Scott Thornbury

Using English outside of class – Scott Thornbury

Scott ThornburyThere were two young Catalans at my gym who would while away their time on the exercise bicycles and rowing machines speaking English to each other. It was dreadful, highly accented and very unidiomatic English – but English, hours of it.

What prompted them? And what sustained them in what was obviously harder work than the cycling or the rowing?

I have no way of knowing, but I couldn’t but admire both their initiative and their stamina.

How can we get our students to do the same or similar?  How can we encourage them – not just to read, write, and listen to English outside the class – but to speak it?

One possible route is offered by technology.

I have a friend who studied Turkish at university and keeps it ‘alive’ by doing online chats, using Skype, with Turkish speakers. There are a number of agencies that provide this service, putting people in touch with one another for a modest fee. Some of these services work on a reciprocal basis: you speak to me for half an hour in Spanish and I’ll speak to you for half an hour in English. (Just google something like ‘language exchange’).

But your students might be too young – or too shy – to engage in conversation with total strangers. An alternative might be to ‘buddy them up’ – like my friends at the gym – and encourage them to review and repeat, at home, and by means of their phones, some of the speaking activities they’ve done in class. In fact, you can design speaking activities for class work that prepare students for their cell phone chat later that evening. Good activities are role-playing interviews with sports stars or pop singers about, for example, their daily routine; role-playing a shopping encounter (e.g. where nothing is the right size or colour) or a job interview; playing guessing games (‘I’m an animal: you have to guess what sort of animal I am by asking yes/no questions), and so on.

Even five minutes of this is better than nothing and it costs them the price of a local phone call.

Published by

Scott Thornbury

Scott is a teacher and teacher educator, with over 30 years' experience in English language teaching. He is currently Associate Professor of English Language Studies at the New School in New York, teaching on an on-line MATESOL program. His previous experience includes teaching and teacher training in Egypt, UK, Spain, and his native New Zealand. Scott’s writing credits include several award-winning books for teachers on language and methodology including The A-Z of ELT, How to Teach Grammar and Teaching Unplugged. He is series editor for the Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers (CUP) and was also the co-founder of the dogme ELT group, whose archived website, called Teaching Unplugged, can be found below. Scott currently leads a fascinating community at the popular and thought-provoking blog, A-Z of ELT blog. Scott is lead author in the iTDi Teacher Development program as well as being iTDi's Academic Director.

11 thoughts on “Using English outside of class – Scott Thornbury”

  1. Hello Scott,

    I like the kinds of activities you suggest for practising speaking on their own. Prompted by example of guessing games I’ve remembered a nice way to get them speak English – play board games in English. I know that there are a lot of games of this sort now available (Activity, Taboo, Trivial Pursuit, etc) and many are very popular among teens and grown-ups alike. With players aware of the simple basics of the rules (which remind those of sharades) the game being played in English is sure to get a fresh look and feel) Games which involve role play (Munchkin, Warcraft) are also a great idea. Almost all of these have been tried out by me and my friends.

    Thank you for a great post and practical ideas to put into action!


    1. Interesting, Anna, that you should mention video games, such as the World of Warcraft, since I’ve just come back from the annual IATEFL conference in Glasgow, where one of the plenary speakers, Steven Thorne, reported on research he has been doing on the quantity and quality of language that is both interpreted and produced while playing these games, or by talking about them, e.g. on dedicated blog sites. It is quite amazing.(You can see the session here: )

  2. Good suggestions. One way my students practice English outside of class by interviewing one another then sending their recorded interviews (audio or video) to the group. We often use the interviews as a springboard for discussion.


  3. At the very end of the 80s, when I was teaching English to homestay students in Boston, I witnessed this at the end of my morning classes. As the students were getting ready to go to lunch, a Japanese guy in his early 20s (Noriaki) asked Spanish guy if he could try on his poncho. Noriaki tried it on. Then Noriaki gave his jacket to the Spanish guy, and said, “Let’s eat lunch.” That was the start of a friendship that lasted the whole month that both students were at the school. I’m not sure how the French guy started hanging around with them, too, but the three of them were inseparable outside of classes. Noriaki later explained to me that this was a deliberate strategy to force himself to speak English.

    1. Interesting story, Bill. The fact that this is kind of ‘pedagogical buddying’ happens spontaneously – but sporadically – makes me wonder what the teacher can do to optimize the chances of its happening? I guess some kind of learner training, right at the beginning of the course, where their awareness about the benefits of such buddying is raised?

  4. Hello Scott!

    Thank you for the useful tips!

    As for budding up learners, I think this idea works pretty well in multinational groups of learners. However, very often the problem of using English outside classroom arises, first, in Non-English speaking countries and, second, in groups where all learners speak the same language.

    I really liked Anna’s idea of encouraging learners to speak English when playing board games. But to succeed in doing so, the learners need to have the stamina of those Catalan youngesters, otherwise they will very quickly slip into their mother tongue.

    Personally, I can think of two more ideas of how to make students use English outside the classroom. If the learning is taking place at school there could be days when English is spoken all day long in and outside school. On such days students should socialize with each other in English, especially during breaks.

    The second idea, which I, frankly speaking, borrowed from I don’t remember where, is to give learners tasks to contact (naturally, by Skype) theatres, cinemas, concert halls, hotels, tourists centres in English-speaking countries to find out some practical information, e.g. the dates and times of movies and performances, hotel prices and room availability etc, and then to report back on their findings in class. This could be done in the form of a project, when students design their plan for a vacation choosing the best hotel to stay in or best places to visit. This activity will help learners to tackle the most challanging sort of interaction in a foreign language – speaking with strangers on the phone. For various reasons, I haven’t done this activity myself yet but I think it’s worth trying.

  5. Pingback: Homepage

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.