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May 13, 2007

Q and A- Teaching Conversational English

Dear Readers,

This month, we have an interesting question from Zaida about teaching conversation English classes.


Hi! I'm not a native English speaker. I'm working as a part time English conversation teacher. I would like to get some ideas and tips on how to teach conversation effectively. We are using a textbook, repeat and follow what's in the book, using the dialogs in the books for actual conversations. How can I ...

... make my class lively and what games should I use?

Games I use:
Hang man
What's this? (asking for the real object used in the classroom)
Pop words

Thank you very much.



Hi Zaida,

The first thing I'd recommend is that you make a list of English-speaking scenarios that your students might find themselves in. For example, introducing oneself at a party, introducing oneself at a meeting, buying something at a store, discussing the weather with someone, talking about what you did the night before, complaining about the noisy neighbors to the landlord, etc. This will obviously be easier if the students are in an English-speaking country or if they will be in one soon. As one of your first activities, you could have your students make lists about what they would like to talk about (in groups, of course). This might be especially important if you have a class with different goals, backgrounds, and if you are in a non-English-speaking country.

Following a book is fine, to some extent, if you find that the topics, grammar structures, and activities are useful. If not, then you might want to reconsider the value of using the book. In my experience, reciting dialogues can be useful if used for the right reasons. For example, you might want to focus on the intonation of the sentences, or on the pronunciation of certain words or phrases. You could also use the dialogues to emphasize certain sentence structures. However, be careful with having students memorize dialogues completely, as they will probably never be able to actually use a whole dialogue in a real conversation. What they need to be able to do is deal with uncertainty and change in a conversation.

Here are a list of other issues you might want to consider teaching them:
* false starts
* turn-taking
* interrupting
* asking questions for clarification
* agreeing or disagreeing
* gambits (ie., short phrases they can actually use in real life, like, "I understand where you're coming from, but I see it differently; Could you say that again? What do you mean by ...? etc.)

As for your question about how to keep the class lively, it's important to make the class fun, but it's also important to remember that fun does not always equal learning. So, if you want to play a game with your students, ask yourself what the purpose is. Is it just to have fun, or will the game teach them something? (Sometimes having fun might actually be a goal; that's ok.) You might even consider explaining to the students the purpose of the games/activities, so that they feel that they are learning instead of just playing (which is especially important if you are teaching adults).

Here are some activities that might be useful for your class:
* role-playing (at the doctor, at the store, at the principal's office, at the bank, etc.)
* telephone calls (have students sit back to back so they can't use body language to communicate)
* mingling activities (students make 'business cards' and then have to try to collect as many as they can by introducing themselves to each other in the classroom and having a short chat with each other ...)
* find someone who ... (was born in the same month as you were, likes the same movie as you do, etc.)
* presenting a one-minute speech (prepared or not; other students can take notes on main points, be responsible for asking follow-up questions, or fill out a feedback form ...)
* discussions (in pairs, students are asked to have a conversation using 10-15 words on the board)
* problem-solving (in small groups or pairs, students are given a problem and must think of then possible solutions and then choose the best one)
* debates (if students all agree on an issue, you might have to allocate a certain viewpoint to the students so they have to act more as lawyers than as themselves)
* four corners (attach a topic and/or a set of questions on each of the four corners of the room, then divide the students into four groups and have each group go to one corner; give them 3-5 minutes to discuss, ring a bell, have them switch)
* table topics (similar to above, but topics are put on tables instead; have students move freely from topic to topic so that they can discuss with different people; the goal is to discuss as many of the topics as possible. .. obviously, the more topics that can fit in the room for this one, the better)
* board games (for small enough classes, you can make a simple board game for each small group; each square on the board should have a topic, students have to answer in the topic in order to move forward, otherwise they move back; coins can be used as die [heads- 1 space, tails- 2 spaces])
* back to the board (one student at a time sits with their back to the board; the teacher writes up a word or phrase on the board, the other students have to describe it in order to get the student to guess it; the last person to have spoken before it was guessed changes places with the guesser)

Some books that you might find useful:
For children:
Teaching English to Children in Asia, by David Paul, Longman (2003)
A Conversation Book 1: English in Everyday Life, by Tina Kasloff Carver, and Sandra Douglas Fotinos, Longman (1998)

For adults:
Conversation Gambits, by Eric Keller, Sylvia T. Warner, Language Teaching Publications (1988)
Conversation: from Description to Pedagogy, by Scott Thornbury, Cambridge University Press (2006)
Discussions A-Z (Intermediate), by Adrian Wallwork, Cambridge University Press (1997)
The Media: Catalysts for Communicative Language Learning, by Joyce Penfield, Addison-Wesley (1987)
100 Topics for Spoken English, by Mark Griffiths and Carol Rueckert, China Radio and Television Publishing House (2005)

Do you have any other fun games or ideas for making a conversation class lively? Feel free to share those with us in the comments section.

Hope that helps!

Carol Rueckert
Writer, ESL Lesson Plan
E-mail: crueckert@eslemployment.com
Blog: www.esl-lesson-plan.com

"I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand." - Chinese Proverb

*To read more ESL Questions and Answers, please click HERE!

About the author of this entry:
Carol, a native English-speaker who hails from the small town of St. Joseph, Minnesota (USA), lived and worked in China for more than 7 years. During that time, she worked with students that as young as three and as old as 60. She worked in universities, private language schools, grade schools, international schools, as did some private tutoring as well. Besides teaching, she also worked as a head teacher, an education manager, and a material development manager. In addition to working on this newsletter, she currently writes a monthly column for Time Out Beijing. Carol is working on her MA in TESOL at Oxford Brookes University in England. Look for her posts on the ESL-Jobs-Forum discussion boards!

Posted by crueckert at May 13, 2007 04:31 AM

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