How to get young learners talking in a

Turkish middle school

Hanna Almontasser


Getting young learners to speak in English can be a very difficult task for language teachers, as I had experienced in my two years at a private middle school in Istanbul, where English is taught as a foreign language. Despite increasing the number of classes per week, introducing a new syllabus and materials, the Cambridge Flyers series, and hiring native teachers to focus specifically on teaching speaking, students often have a low level of language proficiency and do not achieve good grades expected by the school, in the end of year Cambridge oral exams. They have difficulty expressing themselves in full sentences using the correct language forms and pronunciation, and they often lack the vocabulary needed to get their meaning across. This article explores some of the reasons why students may struggle: lack of exposure to the L2 and other ‘World Englishes’ (Kachru et al. 2009), lack of opportunity to practise, learner anxiety, lower ability, and lack of motivation. It also provides a critical analysis of the ways in which young learners’ English speaking skills can be improved to a great extent by means of the following three principals: 1) games and competitions, 2) technology and 3) pair work.

Keywords: speaking, listening, young learners, EFL, games, technology, pair work, Turkey


Young learners in Turkish private schools have a lack of language proficiency and opportunity to practice the language. They have difficulty expressing themselves in full sentences using the correct language forms and pronunciation, and they often lack the vocabulary needed to get their meaning across. I had encountered this issue throughout my two year teaching experience in Istanbul, where I taught two grade 5 classes (from 10 – 11 years), with an average of 15 students per class. There were many school reforms in my second year of teaching, one of which was to increase the number of grade 5 English classes from one to three lessons per week, with a native English teacher, (a total of two hours per week). These lessons were specifically devoted to teaching speaking and listening. Reading and writing classes were covered by the Turkish-English teachers. The expected outcome was that the students would be more fluent in English, with correct pronunciation and some understanding of grammar, also achieving pass grades in the Cambridge English: Young Learners Speaking tests at the end of the year. There was nevertheless a struggle in getting the students to speak fluently and independently. Many students were unsuccessful in achieving a pass at the end of year Cambridge exam. They also found it difficult to speak with unfamiliar people and to understand different accents. Feedback from students was that “the examiner spoke in a different way” to me (the teacher), and that they “couldn’t understand her English”. (They were referring here, to the examiner’s English dialect and pronunciation). Why is this and how can it be improved?

This article will explore these issues further and discuss in detail how the use of games and competitions, technology and pair work can function as possible solutions for improving the speaking skills of young learners in an EFL context.  

The Problem

Why do students have these problems? The answer comes down to one or more of the following reasons:

  • Lack of exposure to the language. They do not speak much (if any) English outside of school and therefore lack the opportunity to practise the language in comparison to ESL students.
  • Students cannot understand the need for English, which has been introduced as a “compulsory subject” (Copland et al. 2013)in primary schools  They are not motivated to learn it and do not understand or care for the advantages it can provide to their future academic or career aspirations.
  • They suffer from learner anxiety, have low self-esteem and confidence when it comes to using the language, and are reluctant to take part in speaking activities, because they are afraid of making mistakes; therefore they make little progress in their learning.
  • Students are of lower ability or have specific learning difficulties (in some cases undiagnosed) and have not yet reached the developmental stages illustrated by Piaget and Vygotsky, 2011.
  • Learning a foreign language is a difficult task that requires thinking and speaking simultaneously and consistently, which requires a great deal of effort. Whereas, students are still achieving fluency in their native language (Turkish).
  • The level of the work in class is either too difficult or too easy for them, they are being challenged too much or not enough, hence, they are not making much progress.
  • They do not have enough exposure to the various ‘World Englishes ‘(Kachru et al. 2009), which could improve their listening skills and in turn their speaking and pronunciation, allowing them to converse with many different people, in a range of situations and not merely with their native English teacher.


Possible Solutions

Principle 1: Games and Competitions

Games can be defined as activities which are “entertaining and engaging, often challenging” (Wright et al. 2006: 1) and involve a great deal of interaction and play between learners. They are considered central to learning and serve as a very useful tool to promote speaking interaction between young language learners; also between the teacher and the student. They are a great alternative to mechanical drilling exercises, which can be repetitive and boring after some time. Games can be used together with pair work and competitions or as solo activities, for homework or independent study, whereby students can build on their vocabulary.

