I bet you have heard about Penny Ur at least once. A professor and an English teacher with more than 30 years of experience, she has written a number of books including100 ‘Teaching Tips’,Discussions and More’,Five-Minute Activities’ (co-authored with Andrew Wright),  and ‘A Course in English Language Teaching’. Most of them are highly practical and packed with ready-to-go activities which require little or no preparation.

Today’s book, “Discussions and More”, will come in especially handy during our forced lockdown and shifting to online teaching. Why? First, it focuses on speaking activities and contains a wide range of them on different topics and for different classes.  We definitely focus more on speaking nowadays, don’t we? Second, almost all the activities will take you not more than a couple of minutes to prepare. They are supplemented with photocopiable pages, which you can screenshare or send to your students in advance, and practical tips. There are 55 activities divided into 3 sections.

The first section with activities for lower-level learners starts easy. There you will find chants, picture dictations, guessing games, true-false activities, some ideas on describing pictures and many more. Tasks in this part involve a lot of visuals and drawing. My favourite activities here are called ‘Interrupt me’ and ‘Doodles’.

Interrupt me

“1. Tell the students you are going to start telling a story. As soon as anyone thinks of a question to ask about it, he or she should raise a hand.

  1. When a student raises his or her hand, stop, listen to the question and answer it.
  2. This continues until you manage to finish the story (or don’t!).”

(from Penny Ur, “Discussions and More”, CUP, 2015)

This activity is great for practising question structures or even drilling them. It also implies using active listening. Instead of telling a story, you can start giving directions or instructions and encourage students to ask for more details. This activity suits all levels and all topics. 


For this activity, you will need a whiteboard, either a real or a virtual one.

“1. Draw a doodle on the board. This should not be designed to represent anything in particular.

  1. Invite students to say what they think it represents. Elicit as many interpretations as you can.
  2. You decide which of the interpretations you think was best.
  3. The student who produced the best interpretation draws the next doodle.”

(from Penny Ur, “Discussions and More”, CUP, 2015)

This activity will also be good for a range of levels. You can revise vocabulary, practise Present Continuous or modals of deduction with it. What’s more, it develops creative thinking. 

The second section includes longer and more complex activities. Your students will make up stories, think of possible uses of an object, give reasonings, interpret dialogues, speculate and interview each other. My favourite ones from this part are ‘Use the chunk’ and ‘Interpret dialogues’.

Use the chunk

  1. Write a word or a collocation on the board, for example, ‘take for granted’. Then ask a general question beginning with “Tell me about…”, for example, “Tell me about your best friend”. Invite a student to answer the question using the word or collocation given. 
  2. Divide students into groups or pairs, provide each group with a list of target vocabulary you’d like to practise. Write another “Tell me about…” question on the board. Tell students that they need to exchange the information, answering the question, and also use some of the target words or phrases. Every time they use any, they should put a tick next to it. The winning group is the one with the highest number of ticks.

This super simple activity is great for practising new vocabulary. We all know these situations when students can already get the meaning of a word but do not use in speaking or writing. 

Interpret dialogues

“1. Write up a dialogue on the board, for example:

– So what was it like?
c Awful!
– Why? What went wrong?
– Nothing. Just a waste of time, that’s all.
– Well, I’m sorry. Maybe next time…

  1. Invite students to guess who the characters are, what the relationship is between them and what their situation is. They should find at least two different interpretations for each dialogue they are working with.”

(from Penny Ur, “Discussions and More”, CUP, 2015)

This one can be used as a lead-in for a topic, a way to practise modals of deduction or revisit certain vocabulary.

The third section is about more challenging activities like group discussions, role plays or giving presentations. They cover the levels up to C1 and can easily last for a whole lesson each. My all-time favourites from this chapter are ‘Zoo plan’ and ‘Dinner party’. In both activities, your students will have to arrange people or animals according to some information about them. In ‘Zoo plan’ you get a zoo map and a list of animals. You need to decide which animal should go to which enclosure, taking into consideration some points like “The giraffe is about to give birth so should be in a quiet corner”. ‘Dinner party’ will ask you to arrange the seating at an old-fashioned dinner party. The rules might be the following: “Members of the same family should not sit next to each other”.

The activities from section 3 require collaboration and using a number of skills. Your students will practise agreeing and disagreeing, persuasion and even giving feedback on each other’s performance. 

All in all, this book is truly necessary if you want to provide your students with varied and engaging practice of speaking English. Busy teachers will find it to be a real time-saver. If you are just starting your teaching career, ‘Discussions and more’ might be your practical guide to speaking activities and ways of working with them properly.

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