Say, Tell, Speak, and Talk – What’s the difference?

The verbs  say, tell, speak, and talk can be confusing to English learners. The meanings are similar, but we use them in different ways, so it is important to know how to use them correctly.


He said learning English is fun! (photo by tcarr)

He said learning English is fun! (photo by wtcc instructor tcarr)

We use the verb “say” with a clause. A clause always includes a subject (a thing or person) and a verb (an action, usually). Sometimes, we use a “that” clause with “say” like this:

She said that she was tired.
He says that he forgot his homework.
I always say that you should wear sunscreen.

In all of these sentences, “that” is correct, but it is optional (you don’t have to use it).

She said she was tired.
He says he forgot his homework.
I always say you should wear sunscreen.

Sometimes we use a quote with “say” like this:

She always says, “Good morning,” to her friends.
He said, “I don’t love you anymore.”
I said, “I’d like a salad, please.”

And sometimes we use a phrase like one of these:

  • a word – Clark said a bad word.
  • a phrase – Mr. Brashov says a phrase in Romanian.
  • a name – When your order is ready, they will say your name.
  • a sentence – The teacher said a long sentence. I only understood half of it.

If you want to show the other person in the conversation, you can use “to” + someone.

She always says, “Good morning,” to her friends.
She said
to me that she was tired.
I said
to the waitress, “I’d like a salad, please.”


She tells her friend a funny story. (photo by tcarr)

She tells her friend a funny story. (photo by wtcc instructor tcarr)

After “tell,” we usually use a noun (a person or a thing). This noun is either:

  • the person who is listening – He told me to clean my room.
  • a phrase like story or joke – I told a story about my father.

We use “tell” when someone gives an order to someone else. When we report an order, we use “tell + person + to + verb.”

He told me to clean my room.
I always tell people to wear sunscreen.

She tells him to call her.

It is possible to use “tell” with a “that” clause (like with “say”), but you must include the listener.

She told me she was tired.
He tells me that he forgot his homework.
I always tell you that you should wear sunscreen.

Speak and Talk

“Speak” and “talk” have similar meanings. Both mean that the person is using his/her voice or that two or more people are having a conversation. Look at these pairs of sentences. You can see that “speak” and “talk” are both correct, and the meaning is the same.

I spoke to her about the homework.
I talked to her about the homework.

Who were you talking to about the movie?
Who were you speaking to about the movie?

However, there are three differences between “speak” and “talk.”

The students speak English in class. (photo by tcarr)

The students speak English in class. (photo by wtcc instructor tcarr)

1. We use “speak” when we want to say that someone has the ability to use a language.

She speaks English.
He speaks three languages.

2. “Speak” is often used for one-way communication (for example, when one person is giving a speech to a group of people).

The manager spoke to the employees about the new work schedule.

3. “Speak” is a little more formal than “talk.” We use “speak” for polite requests. People usually use “speak” when they ask for someone on the phone.

May I speak to the owner of this store?
Hello? May I speak with Jason, please?

She talks to her classmate.

An ESL student talks to her classmate. (photo by wtcc instructor tcarr)

“Talk” is used more with conversational meanings and informal situations.

She talks to her mother every day.
They talked to their teacher about the test.

Your Turn

If you would like to do some practice exercises with these verbs, click on the links below!

Once in Winter . . .

(Photo by Brian May, Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo by Brian May, Wikimedia Commons)

Last Wednesday, February 18, was Ash Wednesday. (Ash — plural, ashes — is the black stuff you get after you burn something.) It is an important holiday for Christian people around the world.

Many poems have been written about Ash Wednesday. T.S. Eliot wrote a famous poem about Ash Wednesday. It is a nice poem, but it is complicated and difficult even for native English speakers. Walter Brueggemann wrote another poem about Ash Wednesday. It is also nice, but a little difficult.

I like the poem below. It is short, and simple. The writer is anonymous —  we don’t know his or her name.


Ash Wednesday

Once in winter,
I stood,
White flakes brushing my face
With white fingers,
I waited with the others
We shivered on the steps–
Stuck out our tongues to catch snowflakes
So cold they would burn.

Soon the big doors would open
On smoke and candles
and a cold thumb would brush
My forehead with a cross of ashes
“Dust to Dust” he would mutter
While snowflakes melted in my hair. 


