Conversation classes and students

A good conversation class is the holy grail for most of us English teachers.

Conversation classes, oral classes, presentation and debate classes are very common in both schools and higher education but time and time again you hear 1 of these 2 complaints from the teachers:

  1. My students won’t talk
  2. My students won’t stop talking

Let’s look at the first type. Here you need to reflect and work on WHY they don’t speak. Is it because they don’t have the language? They are shy? Or maybe they are just not used to speaking about topics they are unfamiliar in a strange setting with people they don’t know very well.

The secrets to a good speaking class are making sure you teach students to converse via a range of questions, responses, agreeing, disagreeing, building confidence from the first response to offering questions and then building small turns into longer pair work, group work and finally whole class unprepared conversations. Everything MUST be meaningful for students. You need to pick your battles, so initially choose easy ‘light’ familiar topics to allow less cognitive load and students to focus on the art of speaking in English.

I’m not a fan of endless worksheets of questionnaires and forced speaking task board games. Real conversation isn’t that structured but finding the right buttons to press to get authentic responses from students takes time. To begin with, low students will need to translate and even prepare answers and it might feel like baby steps as it takes time to coax a shy student who may have never spoken English for 1 hour before out of their shell but praise and support and congratulating achievement do work wonders.

Now to type 2. There are some students who are very fluent and will talk forever about almost anything but often off topic. They feel comfortable in their group which is often due to developed friendships and this can lead some teachers to feel that they are doing crowd control as they try to teach their planned lesson.

In this situation, it is important to channel this eagerness and fluency into carefully chosen topics and to balance fluency work with language focus and to experiment with different speaking scenarios, pairs and groups as well as topics. Students might be great at small talk but getting them onto more challenging topics will probably highlight serious gaps which they will realise and welcome your input.

While a speaking class should have a high percentage of actual speaking, a student who is already quite fluent needs to see the value of your lesson and so your focus can shift to activating, pushing and perfecting language.

Another situation is where you have both types in the same lesson. A mixed class of extremely talkative and very shy students certainly sounds tough for a new teacher and mixed pairs might be the first solution for many. Using the more fluent students as models is another idea. The worry here though is that shy students could become intimidated unless both you and those talkative students are honestly interested in helping the less talkative. Building this kind of class culture can help encourage students to contribute and is even better when you set up activities in and out of class to create friendships. After all, would you like to talk to stranger about your family, hobbies or plans for the weekend?

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