SDE International - Shenzhen

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As an ESL teacher in China, one thing that we all struggle with on more than one occasion is getting our students to speak. I can recall countless stories exchanged between me and my fellow expat teachers involving a well-planned lesson brought to its knees by silence.
Often, the problem is not the structure of the lesson or the activities: it’s the topic. If students are not familiar with the topic or are just not very interested in it, a well thought out lesson can feel like a waste.

Now, I’m not saying you cannot take an unfamiliar topic and turn it into something the students think is worth talking about and paying attention to, but there are usually a few topics that, with little effort, should naturally provide you with many students who will be willing to speak.

Here are a few that have garnered consistent results, year after year:


Sports is great for any age-level, plus it can get those troublesome boys paying attention in your class again! The lessons you can do with sports are countless: you can talk about sports in general, a sport by itself (basketball and football are great choices) or, if your school and the weather permits, you could go out to the field and teach a new sport to your class (ultimate Frisbee, anyone?)
There will always be students eager to talk your ear off about their favourite athletes, teams, or whatever sports they like to play. Imagine two boys who rarely speak getting into a heated discussion over whether Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi is a better football player. Alas, you’ve done your job well!


If there’s one thing I learned during my time in China, it’s that Chinese people are huge foodies, your students included! Food is one of those topics where again, there are countless ways of presenting it and your students would still be quite enthusiastic to talk about it, albeit a tad hungry.You can introduce different foods from around the world, watch cooking videos and discuss cooking techniques, have students make their own recipe, or my favourite, bring in a few blindfolds and some food samples and practice describing tastes and textures, all while having a snack!


Who doesn’t love movies? Nowadays, Hollywood is pretty popular among Chinese youth and your students will likely have a few favourite actors or actresses that they gush over.
Movies is a great topic because it has a built-in activity for you that students love: watching movie clips! You can use numerous movie clips to teach the students about a variety of topics, including movie genres, characters, actors, setting, and pretty much any other important movie-related topic. You can even use them for listening activities: clap every time you hear the actor speak the key word!


Music has the power to put your class in an uplifted mood. Many students love English pop music and it takes just a simple discussion with your students outside class to find out which stars they like (Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and Ed Sheeran should be near the top of most lists).
Talking about different genres should get the most students speaking, as taste in music can vary a lot from one student to the next. Bring in plenty of audio clips for the class to listen to, and even better if you can sing yourself! The students will appreciate if you can play an instrument for them, as a reward for good behaviour and a focused class.

To switch things up a bit, you can teach them a song they love for an entire lesson and have them sing along.



Chinese people are extremely eager to tell foreigners about their culture, and with a culture as deep and rich as China, why the heck not? It also makes for a great topic of discussion, as everyone will have something to contribute.

You can talk about cultural differences between China and the West, things they like/dislike about China, how they would change China, Chinese customs or superstitions, or even more modern topics like death by homework or computer games.

With these topics, I’m sure you will be able to find something everyone can relate to and be excited to talk about. And if you think I missed anything, let me know in the comments!


SDE International - Shenzhen

New teaching jobs in China interviewing now, apply today!

About the Author:

Ivan Berezowski
Ivan is part teacher, part writer, part cultural scavenger, and full-time amateur financial expert. When he isn’t busy finding new ways to save money, he can often be found behind a spectacular plate of exotic cuisine or a laptop screen with either a Word document open or that day’s NBA scores. He has lived in China for 3 years and has travelled to 12 countries, including most of East Asia and randomly Guatemala. Check out his blog, for travel tips, China life and more.
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