How to Survive a Conversation Class

For many newly-certified and inexperienced ESL teachers, the thought of giving a conversation class can often be a daunting, if not downright terrifying, thought. It certainly was for me when I first started teaching. What will we talk about? How will I make it last one hour? What if we run out of things to say? It doesn’t have to be this way. By following just a few simple steps, it can be quite easy and may even turn into one of your favourite lessons. So what should you do?

  1. Make Sure You Plan
    Yes, it can be annoying but until you have a clear idea of how to give a conversation class, you need to plan it in order to avoid it becoming a complete disaster. I know many teachers who think they can just wing it. It’s only talking to people so it can’t be that hard, right? Wrong. You may get away with this in a normal class if you know the book but not in a conversation class. The conversation needs to be guided by you or the students will run out of things to say. You’re also not down the pub with your friends; they will know if you haven’t planned and will not be happy if they are paying for a below par lesson.
  2. Give them Something to Talk About
    The first lesson is generally getting to know each other. You can use all sorts of ice breakers that you’ve used in regular classes. However, beyond that, you need to give your students something to talk about. I do this by searching for interesting articles online and giving them to my students at the end of the lesson to prepare for the following week. This gives them homework and allows them to (hopefully) learn some vocabulary.
  3. Avoid Controversial Subjects
    Sometimes students can get rather animated and the conversation can become rather heated. It’s best to steer clear of topics that could be controversial, like politics or religion. You don’t want to cause any arguments and, if your students all have the same L1, they may end up resorting to it in order to express themselves. I usually look for articles about stories that are not headlines or I use my textbooks as inspiration and find a story from there.
  4. Have Questions Ready
    When you provide the article, be sure to read it first. I know it seems like common sense but you never know. Once you’ve read the article, think up some interesting questions to ask the students. I usually start by asking one of the students to summarise the article then open it up to discussion by asking if they found anything particularly interesting or surprising.
  5. Make Sure Everybody Gets a Say
    If you have a high-level class that are particularly chatty, it can sometimes be difficult for everyone to give their opinion. Keep looking around the room for people who want to say something but are perhaps a little timid. You’ll start to notice certain body language, like them opening their mouth or raising their hand, and you can steer the conversation towards them. Be careful not to call on anyone that isn’t ready to speak, though. That can be a very embarrassing experience for a student.
  6. Encourage them to Be Independent
    As well as giving my students articles, I also encourage them to look for their own. All students, even adults, need to be directed and, sometimes, directly told what to study. Asking them to find their own articles means that they learn how to study independently and take responsibility for their own learning. It also means they have an article to talk about that definitely interests them.
  7. Have a Back-up
    Sometimes, no matter how well you plan, your lesson may fall flat. Perhaps the students didn’t find it particularly interesting or maybe they didn’t have time to read it. Whatever the reason, you need to be prepared for it. The best way to do this is to have an arsenal of question cards or games that you can pull out of your sleeve. Keep them ready in your classroom so that you can get them out at a second’s notice. Separate question cards into levels so that they are not too difficult. Look online for ideas like Taboo or the 5 second game. If the worst comes to the worst, draw nine boxes on the board and play topic bingo – write a topic in each box and, depending on the level, students have to talk about each topic for a certain length of time (usually 30 seconds to a minute). Use a mix of topics, such as holidays or films and throw in some more difficult ones just for fun, like toilet paper or pizza. See what they can come up with.

These are just some ideas that I have used over the past few years. The more practice you get, the better you will be at handling these classes. So if you’re asked to give a class, don’t run away and hide under the desk. Know that with a little planning, you will be able to create a successful learning environment for everyone.

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