5 Secrets to Get Shy Students Speaking in ESL Classes: An Auxiliar de Conversación Cheat Sheet

“I’m Adam, your auxiliar de conversación. Now sit back and always be happy as I correct every mistake you make. By the way, a lot of the things your teacher said were correct weren’t actually correct. Let’s begin.”

         - Adam R. (Auxiliar de Conversación for 1 day, September 2018)

Auxiliares de conversación are in the aula to help students shout English from the rooftops!

Auxiliares de conversación are in the aula to help students shout English from the rooftops!

Don’t be like Adam. Your job is to make class fun—to make ENGLISH fun. Think of the class you hated the most in high school. Multiply that hatred by ten. That’s English to many of your students. A lot grew up hearing extremely negative feedback regarding their English abilities because they didn’t have an awesome auxiliar de conversación like you yet. Many are embarrassed by their accents. Many of their teachers are embarrassed by their own accents. But, on the other hand, many have tremendous vocabularies and can read English very well—they just struggle with pronunciation.

Why Pronouncing Things in English Sucks

Examining Spanish Pronunciation

Take a long word in Spanish. “Estacionamiento.” Two questions: (1) How do you pronounce the vowels? (2) Where do you put the emphasis? To answer the first, you pronounce the vowels how you always do: a e i o u, el burro sabe más que tú. To answer the second, this word ends in a vowel, so the emphasis is on the second to last syllable: MIEN. Done. End of story.

Just to make sure this is consistent, let’s look at another word: “hipopótamo.” Each vowel is still pronounced the exact same way (a e i o u, el burro sabe más que tú). The word again ends in a vowel, so the emphasis—OH WAIT—there’s an accent mark on the word. This means it doesn’t follow the rules; instead we need to put the emphasis on the accented syllable. Although you could argue that this isn’t totally consistent, it’s very user friendly. Is this the case for English?  (Heads up: it’s not.) **

Examining English Pronunciation

Take a short word in English. “Thorough.” Same two questions: (1) How do you pronounce the vowels? (2) Where do you put the emphasis? As for the first question, we know it has a long “o” sound, like in “no.” For the second, it has two syllables and follows this pattern: THOR-ough.

Let’s use another word with those exact same letters (in different amounts) to check that English is as consistent as Spanish. “Through.” Wait… What? Now we have a long “u” sound like in “shoe.” BUT WE USED THE SAME VOWELS… What gives? Not to mention it only has one syllable and follows this pattern: THROUGH.

What happens if we use the same vowels, remove the “r” and add a “t?” “Thought.” Now when we pronounce this word, we get the sound “ot” like in “pot,” there is one syllable, and emphasis follows this pattern: THOUGHT.

Welcome to Sillyville! Home of the English language. Just for starters, English does a lot of borrowing from other languages and alphabets (e.g., French, Dutch, Latin, Spanish, Japanese and the Runic alphabet). It has also changed how words are spelled and pronounced over the years multiple times, has many dialects, and even accepts different spellings of words. (Color or colour?)

Welcome to Sillyville! Home of the English language. Just for starters, English does a lot of borrowing from other languages and alphabets (e.g., French, Dutch, Latin, Spanish, Japanese and the Runic alphabet). It has also changed how words are spelled and pronounced over the years multiple times, has many dialects, and even accepts different spellings of words. (Color or colour?)

So, while there are rules you can memorize for English pronunciation, it’s really hard! Extremely experienced non-natives have told me that you  need to memorize the pronunciation of practically every word in English. Realistically, you need to be exposed to a word around 7 times before you start remembering it. If a student’s first 6 exposures are, “You’re saying ___ wrong,” no wonder many don’t want to speak in English!

Whoah. English sucks. Should I become a matador instead?

No way! I’m just showing you some of the mindsets you will be up against. Now let’s discuss how to overcome these fixed mindsets. It won’t be easy, and it will take time. But you can do it!

How to Encourage Shy Students in an ESL Class

Step 1: Learn everyone’s name & find out a bit about them

Knowing names shows you care and students are important to you

Knowing names shows you care and students are important to you

Pro tip: once everyone is sitting in their seats, take a picture and make a seating chart. You can even plug it into your class organizer from the free resources section!

Unlike at schools in ‘Murica, students in Spain don’t move classrooms, teachers do. So, odds are your students will already know each other’s names

Play one of these name games (organized by least to most time-consuming)

  • Throwing a ball in a circle (7 min)

  • Writing your name and repeating in a circle (10 min)

    • Students stand in a circle. First student writes their name in the air as they pronounce it out loud. All other students repeat chorally (together). Then starting with the person to that student’s right, they write and say the original student’s name out loud. Next, repeat with the next student saying their name as they write it in the air.

    • Extension: Have students pronounce their names differently than they normally do. (Careful though- as this may lead to teasing/making fun of, and you don’t want that)

  • Name + gesture + repeat (15-20 min)

    • All are standing in a circle. One person starts by saying their name along with a word that starts with the same letter (e.g., Cris Carrots, jumping josué, Raúl rico), and doing a gesture. The gesture should be related (e.g., Raúl makes the money counting gesture, Cris takes a bite out of the fake carrot). The next person repeats the first person’s name, word and gesture and then adds his or her own. It goes around the circle, each person repeating all of the names that came before. You should go last and repeat everything (Adapted from Teampedia)

    • Alternative: Everyone is always doing the gesture for that particular person in order to help the person who is saying the name and word.

    • Note: This works really freaking well. And if you forget a student’s name the next few weeks, ask “what’s your gesture?” and “what’s your word?”

