the photograph?

8/ Talk about another photograph that was NOT taken, but now you wish it had been taken. Describe that photograph in detail.


2 Describe It in Details

Describe one of the below in as many details as you can by answering the following questions:

A/ a location you have been to;

B/ someone you met for the first time;

C/ a period of time in your life (e.g. your first year at high school)

1/ What did you see, and smell?

2/ How did it/that person make you feel?

3/ Was there anyone else there? If so, who else was there?

4/ What did you do?

5/ What happened afterward?

6/ Did anything change?

7/ Why did you choose to describe this particular topic?


3 A Brave Moment

Think about a time or a moment when you were really curious. During this time or moment, you were also very scared; you, however, felt that your fear was not as strong as your curiosity:

1/ When did this happen?

2/ What were you curious about? Why?

3/ What were you scared of?

4/ How did you overcome your fear?

5/ Why was your curiosity stronger than your fear?


4 The Funniest Thing Ever

Imagine you are an inanimate object. You could be, for example, a mobile phone, a tree, or a vase in the living room. By using descriptive language, answer the following questions:

1/ What’s the funniest thing that happened to you last year or that you saw happen?

2/ Where were you?

3/ Who was with you?


5 Five Different Periods From My Life

1/ Think about five time periods, ages, or moments from your life.Do not spend too much time on thinking too hard on these periods. Instead, just tell me about each one as they come to mind.


High school


Sleepovers at a friend’s house (age 18).

Working in Thailand (age 24).

Travelling to Poland (age 25).

2/ Which period was the most interesting one? Why? Tell me more about it in detail.


6 A Memory

Think about a memory of a gathering. It must be a gathering that was really meaningful to you. It could be, for example, a birthday celebration, or a graduation ceremony. Tell me about this gathering by answering the questions below?

1/ When was the gathering?

2/ What time of year was it?

3/ What was it?

4/ Who was there?

5/ What was the activity?

6/ Do you remember some of the words that were used during this gathering? What were they?

7/ How did it make you feel?

8/ Why was it meaningful to you?

9/ Has it changed you? Has it shaped you? How?


7 Something I Read

Think about a short list of texts (e.g. books, articles, an e-mail message, a letter) from your past. The text you read meant a lot to you during a particular period in your life.

1/ What did you read?

2/ When did you read it?

3/ Describe your life at the time.

4/ How did it make you feel? Describe it in detail.

5/ Why did you need to read it at that particular period in your life?


8 Places

Think about different places. These places might be a town, a city, your childhood home or garden, a friend's restaurant, or a forest.

Tell me about at least five of these different places, but do NOT describe them. Instead answer these questions in detail:

1/ How did each place make you feel?

2/ What did it feel like to be at these places?


9 Something Meaningful

Think about a new beginning that was meaningful for you. This could be a new job, a new school, a new habit, a new hobby, or a new relationship.

1/ Why was it meaningful?

2 How did it change you?

3/ What is the difference between the past and the new beginning?


10 Your Younger and Older Self

1/ Think about your younger self.

A/ How many many versions of your younger self are there?

B/ Choose one of them and talk to this younger self. Praise or thank your younger self, and tell your younger self whatever comes to your mind.

2/ Now, think about your older self.

A/ What would you like to tell them? What would you like to request from and ask your older self?

B/ What are you doing right now that you think will help your older self?

C/ Where might your older self be living?

D/ Who might your older self be spending time with?

E/ What might your older self be doing?


11 Message to the World

A/ What is a perfect world for you?

B/ What two things would you change in the world?

C/ What is the best thing in the world?

D/ What is the most upsetting thing in the world?

E/ You want to say something very important to the world. What would that be?


12 Isolation During the Covid-19 Pandemic

1/ What have your days of isolation been like?/What were your days of isolation like?

2/ What have you learned/did you learn about yourself during these/those days?

3/ What has been/was the most important moment for you during the isolation?


13 A Stranger

1/ Think about a stranger. This stranger might be someone imaginary, or someone you met once.

A/ When did you first notice him/her?

B/ What happened since you met him/her?

C/ What did you want to say to him/her, but you couldn’t?

D/ What did you want the stranger to tell you, but did not?


14 Thank You!

Think about all the ‘essential workers’ like your postal worker who have been working/worked during the Covid-19 pandemic. Talk to him/her to express your gratitude for him/her.

1/ What would you say?

2/ Which questions would you ask them to show them you care about them and everything they have been doing/did for us?


15 Talk to Your Mother

Think about your mother or someone who has been like a mother to you. This someone 1/ might have mothered you; 2/ might have raised you; 3/ might have given you money or medicine when you needed it; or 4/ might have reminded you that you are special.

1/ What would you say to this person? Think about at least 3 things to say to her/him.

2/ What would you want this person to know? Think about at least 3 things.


16 A Memorable Pet Biography

Think about a pet which can be yours or someone else’s. Answer all or some of the questions below to help you tell me a memorable biography of this pet:

1. When and where were you born?

2. Do you recall any interesting stories regarding your birth?

3. What is your earliest memory?

4. Who was your best friend? Are you still in touch with them?

5. Is there a teacher that you remember for good/bad reasons?

6. Was there someone you really looked up to when you were a teenager?

7. What was your first job?

8. What was your best job?

9. What was your worst job?

10. Who was the biggest influence in your career?

11. Do you have children? If so, how many and what age and gender are they?

12. What is your goal as a parent?

13. How would your children describe you as a parent?

14. What is your definition of “happiness”?

15. What is your most memorable travel experience?

16. Who is your biggest fan?

17. If you could possess one super-human power, what would it be?

18. What is your greatest fear?

19. What is your greatest hope?

20. What are the main lessons you’ve learned in life?


17 My Name

Think about your name, and how it sounds:

1/ How does the sound of your name make you feel?

2/ Do you know the meaning of your name? If yes, what does it mean?

3/ Where did it come from?

4/ Is there a story behind how you got your name?

5/ Do you think names shape our personality?

6/ If names shape our personality, how has it informed who you’ve become?

7/ If you could change your name, would you? If not, why not? If yes, what would it be and why?


18 Time Capsule

Think about your time in isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and imagine it as a time capsule.

1/ How has this time changed your life?

2/ What was difficult for you during this time?

3/ What made you happy during this time?

4/ What were some things you thought about? What were some of the things that you did NOT want to think about?

5/ What were some things you ate?

6/ What do you think you will never forget about this time?

7/ What are some things you want to forget about this time?


19 My Favorite Store

Think of a store that you love. It could be a favorite shop from your childhood or it could be a place you go all the time. Imagine that you are at this store right now, and answer the questions below:

1/ What do you see, smell, or taste?

2/ Where is it, and what types of goods are sold there?

3/ What is your favorite thing about your favorite store?

4/ When was the first time you visited this store?

5/ What type of people go there?

6/ If that store is not around anymore, what would you do to help it stay in business?


20 A View from My Window

Think about a good spot in front of your favorite window.

1/ What do you see and small outside of your window?

2/ What is the weather like?

3/ Are there people or is it empty?

4/ Describe what is happening at the moment.

5/ Does the view bring back any memories? If yes, how do these memories make you feel?

6/ If you could, would you change this view? If yes, what would you change?


Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.

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