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December 2012
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Self-Directed Learning: Personal Speaking Plans for Adult ELLs
by Alexandra Dylan Lowe

For many adult ELLs, speaking English outside of the safe confines of the ESL classroom is one of the biggest challenges they face. Even students at advanced levels dread the humiliating experience of being misunderstood by a native English speaker. Yet, unless students actually use English to communicate outside of class, the skills they master in class quickly dissipate. Here are several steps that can help students overcome their fear of speaking English in the real world.

The Pemex Parable
Students respond enthusiastically to parables that resonate with their own fears of speaking English or engaging with the local English-speaking culture. When asked to consider the quandary faced by Mike, a fictional American geologist who accepts a position with Pemex in Mexico City and who is struggling to improve his Spanish, they immediately grasp what he needs to do: He needs to stop jogging with his American ex-pat friends and learn to play soccer so he can meet Mexicans his own age.  He needs to find a Mexican girlfriend. He needs to get out of the house and start exploring Mexico City. 

For some students, such a parable helps them reflect on and recognize some of the parallel changes they need to make in their own lives in order to maximize their opportunities to speak English.

Download the Pemex Parable.

Advice From a Fluent Nonnative Guest Speaker
Students typically listen in rapt attention when a successful nonnative speaker of English visits the classroom to share his or her self-directed learning strategies. One particular piece of advice from a fluent nonnative speaker of English has resonated powerfully with many immigrant students who work in the food service industry:

Talk to old people. They love to talk.  Old people love to have young people talk to them.  Look them in the face. “Hi. How are you doing today?” When you see those customers for a second time, they will know you and they will say, “So, you are working hard today!” Ask them, “Are you comfortable?” What they get is a nice moment. What you get is you break the fear of speaking.

Guest speaker suggestions for techniques that can be used to overcome the fear of speaking have been particularly welcome:

To break the ice inside you, you have to have communication with people. You have to have conversations. Try to put yourself in situations where you have to speak.  Two or three times a week, go a store. Don’t go to a Spanish store. Go to an American store. Just go and ask, “Do you have this? Do you have that?”  Learn key words and phrases, “I’m looking for this.” Have some other sentences prepared, like “I don’t understand what you’re saying.  Can you please say it another way?”  

See a real guest speaker give advice (YouTube) and download the interview.

Preparing Their English-Speaking Listeners
Students are used to having trouble understanding native English speakers. Some of them may not realize that those native English speakers may find it equally difficult to understand them. What some students perceive as rudeness on the part of those with whom they are trying to communicate may in fact simply be incomprehension. It’s a valuable use of class time to teach students easy-to-remember phrases that they can use to prepare their English-speaking interlocutors:

Excuse me, please.  I am learning English.  I need your help.  Can you please speak slowly and clearly?

Students should be reminded to smile when they speak and to repeat back what they hear:

So, in other words, what you’re telling me is...

Creating a Monthly Personal Speaking Plan
Most students eagerly embrace the challenge of making a contract each month to speak more English. In these plans, they detail the precise steps that they intend to take to achieve the goals they set for themselves. Groundwork for preparing these plans can be laid by sharing with students information about the strategies adopted by highly successful ELLs and by encouraging them to reflect on the language-learning experience of their own friends or relatives who have achieved fluency in English.

A great example of a personal speaking plan: One student working as a busboy created a formula detailing exactly how many new customers he intended to talk to each day during the coming month:

In my job, at least one small word or a short phrase I’ll add to every people I receive, not only with the “Hello, how are you?”  This method will be the beginning to a possible conversation.  20 people a day I say hello, 3 of them answer me back, I’ll have talked at least 3 persons every day.  And it’s only the beginning.

Typically, students need time in class to brainstorm out-of-class speaking options in small groups. They then create drafts of their plans at home and bring them to class to review and revise based on small and large group discussions with their classmates. It is inspiring to observe students in small groups challenging a classmate who, in their estimation, has set personal speaking goals that they consider far too modest to be successful (e.g., speaking only 5 minutes of English a day).

Download a blank Personal English Speaking Plan for classroom use.

Putting the Plan Into Action
The opportunities that students have seized to speak more English outside of class are wide-ranging.  Here are a few examples:

  • A Mexican student who worked in a restaurant bravely decided that he would no longer take the path of least resistance by sitting at a separate table with his Hispanic colleagues for the communal meal served after work. Instead, he would sit at the table with his American coworkers and try his best to participate in their conversation.
  • A Brazilian student in her late 50’s began to make small talk with English-speaking customers of her husband’s auto body shop in the United States and was shocked to discover how eager many of them were to help her practice her English.
  • Instead of heading home as usual as soon as his Sunday soccer games were over, one student began going out for a meal after the game with his English-speaking teammates.
  • A Venezuelan student began refusing to speak Spanish with his South American classmates during the class breaks and out in the parking lot where students congregated around his car after class.  He was soon leading an international coterie of Ukrainian, Colombian and Japanese classmates speaking English together.
  • A Jordanian student volunteered at a local community center where he would have to speak English with teenagers who spoke no Arabic.
  • One enterprising Colombian student created a class Facebook page, which became a vehicle for chatting in English with her classmates online, sharing online grammar resources, and arranging to get together to speak English and explore New York.

Peer-to-Peer Panels
Students who have taken the lead in speaking English outside of class relish the opportunity to share their experience with their classmates. Peer panels, carefully balanced to include not only the usual handful of fearless speakers but also the shy, quiet ones who have overcome their reluctance to speak, are powerfully motivating. Peer presenters help their classmates generate new ideas for practicing their English outside of class and allow their classmates to see and hear first-hand how the peer leaders’ pronunciation and fluency have improved as a result of their self-directed speaking activities.

All eligible students should be strongly encouraged to apply for public library cards. Class time can be devoted to showing students how audiobooks from the library can be used as a pronunciation tool, using the “pause and repeat” method to listen to, play back, and repeat individual sentences. Given free rein to follow their curiosity, many students then elect to listen to audiobooks well beyond their ostensible level because of their intense interest in the topic or the author.  President Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father and the Fifty Shades of Grey series have been especially popular even with intermediate students. Showing off their audiobooks to classmates and revealing what they have learned is an ever-popular classroom activity and helps build the pronunciation skills and vocabulary that are the cornerstone for successful personal English speaking plans.


Alexandra Lowe is an adjunct instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College’s English Language Institute, where she currently teaches English as a Second Language and Business English for Internationals. She has a JD from Harvard Law School and a TESOL certificate from WCC.

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Table of Contents
TC Homepage
Pronunciation: Segmental Contrasts
Personal Speaking Plans
Lesson Plan: Creative Writing
Quick Tip: Vocabulary
Free Young Learner Activities
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