Teachers should introduce familiar games in class to start with, the kind of games that students would be likely to do in their L1. According to the findings of Mackey et al( 2007) “task-based conversational interactions are related to their familiarity with the procedure and content of tasks.” Therefore, it might be helpful for teachers to discuss with Turkish-English teachers, what kind of games and activities the students enjoy and are used to playing. It is essential that students understand the game in order for them to enjoy and participate fully, and ultimately practise the target language, which is the objective of using the game. Teachers should explain using short, clear instructions, model to the class, or ask students to volunteer to demonstrate, write helpful phrases on the board, trial the game, then remove the key language and continue with the game. More importantly, students need to be reminded of the consequences of misbehavior, otherwise it is very difficult to control the class or problematic students, once the game has started.

Games do not necessarily have to be competitive every time, but they do need to be challenging, in order to engage learners and improve their learning. They can appeal to a variety of learning styles from audio-visual to kinesthetic, and multiple abilities, enabling all students to participate, understand and learn something. They are engaging, entertaining and motivating. They grasp the students interest for a long period of time. Games can be used to create content and meaning for the learners, providing them an opportunity for intense, meaningful practice of the language, without too much focus on grammar. They are an alternative to PPP (Presentation – Practice – Production), “a form focused approach” (Willis & Willis 2007). Through the medium of games, students’ confidence is increased, by encouraging them to have a go, they also tend to provoke an emotional response, as a result, students are able to experience language rather than simply study it.

Solo games are useful for promoting learner autonomy by allowing students to select their own games to suit their own needs. These are ideal for homework assignments. However they should be modelled by the teacher in class beforehand. Ultimately, the most important aspect of using games is the quality of language practice.

Nonetheless, there are drawbacks to using games in class; these include learner anxiety, teachers’ lack of ability or experience, setting up the process of playing a game in class, time limits and time consuming games, and lastly, a lack of resources, which can affect the quality of the game and the lesson overall, resulting in very unenthusiastic students and the behavioural problems that follow.

Principle 2: Technology

Technology is often associated with writing rather than a tool for promoting speaking interaction. However, it can be used to stimulate discussion. With the advancement of the internet and technological devices such as computers, laptops, smart phones, iPads and voice recording equipment, it has become easier, more popular and beneficial to use technology in language learning. Nowadays, more and more students have access to technology at home and in schools. Technology can be used for interactive animated stories (Yildirim & Torun 2014), to create ‘spoken journals’ – students recording themselves “to reflect on their learning in class” (Stanley & Thornbury 2013) and to promote learner autonomy. Students are able to monitor their progress and achieve self-improvement by listening to and working on their pronunciation week by week. Moreover, if they upload these journals to podcast to a wider audience than just their teacher, they will possibly want to perform their best and will think about how to speak even more. Consequently, it will give them an opportunity to practice more intensely.

Similarly, online games are fun, motivational, combine skills, active learning and creativity to help students focus, achieving intense and useful practice of the language. They appeal to a variety of learning styles. Virtual worlds and avatars are a good example of this. “Challenge, mystery, control and multiple players” (Butler et al. 2014), are just some features of the online games which appeal to young learners in particular. Research findings illustrate the older learners are more able to take on “a greater variety of tasks and activities”(Gauvain and Rogoff 1989 cited in Pinter, 2011).

Teachers are also increasingly using networking software such as Skype in classrooms to promote exchange and discussion with foreign students. Using technology to learn language enables real life practice of the language. It also appeals to different learning styles and maximises language input, to enhance the language learning experience for students. It instils fun, creativity and promotes active learning. What is more, many of these software programmes are available as apps on smart phones, which many students (or their parents) have access to. “Mobile technology provides various advantages for learning in terms of learning anywhere and anytime” (Hwang et al. 2015).

As with each principal, there are issues to consider when using technology. The most obvious being that technology can be problematic and often has technical issues, breaks down or does not work well, which can cost a teacher an entire lesson. Also, government policies which prohibit access to certain apps and software programmes, such as YouTube, (which was banned temporarily in Turkey) can cause great inconvenience to the teacher and disrupt their lesson plans.

Principle 3: Pair work

Pair work is easier to organise than group work (Pinter, 2006), and is particularly useful for classes in which discipline is an issue (Wright et al. 2006). It provides an opportunity for freer practice of spoken language between peers and can enhance their learning through the Vygotskian concept known as the “Zone of Proximal Development” (Vygotsky, 1978,cited in Lightbown & Spada. 2006), whereby learners can progress from their current ability to their potential ability through the support and guidance of an ‘expert’ be that a peer or an adult. Pairing students according to mixed abilities (higher and lower ability) facilitates the progress of the lower ability student, in that they are given more support and confidence to answer and participate, whilst the higher ability students are more confident in their role as ‘tutors/facilitators’, which motivates them to want to build on their knowledge. Furthermore, Vygotsky also identified a social aspect to the developmental stages of learning previously constructed by Piaget (Pinter, 2006), leading to the term “social constructivism”.