Make “equity cards” to Learn Students’ Names

1. Buy index cards (1 for each student)

2. Have them write their first name, last initial, and class on the unlined side

3. On the lined side, have them write 3 hobbies they have, name their 2 favorite foods, and draw 1 thing they did over summer

4. Collect them

You just made yourself a tool you can use to call on students randomly. Instead of choosing  students with their hands up (especially if these are always the same), call on people using these cards. To make it interesting, flip the cards over and call on the student who “likes playing fortnight and football”. To make it even more interesting, have students pick the victims—er, volunteers—for you

Front of equity card: Student Name. If they finish before everyone else, have them decorate the card. It being in different colors will help you remember student names quicker.

Front of equity card: Student Name. If they finish before everyone else, have them decorate the card. It being in different colors will help you remember student names quicker.

Back of equity card: 3 hobbies, 2 extracurriculars (different than written instructions), 1 drawing of summer

Back of equity card: 3 hobbies, 2 extracurriculars (different than written instructions), 1 drawing of summer

Step 2: Help all students fail together

You, as an auxiliar de conversación, can constantly be modeling the growth mindset for your students as well. Ask about their culture, families, words in Spanish. Show them you don’t have all the answers either!

You, as an auxiliar de conversación, can constantly be modeling the growth mindset for your students as well. Ask about their culture, families, words in Spanish. Show them you don’t have all the answers either!

Play a simple version of “Yes, and”— a classic improv game.

Note: The point of this game is to get students laughing, having fun, and working together. Make sure EVERYONE repeats each gesture and sound. If someone doesn’t participate, they have to make the sound and gesture alone.

1. Have everyone stand in a circle

2. YOU make a silly sound and gesture. Explain that everyone will now yell, “YES, AND”, and repeat the sound and gesture.

3. Next, have the student next to you continue. (Pro tip: Make sure you’re standing next to an outgoing student. If you’re not, ask for a volunteer to start. For all improv games like this, set yourself up for success by having students that like attention and/or are ok with failing go first. If a quiet student is the example, you’re going to have a bad time.)

4. Continue in a circle until everyone goes.

Teach students about the “growth mindset”

Play “zip, zap, zop”

  • See instructions here

  • Ask, “What does this game have to do with the growth mindset?”

    • 1. Tell students to  find a partner with the same color shoes and face them. Have them put a hand on their head if they don’t have a partner. Quickly help those students find a partner or put them into a group of 3.

    • 2. Ask “How does this relate to the growth mindset?” and have them discuss. Call on a few students for ideas. (Pro tip: One way to ensure students are actually talking to their partners is to ask “What did your partner say?”.)

    • You’re looking for anything resembling this answer: “Because at first we made mistakes, but then we got better.”

Playing Zip Zap Zop with English Language Learners

Step 3: Play in English

Play more improv games that model failing with your students. Keep them quick, auxiliares—5 minutes max. You want to leave students wanting more. You want students yelling, “Zip Zap Zop!! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!! PROFE PROFE PORFI!”

These games are perfect for when class gets boring. Do them halfway through class when students look bored and/or you are bored.

Start using improv games with English content.

  • My favorite is Partner Gifs because you can use it with almost any grammar concept.

Don’t have a projector and want some introductory improv games? No problem. Try one of these:

  • Genie (This one is hard for students, even in their native language, just because it requires quick thinking and knowledge of sentence structure. You will have to model a lot)

  • Create a shape (To involve English, ask students to describe what part of the object they are. Also- these instructions say 10 seconds… I’ve always started with 5, but that’s just me)

  • Freeze tag (Pretty advanced)

  • Layups: Start with two lines of students- at both sides of the classroom. One side (A) will start the conversation and the next side (B) will continue the conversation. The goal is that with one turn each (A & B), they will have established who they both are, what they are doing, where they are, and their relationship to one another. This is called a “layup” because it should be as quick as a layup in basketball. Afterwards, the students go to the end of the opposite lines.

    • Variation: Try doing this but with a specific grammar topic, specific vocabulary, reenacting characters from a book, etc.

Step 4: Show how English is actually relevant to their lives

Auxiliares de convresación are constantly looking for ways to ignite students’ interest in English. What better way than to SHOW, not tell it’s vital to their futures.

Auxiliares de convresación are constantly looking for ways to ignite students’ interest in English. What better way than to SHOW, not tell it’s vital to their futures.

It is important to demonstrate to students why they should pay attention to what you’re teaching. Don’t believe me? Try asking any student in a class this question: “why are you doing this?” I bet 9/10 of them say “I dunno,” or “it’s on the test,” or “because.” Make yours the class I go into and students respond “because I need to have advanced level proficiency in order to go to college and be a pharmacist.”

  • Ask them to list their top 3 ideal jobs

  • Students choose 1 or 2 of these jobs and complete the black and white template

  • Have students present their poster to the class

  • Give students an interesting homework activity: have them present their poster to a parent, then have the parent either:

    • Write a note on the back with their feedback,

    • Take a selfie with the student and their template

    • Complete an additional template related to the parent’s experience with English and paste to the back (perhaps the student could even interview interview them in English, record the interview, and play it in class the next day- maybe even with flipgrid)


Step 5: Continue with the year

  • Don’t be afraid to go back to your improv games when things get boring!

  • When a student seems to be losing motivation- remind them of their poster


What say you, auxiliares de conversación? What are your secrets to get students talking at the beginning of the year? Do you use improv or something else? Do you find it helpful to do a “buy-in” activity showing students how they might use English later on?


**Agudas, Llanas y Esdrújulas—Oh My!

A special message for auxiliares de conversación that are Spanish grammar purists: I realize you probably didn’t agree with my earlier explanation of “emphasis” in the Spanish language. I teach to non-natives, and this is what I find works for them. Please put your explanations in the comments below!