Scaffolding discussions for quiet students

Some of my new classes this term have students who either whisper, speak in L1 or stay completely silent during speaking activities (even at int/upper int level). Part of this reluctance to speak seems to stem from having no knowledge or strong opinions about the topics being discussed, or not having enough time to think about an answer before a more confident student dominates the conversation.

This activity was designed for quiet and shy students by helping them start from expressing a single opinion to engaging fully in a debate.

This activity includes two sets of worksheets for Intermediate and Upper-intermediate classes which can be downloaded here as a powerpoint file or as a PDF.

The following plan is based on an intermediate level class of 10 to 12 students. Variations of class size and level are discussed at the end of the post.

Stage 1 – Agree or disagree

Step 1.pngThe students are given a handout with 12 statements. They read them and write ‘A’ for agree or ‘D’ for disagree under each statement, working alone.

In this example the statements are all in the passive to revise the grammar from the previous lesson.

Difficult vocabulary may include ‘pocket money,’ ‘banned’ and ‘punished.’


Stage 2 – Choosing topics

Step 2.pngEach student then chooses 4 to 6 topics they would like to discuss and draws a circle around each of them.

They think about how they will express their opinion for each one and an example sentence is written on the board for them to follow:

“I think children should/shouldn’t be given pocket money because…”


Stage 3 – Mingle

Students stand up, move around the class and partner with someone they weren’t sitting next to. They take turns giving their opinions following the structure on the board, then swap partners.

After they’ve each spoken to two or three people ask them to add opinions they’ve heard from other people:

“I think children should be given pocket money because… but James thinks they shouldn’t be given pocket money because…”

After they’ve spoken to two more people they sit back down. They then talk in pairs for two minutes trying to remember all of the opinions that they heard from other people.

Stage 4 – Discussion

The class is split into groups of 4 or 5 and given a set of discussion cards which use the same statements as the handout (and are included in the same file). Make sure that no one is grouped with someone they were just speaking to in pairs.

Students take turns drawing a card, giving their opinion on the statement and asking the rest of the group for their opinions. If there is a disagreement they discuss the statement, but if everyone agrees they just move onto the next card.

It’s up to you how long you allow for the discussion as the time it’ll take a group to finish all of the cards varies wildly.

Stage 5 – Grammar structure

Step 3.pngStudents go back to their original places and turn their handout face down. Working in pairs, students are given the second part of the handout which has the same statements but with the grammar structure removed.

Students work together to remember what they can before checking their own answers.



Feedback and variations on the activity

My intermediate classes found this extremely useful and were more engaged than in any previous speaking activity. The combination of extra thinking time, as well as being given opportunities to incorporate other students’ opinions into their own conversations, helped students develop arguments and express themselves more clearly than they could in a less structured discussion activity.

With my upper-intermediate classes, shy and quiet students really appreciated the additional structures but a few of the more confident and opinionated students were getting bored of some of the topics by stage 4. Finding the right balance for your class will come down to how long you allow for the mingle.

With smaller classes you should skip the mingle altogether and simply move straight to the discussion. Students use their handout as a springboard for discussion and take turns choosing a statement. This loses some of the benefits that you get from the full lesson plan but you could set stage 1 and 2 as homework, which would give weaker students more time to prepare. They could even research their answers online and make notes.


For more speaking activities try these:

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Update: This post was featured as ‘blog of the month’ by Teaching English – British Council for February 2016.