Imagine two pictures: 1) Someone waiting outside a church in the snow. 2) That person inside the church participating in the ceremony.

The first part of the poem is in past tense. Stood (stand), waited (wait), shivered (shiver), stuck out (stick out) are all past tense.

The second part of the poem is in conditional tense. (You can read more about it here.) Would burn, would open, would brush, and would mutter are conditional.

Last year, my students wrote their own poems. They were not about Ash Wednesday. They were about a time they were waiting to do something. Some students wrote about waiting for a party. Some students wrote about waiting for school to start. You can read their poems here.

Do you feel creative? You can write your own poem about waiting. You can follow the guidelines below. Please share them!

Once in _____________ (season)
I _______________ (action)
It was ___________ (weather)
Everything was _______ (color) and ______ (description)
I was ____________ (action)
Everyone around me was _________ (action)
I felt _________ (emotion)
I knew that ________ (result)
And _________ (conclusion).

Level 3/4 Presentations

Last week, Angela’s level 3/4 students prepared presentations about something interesting in their countries. They chose a city or popular tourist attraction and did a 5-minute presentation about it in front of the class. They did a wonderful job!

Photo by instructor A. Thompson

Photo by instructor A. Thompson

Photo by instructor A. Thompson

Photo by instructor A. Thompson

Tips for Giving a Presentation

If you have to give a presentation in class, here are a few suggestions to help you.

  1. Prepare your speech – Some students are comfortable talking in front of the class without much preparation, but most students need to think hard about what they will say. Write down your speech, and check your grammar.
  2. Do not copy from the internet – It’s easy to find lots of great information online, and many students think, “This English is perfect. I can’t write better than this. I’ll just copy it.” However, in American culture, this is very bad. For Americans, original words and ideas are VERY important. If you copy from the internet, you must say that you found the information online and give the name of the website. Also, your teacher wants to see your English skills, not the internet’s English skills. It is always better to write your own original words.
  3. Get comfortable with your speech – Practice your speech a lot so that you don’t have to look at your notes all the time. When you are giving a presentation, you should look at your audience (class), not your paper. You can hold your paper in case you forget, but you shouldn’t read from it the whole time.
  4. Practice in the mirror – Stand in front of a mirror, and practice your whole speech. Make sure you are looking at yourself in the mirror more than looking down at your notes.
  5. Practice with another person – When you practice alone, you know what you are saying, but your pronunciation might not be clear to other people. When you practice with another person (a classmate, friend, or family member), the other person can tell you when your pronunciation is not clear. Ask your teacher for help with words that are difficult to pronounce.

Your Turn

What would you like to add to the list of suggestions? What is helpful for you when you give a presentation?

Level 2/3 students make an exchange!

Level 2/3 students practice making an exchange! (photo by slofchie)

Level 2/3 students practice making an exchange!
(photo by slofchie)

This week, the terrific students in Sandra’s level 2/3 had a lesson on ‘How to make an Exchange or a Return at a Store’!  First, Sandra, our fabulous level 2/3 teacher taught the vocabulary needed to make an exchange or a return.  Students learned: receipt, return, refund, exchange, too large, too small, customer service and many more.  Then the students used their new vocabulary to role play a return or an exchange.  Students took turns being the customer and the salesperson. This lesson will be very beneficial to them in the United States.


Level 2/3 class at CHOC are ready to make a return! (photo by sscarborough)

Level 2/3 class at CHOC are ready to make a return!
(photo by sscarborough)

beneficial – favorable

customer service – help or assistance that a company gives to the customers or buyers

exchange – to give one thing and receive another

receipt – a piece of paper showing that money, goods, mail or a service has been received

return – to take or send something back

too large –  there is a problem because something is very big.

too small – there is a problem because something is very little.

Great Job, Level 2/3!!

ERV-1 Students write about staying healthy!

February is American Heart Health Month
(used with permission from flickr via tanakawho)


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S.  Most of us know someone who has had heart disease or stroke.  One in every three deaths is from heart disease and stroke.  This is equal to 2,200 deaths per day!  Many people are unable to work or enjoy family activities because of their poor heart condition.

Cardiovascular disease is also very expensive.   In 2010, the  nation spent more than $444 billion in health care expenses and lost productivity because of heart disease and stroke.

February is American Heart Month.  The American Heart Association and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) encourage all of us to protect ourselves and our loved ones from heart disease and stroke by understanding the risk of poor heart health and  having a healthy lifestyle.