The findings of a study carried out on 11 year olds in California, supported this theory, by illustrating that “friends did much better than non-friends” (Azmitia & Montgomery, 1993, cited in Pinter 2011). In light of this, it is suggested that teachers allow students to select their partners for time to time, which would further progress their language learning development. Teachers should vary these pairs each lesson, randomly and fairly, either by assigning them numbers, letters of the alphabet or names of fruit, and having each partner join the other in that same category. This will ensure interaction with different classmates, as well as forming new bonds and friendships, which would be beneficial to the students’ learning. Pair work can be applied to most activities such as: information gap exercises, spot the difference, dialogue, role play, competitions and most time consuming activities.

Pair work keeps lessons interesting, reduces the amount of time a task would take individually, benefits both partners in their learning and allows the teacher to elicit feedback from all groups or pairs, which can be used to create class surveys and prompt class discussion. Error correction is also much easier when students are in pairs, as they are not so much in the spot light, and teachers can offer general correction to the pair or the class as a whole. They won’t be so reluctant to try for fear of making mistakes, as they would individually.

Teachers should consider the pairs carefully, whilst also varying selections each week to allow each student the opportunity to interact and to benefit or learn from the other classmates. Moreover, teachers need to be prepared for the disruptions and difficulties that come with making decisions that are not always to every student’s liking. Lastly, arranging the classroom or the desks so that the classroom is set up for pair work can often be time consuming and disruptive to the lesson, especially for native English teachers who are not assigned a specific classroom and cannot prepare the class beforehand.


The three principals discussed in this article overlap in many aspects and can either be used individually or in combination. For example, in pairs, students can create a presentation using an online software, for which they must record or rehearse a dialogue or speech, which they will present to the class, the winning pair will be rewarded a prize. Alternatively, games (such as role play) can often be competitive, and carried out in pairs. The execution of one, or all of these principals combined, will lead to an improvement in the level of proficiency in language learners to a great extent.

The primary issues identified as playing a key role in inhibiting the progress of young learners in learning a foreign language, namely motivation, anxiety, mixed abilities, learning difficulties, lack of exposure to the language and opportunity to practise, will be addressed via these concepts. Using fun, stimulating and creative activities, which vary the pace of the lesson, promote interaction between learners, and are challenging enough, appealing to multiple learning styles and abilities, will not only improve learner motivation but also increase exposure to the language and provide more opportunity to practise using it.

Inevitably, there will always be some limitations, since the outcome of these changes would depend largely on the circumstances of the school and its policies, the availability and quality of resources, the students’ responses to these changes and the fact that student motivation can never be entirely controlled, as sometimes students simply do not want to learn what they are being taught.


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Copland, F., Garton, S. and Davis, M. (2012) Crazy animals and other activities for teaching English to young learners. 1st ed. London: British Council.

Copland, F., Garton, S. and Burns, A. (2013) “Challenges in teaching English to young learners: global perspectives and local realities”. TESOL Quarterly 48.4: 738-762.

Hwang et al. (2015)  “Evaluating listening and speaking skills in a mobile game-based learning environment with situational contexts”. Computer Assisted Language Learning 29.4: 639-657.

Kachru, B. B., Kachru, Y. and Nelson, C. (2009). The handbook of world Englishes. Wiley-Blackwell.

Lightbown, P. M. and Spada, N. (2006) How languages are learned. 3rd ed. England: Oxford University Press.

Mackey, A., Kanganas, A. P. and Oliver, R. (2007) “Task familiarity and interactional feedback in child ESL classrooms”. TESOL Quarterly 41.2: 285-312.

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Stanley, G. and Thornbury, S. (2013) Language learning with technology. 1st ed. Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press.

Willis, D. and Willis, J. (2007) Doing task-based teaching. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, A., David, B. and Buckby, M. (2006) Games for language learning. 3rd ed. Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press.

Yildirim, R. and Torun, F. P. (2014) Exploring the value of animated stories with young English language learners. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology – TOJET, 13.4 :47-60.

(Hanna Almontasser is a native English teacher from the UK. After graduating university with a degree in Human Biology, she chose to pursue her passion for Language and Education and embarked upon a career change. Having completed a CELTA course at Solihull College, Hanna then travelled to Istanbul, where she spent two years teaching English in a K-12 Turkish private school. This ignited her interest in teaching children, and in 2016, she began her journey at Warwick University to complete a masters in English Language Teaching with a specialism in English for young learners.)


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