Students that won’t talk, however, often can, and can make some pretty good sentences when they choose to do so. The trick, however, is getting them to do so.
So how do you make a student that won’t talk begin talking? Well, I don’t really have all the answers to that. Each day when I teach I run into this problem, although if I’m teaching a class of students it’s not such a big dilemma. If I’m teaching a student one-on-one, or VIP-style, however, this is a huge problem. What do I do for an hour, or sometimes two, when the student will only say one word or one short sentence with each response? Let me show you some things that have worked for me over the years.
- Drilling: No student likes to read from a boring list of vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation words, but when students aren’t talking, this is one of the first things I’ll do. I make it clear that this is a very boring activity, and that I don’t like it. It’s pretty clear that they don’t like it, and we’ll do a whole list or column on a worksheet, sometimes even two worksheets, before stopping. By that time they’re usually willing to do just about anything else.
- Closed Questions: Next I’ll pull out my VIP question sheet. These are usually present perfect questions that will have very short answers. “What time did you wake up? What did you eat for lunch? What was your last class today?” We’ve already established that they can answer with one word or a short, simple sentence. Sometimes you just need to push them to do it.
- Open Questions: After that we’ll move on to some questions that require a bit more elaboration. Closed questions can only be answered with a word or two, but open questions often don’t just have one answer. “Why do you wake up at 7? Why didn’t you eat noodles? Is that a good class to have last, and why?” You can see that ‘why’ is a common word in these types of questions, and demands a more open, and longer, response.
- Reading: Alright, so we’ve done some drilling and one-on-one questioning, what do you do if your ESL student is still struggling to give you anything, or could just care less either way? I’ll pull out a reading worksheet or have them get to their books. I’ll just tell them to read whatever it is out loud, and we can keep going for however long it takes for them to want to talk in a more sensible way. Sometimes ESL students haven’t spoken English since their last class, which may have been a week ago or longer. Just because they have English classes at school each day doesn’t mean that they have to talk. And how could they all in any meaningful way when there are 50 kids in the class? Getting them to start talking by reading might be just the thing they need.
- Word Tennis: This is part-activity, part-game, and a lot of my students like it, for about 5 minutes. What you do is come up with a simple structure, such as “I like…” You then go back and forth with the student. It would sound like this. “I like apples. I like apples and pizza. I like apples and pizza and cars. I like apples and pizzas and cars and robots.” You get the idea. You can do this in a class or one-on-one, and you’ll get a lot of laughs, and be ready to move on to something else in short order.