5 ESL/EFL Tips for Skyrocketing Conversation Classes

Everyone Wants to Feel Important

Your students also want to feel important. They like knowing what others have to say about them. They want to feel included but don’t want to feel embarrassed by saying something that shows their lack of knowledge.

Let them be stars

Conversation classes expose a student’s vulnerability. Even when they appear to be confident, they’re still ‘on stage’. Of course, if the conversation is a voluntary extra curricular activity, you can be sure they’re interested in improving their verbal skills. Here are five tips that I’ve found to be very useful:

1 – TOPIC:
Choose topics carefully. Aim for Interest and motivation for the topic you have chosen. Pick a topic you know the student will like. It can be related to them in a personal way, for example: their passions and hobbies; their dreams and aspirations; their fears and doubts; their curiosity for learning what they don’t know. teaching them something isn’t necessarily good, unless it is a short warmer. Your aim is for them to share their opinions through enthusiastic conversation.  

One way to start the conversation is to project a picture or short video that exemplifies the main theme for the discussion. This is a warmer for the comments to follow. You can also prepare and print out questions about the topic. If the conversation slows down the questions will revive it. 

Note: it is not just a conversation, it’s a platform for learning, sharing and facilitating oral proficiency. As such, you should always have a long term aim for improved language skills. Include at least five advanced vocabulary words which should be new for the students. You can go over these at the beginning of the lesson. Make sure students can pronounce them and use them correctly. If nothing else, students will consistently acquire new vocabulary in the conversation classes. Try to casually use the new words in the next conversation session, as a review. 

Topics should be so interesting that students will lose themselves in order to dive into the topic.

A conversation class is about the students, not about you. Be a facilitator, mediator, instigator or a devil’s advocate but don’t take over the conversation! You could talk circles around students, but you would rob them of an opportunity to grow and shine.

Don’t make corrections during a conversation class. You never want to do anything that would disrupt animated free flowing conversations.

moderate but don’t take over

Nevertheless, have your ‘teacher hearing’ turned on. Jot down fundamental language errors or misused vocabulary words. It’s a subtle way to do formative assessment. The errors can be revisited at a later date during activities and  exercises aimed at correct usage.

Occasionally students invite feedback about their errors so at the end of a session, without singling out a particular student, you can bring up the error by stating what was said and eliciting better ways of saying that phrase or word. Then ask students why another way is better.  

Stay behind the scenes directing and shining the spotlight.  

There is one in every crowd. As you direct the conversation you will quickly know which students are more vocal or have more interesting contributions to make. Give all students a chance to share their opinions and call them at random to keep them on their toes. But don’t let only a few students monopolize the conversation. Interrupt a student if necessary, to ask if anyone has a different opinion or additional input.  

Remember, shy students want to express their opinion but are afraid that if they volunteer to give that opinion, what they say may fall flat on its face or offend others. They prefer not to volunteer an opinion. When you call on them, they have to say something but can also save face because they are not the ones who volunteered!

Some students just want to listen but you can always extract some information from them. Respect their silence but don’t disregard them. They also want to feel included. If they show up they are probably building up the courage to contribute. 

Students who are not actively contributing still have opinions.

There are ways of including students who just hide in the background. One way is to refer to any comment they did make. “I’m with ______ on that particular preference.” This shows you heard them, and without making an additional comment, they are reintegrated into the conversation.  Their small comment is validated. It’s an indirect way of speaking for them.  

I’m still here.

Another way to include students indirectly is to give them additional responsibilities like keeping points, or tabs on speaking deadlines for competitions etc.  You can use reflective feedback with them by restating what they did say to let them know you understood them. Conversely, you can ask other students to comment on the contribution of the more reticent students. This hones the listening skills of other students and makes them accountable for everyone’s contributions.  

Even passive inclusion can be enough and it’s much better than being ignored. 

A conversation is like a river. It follows the road of least resistance. Never force your students to continue on a topic you have prepared as if that topic were a life-vest. Even the best of topics can fall flat on their face so don’t continue trying to revive them, from the dead.

Let your topic morph and follow the flow of excitement coming from the students. When a student takes the topic down an unexpected road, follow along to see where it goes. If you feel the road is fruitless steer them in a more interesting direction. There is nothing sacred about your topic or any topic. The only thing that is sacred is the learning process of the students. Follow the sparks when a topic or comment strikes their fancy.  

Give a brief summary, at the end of the session, and thank the students for their valuable participation! 




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