How to teach ESL conversation
(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)*
One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching a conversation class is that when you teach your ESL students conversation techniques, you get to hear them talk about their culture, their experiences, opinions and dreams.
A student-centered approach doesn’t mean the teacher just puts students in groups, gives them a topic and tells them to talk about it. It doesn’t even mean that the students are put in pairs (Student A/Student B), given two different “information gap” papers and told to complete the exercise by talking.
A student-centered approach to conversation-skill development is much more than that.
To make this type of approach work, the activity always is focused on one or more specific conversational technique that students are trying to develop and that will make them more engaging interlocutors. Some examples of techniques those students develop are:
- how to start a conversation.
- how to show that you understand and/or are interested.
- how to ask follow-up questions to show you are interested and/or to keep the conversation going.
- how to get more information.
- what to say if you don’t understand what someone said.
- how to ask for a clarification.
- how to answer with details.
- how to properly give an opinion, agree and disagree.
- how to properly end a conversation.
Before assigning an activity, the teacher should be able to identify the specific technique(s) that will be practiced/developed. Also, the teachers should briefly explain to the students how that technique will help them in conversational situations. (See • If You Want To Really Motivate Your ESL Students, This Will Do It.)
Applied to a common activity: giving directions to places on a map
A popular activity is called “maps.” In this, students are put into pairs (Student A/Student B). Student A has a map of a small section of a town which shows the street names and the names of half the buildings (e.g. bank, school). The other buildings have no names on them. Student B has the same map except his/hers has only the names of the buildings that A’s doesn’t. In other words, B’s doesn’t have bank and school on his/hers. They take turns describing where their map’s buildings are and labeling the ones that are missing on theirs. (e.g. “Go north on State Street to Main Street. Turn west and go to Lake Road. On the corner of Main and Lake is the coffee shop.”
The real purpose of this sample “map” activity
Some teachers tell students that this activity will help them understand directions if they are visiting a new town or if someone asks them for directions. However, that is not the purpose of this. Actually, it’s quite rare for someone to ask an international student for directions in English. So the real purpose is to develop the technique of giving understanding responses (“I see” “OK, I got it”) and asking for clarifications (“Did you say north?” “What is the name?”). Unlike giving/understanding directions in English, which students may never need to do in the future, almost every day they will have opportunities for giving understanding responses and asking for clarifications.
Importance of understanding the purpose of the activity
Not understanding the purpose, some teachers, unfortunately, try to make a game out of this activity by having students compete to see which pair can complete their maps first. As a result, some students will avoid using those very important conversational techniques, and instead, will merely glance at their partner’s paper as they are doing the activity or use their own language to get clarification. They may finish first, but they will not have developed the technique, which is the whole purpose of doing the activity. Often the more serious students who use the techniques throughout the activity will actually take longer to finish. (For more about this, see • One of the Worst Mistakes Conversation Teachers Make)
Teacher’s role in student-centered activities: Setting up the activity
In an effort to make the class student-centered, some teachers keep their “teacher talk” so limited that they fail to properly set up the activity. Before students begin to work with a partner(s), there are some important pre-steps which can make or break the effectiveness of the activity:
1) The teacher briefly explains why the technique that they will be practicing is important and/or will be useful in future situations.
2) The teacher explains the steps in the activity and asks two (or three) students to do one or two items as models for the whole class.
3) The teacher assigns students to roles (Students A/Student B and sometimes Student C) and tells them which page in the book to look at or gives them the proper handout.
4) The teacher assigns them to partners. This could be done merely by counting off. Or if the class is of mixed nationalities, it’s best to match students from different cultures.
It’s best to avoid just telling students to find a partner. This can be stressful for shy students or for students who would like to interact with someone who is not just sitting next to them.
5) To maximize on time, it’s helpful to tell pairs where they can sit as you assign them to partners. For example, “Student A1 and B1 will sit here. Students A2 and B2 will sit here.” Or “Ken and Pablo will sit here. Misato and Karina will sit here.”
What to do if some pairs finish before the others?
Needless to say, some pairs will finish faster than others. You shouldn’t let this fact cause you to rush the other students. Often it’s the most serious students who truly take advantage of the activity, and thus, take longer than the others. For those who finish before others, the teacher can give them some options:
1) They can exchange papers (A becomes B and B becomes A) and do the activity again.
2) The teacher can give them some topics or some conversation questions that they can discuss.
3) They can talk about anything that they want in English.
4) They can rest quietly.
Finally, since this is practice, it’s not vital that all the pair finish the activity completely. If you notice several pairs finishing, you can tell everyone that you’ll stop in 5 minutes even if they haven’t finished. But you’ll want to assure them that they accomplished the goals even if they haven’t finished.
Teacher’s role during the activity
While the students are in their diads/triads, the teacher remains on the outskirts on standby in case anyone has any questions. Unless a pair is completely missing the point of the activity, s/he doesn’t interrupt them. The students need practice. If they make some grammar or pronunciation or vocabulary, those can be dealt with later if the teacher wants to. But the goal of developing the conversation technique should be the focus of the students’ attention.
For samples of effective pair activities and handout activities, see
*About the free-download materials. During my 40 years of teaching ESL, I have had many colleagues who were very generous with their time, advice and materials. These downloads are my way of paying it forward.