Speaking Skills Guide
Do you want to improve your speaking skills? Most English learners say they want to be able to speak more than anything else.
In this guide you will learn about:
- formal and informal speaking
- types of speaking practice
- skills to practise
- how to practise speaking online
- tips and strategies for speaking practice
- how to be a good speaker
- conversation topics
- types of questions in speaking exams
You can also consult the speaking glossary for any words about speaking that you don’t understand, or try our Speaking Terms Quiz. It’s also important that you learn about pronunciation, a sub-skill of speaking.
Formal versus informal speaking
Just like in your own language, the way you speak depends on who you are speaking to or with. Informal speaking situations include speaking with close friends, family workers and probably co-workers. Slang, idiom and relaxed pronunciation are more common in these situations. Small talk becomes less necessary when you are speaking with friends, but is considered polite in an informal situation with acquaintances. Sometimes your pace and volume shifts when you feel more comfortable. Formal situations require a different kind of language. Your speaking may even be rehearsed in some situations. You may feel nervous about saying everything properly. You must also consider manners and body language.
10 Speaking tips
- Listen first. Try not to think about what you are going to say as you’re listening. Focus on listening, then focus on responding.
- Make eye contact. It’s important to make eye contact when you’re listening and speaking. Even if you’re nervous, try not to look at the ground. If you’re doing a presentation, practise enough so that you don’t have to read every word from your notes. Visuals can help you in a presentation.
- Learn transitional phrases and useful expressions. You will keep your listeners’ attention if you know some key expressions that will make the conversation flow.
- Use gestures appropriately. If you’re in a foreign country, take time to learn about body language. Some gestures in your country may mean something different in another country.
- Relax. You don’t have to speak perfectly. Many native English speakers are also nervous when they have to speak out loud in a group or with people that they don’t know. Try not to show that you are nervous.
- Don’t say sorry. If you apologize for your English, people will expect it to be poor. Believe that you are a strong English speaker, and your listeners will believe it too. If you make a mistake, simply keep talking or correct yourself.
- Be yourself. Let your personality out! People will enjoy speaking with you because of who you are, not because of the language you speak.
- Keep it simple. As with writing it is important to speak in the simplest way you can. Don’t try to impress people with your large vocabulary. Use words and expressions that you are confident using.
- Pause and pace. Try not to speak too quickly, which may make it difficult for people to understand you. Listen to English speakers often to hear where natural pauses occur.
- Practise pronunciation, including word stress. One of the most important aspects of understanding each other’s spoken English is through the natural rhythm of our words and sentences. Native English speakers don’t think about word stress. They just speak. People who learn English as an additional language need to listen to English often in order to be able to use natural word stress.
Speaking skills to practise
- small talk to "break the ice"
- 20 topics for conversation practice
- weekly news (see discussion topics at end)
In speaking we typically perform routine “functions” such as giving advice or apologizing. The vocabulary of this functional language involves various fixed expressions for each function–for example “if I were you” or “my suggestion is” in giving advice, and “it was my fault” or “please forgive me” in apologizing. It’s worth spending time to learn and remember these expressions so that you can use functional language appropriately when speaking. Here are some more typical functions for you to learn and practise:
- agreeing and disagreeing
- expressing condolences
- expressing opinions
- giving directions
- greetings and farewells
- saying thank you
More speaking skills to practise
How to practise speaking
Finding people to talk to and practise English with used to be a lot more difficult. These days, if you have Internet an English partner or group is just a click away. You do not need to be face to face with anyone to practise speaking, but if you can join a club, attend a class or afford a tutor, you may find practice more enjoyable.
- Talk to yourself
- Read aloud
- Find a conversation partner
- Take an English class
- Find a tutor or private lessons
- Video chat with other learners or teachers
- Voice chat with other learners or teachers
- Record your voice and upload it to MyEnglishClub
- Sing along to English songs (podcasts with lyrics or videos with subtitles)
- Call a friend on the phone
- Call businesses and ask questions
- Strike up a conversation with a stranger at the bus stop, on an airplane, in a cafe
- Use role-play cards with friends
- Try some tongue-twisters
When people don’t understand you
Recognize why people don’t understand you. First figure out which barriers are preventing other people from understanding you. Next, reduce or eliminate the barriers that you have control over. For example:
- You spoke too fast.
- You spoke in a monotone voice (boring).
- You used vocabulary or idioms incorrectly.
- You assumed people had previous knowledge of your subject.
- Your accent is very strong.
- Your recording is of poor quality (not loud enough or too much background noise).
- Your audience is not interested in the topic.
- You are worried because the people you are talking to have a higher level of English.
- You are nervous because of a test or interview situation.
- You are afraid of making mistakes.
- You are tired.
- You are hungry.
Many standardized tests now have a speaking component. Make sure that you know exactly what type of questions you will be asked to complete before you take a test. Take plenty of practice tests before test day.
Types of speaking questions
Reading aloud: You are given a paragraph and asked to read it out loud for the examiner.
Describing a photo: You look at a photograph and describe it with details.
Responding to questions: You are provided with information or a scenario and you have to respond to show your comprehension.
Proposing a solution: You are given a problem (via text or audio) and you have to suggest a solution.
Expressing an opinion: You are asked to state your opinion about an issue that people tend to feel strongly about.
Talking about familiar topics: You are asked to speak logically about a familiar topic. No in-depth knowledge is required.
Comparing and contrasting two readings or recordings: You are asked to read or listen to two different pieces. Then you have to compare and contrast these items using appropriate language.
Reporting on someone’s opinion: You listen to or read someone else’s opinion and report on it in your own words.
Paraphrasing what you’ve heard: You repeat what you have heard or read using your own words. An understanding of how to use reported speech is necessary.
A glossary of words and terms that we use to talk about speaking
accent (noun): a mode of pronunciation that is common in a certain region
apologize (verb): to say sorry for something you have done
barrier (noun): something that blocks or hinders
condolences (noun): an expression of compassion to someone who is experiencing grief
contrast (verb): to describe things that are opposite or different
dialogue (noun): a conversation between two people
farewells (noun): goodbyes
gesture (noun): a body movement that expresses something specific
greeting (noun): an expression that you say when you first see someone
interrupt (verb): to stop someone who is speaking so that you can say something
karaoke (verb): to practise singing someone else’s song; the lyrics and music are provided
monologue (noun): a long speech or spoken part delivered by a solo speaker
monotone (noun): one sound; no intonation
negotiate (verb): to try to come up with a fair business decision that will make two different sides or people happy
nervous (adjective): a worried or fearful feeling that things will not go well
pace (noun): the timing in one’s speech; how fast or slow one speaks
paraphrase (verb): to repeat something you have read or heard in your own words
persuade (verb): to convince someone of something
recite (verb): to say something with the text provided (eg. poetry)
small talk (noun): a casual conversation about everyday things like weather, the family, or a vacation
standardized test (noun): a test with a set format that people take in order to prove proficiency in a skill such as language
transitional phrase (noun): a group of words that connects thoughts; used in writing and speaking (for example: on the other hand)
word stress (noun): emphasis on a specific word in a sentence; helps the listener understand the meaning of a sentence