To prevent the nation’s leading killer and empower everyone to make heart-healthy choices, the CDC and other government organizations recommend that we take these steps:

  • Get up and get active by being physically active for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.
  • Know your ABCS:Make your calories count by eating a heart-healthy diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables and low in sodium and trans fat.
    • Ask your doctor if you should take an Aspirin every day.
    • Find out if you have high Blood pressure or Cholesterol, and if you do, get effective treatment.
    • If you Smoke, get help to quit.
  • Take control of your heart health by following your doctor’s prescription instructions.                – Center For Disease Control and Prevention

The ERV-1 students were given a writing assignment to explain what they do to stay healthy.  The students wrote fantastic response!!  After reading their short essays below, you will see that the ERV – 1 class is a healthy class!!  All of them live a very healthy lifestyle.   Keep up the great work ERV-1 students!!!


Essay # 1
(photo by dkirkland)


Essay # 2
(photo by dkirkland)


Essay #3
(photo by dkirkland)


Essay #4
(photo by dkirkland)

Heart disease and stroke affects all of our lives, but we can all play a role in ending it.

Prevention starts with everyone!!


cardiovascular  diseasedisease effecting the heart and the blood vessels

empowerto give ability to

lifestylea way if living

loved ones –  people who love and care about us and/or  people we love and care about

strokea sudden lack of oxygen to a part of the brain caused by the blocking or breaking of a blood vessel

For more information on February -American Heart Health or the CDC, visit:

Creative Writing at CHOC!

photo by tcarr

photo by tcarr

Our fabulous students in Tyson’s Level 3/4 morning class and his afternoon Conversation Class created a family coat of arms and then wrote a brief explanation about their coat of arms.  Students first studied and discussed vocabulary.  For example:

crest part of a coat of arms

coat of armsa design in the shape of a shield that is used as the special sign of a family, a city, or an organization.

photo by tcarr

photo by tcarr

feelings certain emotions

representto stand for something

seal – a symbol or a sign

symbol –  a design or object that represents something else

Then the students drew and decorated their own family coat of arms that represented them and their life.  When the students finished designing and creating their crest, they wrote a short description of their crest and explained the symbols.  All the students did an incredible job on this creative project!!   Here are a few examples of the students’  terrific work!

photo by tcarr

photo by tcarr

photo by tcarr

photo by tcarr

photo by tcarr

photo by tcarr

photo by tcarr

photo by tcarr

photo by tcarr

photo by tcarr

Halloween Happenings at CHOC!!

Level 1 & Level 2 display their Jack-O-Lanterns!  (photo by LUribe)

Level 1 & Level 2 display their Jack-O-Lanterns! (photo by LUribe)

We had a very exciting day at  CHOC during the week of Halloween!!  Our terrific Level 1 and Level 2 classes demonstrated that they are not only outstanding ESL students, but they are  also outstanding pumpkin carvers!!  Lisa and Michelle (the dynamic duo)  combined their classes.  They had a lesson on  Jack-O-Lanterns and then taught their students how to carve a Jack-O-Lantern!!

(photo by dkirkland)

(photo by dkirkland)

When all the Jack-O-Lanterns were completed, Lisa, Michelle and the Level 1 and 2  students transformed Lisa’s room into a haunted room with scary Halloween music, creepy sounds and a mechanical talking witch.  The lights were off. The room was pitch black except for the glow of all the Jack-O-Lanterns.   Then all the other classes were invited to enter the haunted room to see the creative and incredible Jack-O-Lanterns!!

(photo by dkirkland)

(photo by dkirkland)

It was a wonderful Halloween treat for everyone at CHOC.  Thank you so much, Level 1, Level 2, Lisa and Michelle for making our Halloween so much fun!

The excitement of Halloween continued as Dan visited the CHOC dressed as an Angry Bird!!!  Everyone enjoyed seeing him on Halloween Day!!

Dan is ready for Halloween!!     (photo by dkirkland)

Dan is ready for Halloween!! (photo by dkirkland)

Vocabulary List

transformed – to make a great change in something (past tense of transform)

haunted – ghosts or spirits live there or visit there

creepy – giving you an unpleasant and frightening feeling

mechanical – operated by machinery

pitch black  – very very black glow – to give a steady low light (example: light from a candle)

creative – having new ideas and using your imagination