How to Conduct ESL/EFL Conversation Classes with Beginners

Do Your Beginning Students Want to Converse? 

Are your beginners like a group of birds wanting to chirp away and carry on a conversation? Of course they are! Your job will be to keep them talking in the target language, even when they have no vocabulary! Beginners may be beginners in the target language but that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say, they just don’t have the words and tools to do so. 

They are more than ready to communicate and they want to be heard, express themselves and practice strange new words. But, as beginners, they need more language skills and vocabulary to carry on a conversation.

LANGUAGE SKILLS:
Language skills are the fundamental structures, core vocabulary and word order necessary to communicate in any language. Every language has its own skills which must be accurately acquired and your beginners must have at least this much of a start in English if they hope to continue on to university.  

Let’s get going!

As beginners they’re like toddlers learning to walk in the new language. It is our job to help them improve until they can run and jump or join an olympic team. We know they they’re anxious to communicate because if they can’t say something in the target language, they will quickly revert to their native language. Wouldn’t you do the same if you lacked the vocabulary you needed? 

But we must reintegrate that desire for communication exclusively into the target language

Allowing students to converse in their native language is like opening Pandora’s box. You can quickly lose precious time in listening and speaking the target language. Students must first master the basic tools and structures then need in English, so they can earn their first running shoes.

Let’s run together

They must carry on structured conversations as you help them grow their vocabulary in the target language. Eventually they will reach the level they need to earn those running shoes! 

Students need to understand the vocabulary and structures they are practicing as they move forward. It is up to you set the framework for each step which will then scaffold the following step.      

The oral patterns you set up are like a cookie mold. The vocabulary is like the batter which is made up of various ingredients. No matter how beautiful the mold, you will need some batter to produce a cookie. For beginners the production will be limited, like only being able to make oatmeal cookies. 

A cutter sets the shape

                                                VOCABULARY

Vocabulary is the raw material you need to put in the mold and as you add more material (a few words a day) the variety of your production will improve. Beginners need concrete vocabulary; things that can be seen, touched and described including everyday objects, people and places they are familiar with. These kinds of nouns lend themselves to multiple descriptive words (adjectives). Stockpile nouns and adjectives for future use then add some prepositional phrases.

STRUCTURES:
Vocabulary is not faithful to the structures it works with. It comes and goes randomly. Some words will never

be used again. Structures on the other hand never stop supporting the language. They may become more sophisticated but each one will be built on the previous one.  

NO, NOT DRILLS!
Did I say you could escape drills? Don’t think of them as drills, they’re practice!  
For beginners, drills are the key to acquisition. Students need to understand what they are practicing and the vocabulary they are using. If students cannot comprehend the practice or the vocabulary you are using, there will be no motivation and without motivation there will be no mastery.

Drills are speaking patterns that need to be acquired for such things as:
…Making statements
…Making negative statements
…Asking questions
…Answering questions
…Giving orders
These patterns and the correct way of ordering the words will become internalized through practice enabling students to move on, with a firm base.

Trying to skip this step is like having a runner speed down a street full of potholes, sudden drops and tree stumps, while cars zoom by. Even good athletes might not be able to do it! Yet linguistically, any conversation jumps from one structure to another. With a solid base and lots of practice, students will be able to do that.   

KEEPING THE FUN IN THE DRILL:
Students need to understand what they are practicing. As SLA expert, Stephen Krashen says, one of the most important components of second language acquisition is to give students ‘comprehensible input’ so they can slowly advance. The content should only be a little bit harder than what they already know. They advance while being scaffolded by that which they have already acquired.

Do you enjoy doing things you have already mastered? Your students will too!

SOME GENERAL TIPS ARE:

Interesting objects: Keep interesting objects in the classroom to pepper conversation practice or increase motivation and curiosity.
Personalization: Make sure your content has the stamp of each student’s personality, likes dislikes, concerns, names relationships.
Mystery: add a little bit of the unknown to the content. This includes unusual vocabulary. Please don’t just stick to erasers, pencils and desks. Add toothbrushes, shoe horns, chocolates, rhyming words, short sayings etc.
Unpredictability: play with sizes and functions by including the bizarre in the vocabulary, like a giant comb, glasses with big bushy eyebrows, a crown, a big foot a magic wand, etc. Even adult university students like a little laughter.

I had a very tall, slender adult student with a black beard in one class. I brought an Abraham Lincoln top hat to class. That personalized the practice to his figure, added some mystery about a president my student were unfamiliar with, and the hat was new to the student and the rest of the class!

It was all done in good fun, but the goal or practice of the particular learning structures, tools and framework were always present. The group consisted of adult professionals who were, beginners earning their running shoes!

 

2 thoughts on “How to Conduct ESL/EFL Conversation Classes with Beginners

  1. Inna Agafonova

    There is no more truth out there than comparing the beginners with toddlers. As learners who do not know anything yet, they need a complete guidance from their teachers. The teachers reciprocally try to do all the best to help their learners to earn their first running shoes.
    The ideas that are listed in the article, such as drills help learners to acquire new language patterns and practice pronunciation, bringing interesting objects in the classroom enhance the process of memorizing the target vocabulary, personalisation helps learners to open themselves up to speaking about their preferences and life experience, mystery and unpredictability create an entertaining atmosphere, all these ideas are really helpful and useful for students of all ages to learn a language in an enjoyable and fun way.

    • Leona Wellington

      Thanks for your comment! Beginners are priceless, we give them the drills and structures because we know the direction in which we need them to grow for their future outcomes. At the same time we give them the freedom and encouragement so they themselves want to grow. It’s a dynamite combination. Watch for another blog soon about that very topic: freedom in the classroom.

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