On speaking: Motivating learners with immersive tasks

Niall Curry

A key part of encouraging speaking practice involves motivating learners – but how can you do this with activities? Research Manager, Niall Curry, introduces our latest Cambridge whitepaper on this very subject.

“One of the most satisfying experiences for a teacher in the classroom is to see all their students actively engaged in a speaking task”.  In their white paper ‘Motivating learners with immersive speaking tasks’ Leslie Anne Hendra and Ceri Jones discuss research surrounding the challenges and opportunities in the creation and implementation of immersive speaking tasks in the ELT classroom. Research that can guide us towards the realisation of this “magical moment” where students interact with one another in such a way that optimises language learning. A moment where speaking in the classroom is expertly transformed to immersive communication creating audible evidence of learning happening.

Nowadays, I think you will agree, it is difficult to find evidence of an English language learning narrative that does not identify speaking as either the most important, or challenging skill to master. For most students, speaking is a benchmark from which to measure their improvement as an L2 user, and a symbol of their proficiency in English. As English language teachers, knowing this is useful.  With this we can tailor our classes to our learners’ needs and push them to focus on achieving their goals. But, it also sets a serious challenge – how can we help our students improve their speaking in English? What works? What doesn’t? Is what we’re doing even helping?  Questions I know I have asked (and continue to ask) myself when walking into a language classroom. With the growing importance of competency in English for personal and professional development, we need to do best by our students. Looking to the literature, we can get some really valuable insights that might just help us help them to succeed. One such way is through creating immersive speaking tasks.

When we say immersive, we mean tasks to which we give all of our attention. Tasks that are goal driven. And tasks that are based on goals that are engaging enough for us to focus on them – entirely. Such tasks can take us into a state of ‘flow’ where we lose ourselves and become unaware of what we are doing. Instead, we just do it.  Leslie Anne Hendra and Ceri Jones discuss this concept, and the ideas that such immersive speaking tasks should evoke authenticity and require a student-centred approach with a focus on both challenge and skills. Such tasks they argue will allow students to push themselves to their limits, and be motivated by their own successes. Sounds great! But I can hear you wondering (as did I): what exactly does this look like in the classroom?

Well, they have quite a lot to say about that. First thing to think about is: the topic. We know that students are more likely to engage with topics that match their interests. But it doesn’t stop there. We need to think about the types of task we are embedding in our topics. What we need these tasks to do for our students and how they can be exploited to make more quality time for speaking. We could also ask ourselves, how will this task be made more challenging? Because challenge can help create more immersive activities and, they argue, using scales like bloom’s taxonomy can guide us in the creation of tasks that encourage students to access higher-order thinking. We should also consider how focused, open or closed we will make these tasks. And what impact these decisions have on teaching and learning speaking. We can see that this can become quite an exercise in learning psychology but fortunately, they discuss how immersive activities, like the following tasks, can help us achieve effective speaking in very practical terms:

  • Problem solving tasks e.g. learners work together to solve a mystery
  • Decision making tasks e.g. learners work together to decide who gets a scholarship and why
  • Creative tasks e.g. learners create a poster together
  • Personalised tasks e.g. learners tell true and personal stories
  • Debating tasks e.g. learners defend their positions and exchange opinions and ideas on relevant and personalised topics


These are of course, just to name a few and there are more practical guidelines in our paper ‘Motivating learners with immersive speaking tasks’ to help you make your class speaking time more immersive. Take a look at the paper to find out more.

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