Conversation class: Two most important conversation techniques (Part 1)

"That's interesting!" Photo by alvesgaspar

“That’s interesting!” Photo by Alvesgaspar

Some students (and even some native-English speakers!) think that a good conversationalist is someone who just asks a lot of questions.  Anyone who has tried to have a conversation with my former roommate (name unmentioned here) will know that that’s not true.

In a typical exchange, he would ask, in rapid-fire mode, unconnected questions, I suppose, because some book told him to ask questions and charm people.  Here is a sample of a conversation we had at a reunion after we hadn’t seen each other in five years.

Former roommate: Are you still a teacher?

Me: Yes, I’m teaching ESL at a college.

Former roommate: What kind of car are you driving these days?

Me: I’ve still got my VW van.  It’s still running pretty good with 150,000 miles on it.

Former roommate: How do you like those Bears this season?

It seemed that his whole focus was on what to ask next, not to respond to what I had said.  Thus, it made for a less-than satisfying exchange.

To help our students engage in truly meaningful conversations, there are two techniques that they can use:

1) Show that they understand what the other has said by giving understanding responses.

2) Ask follow-up questions to maintain the conversation.

Use rejoinders and make your interlocutor feel good.

The first activity involves active listening in which students show that they are actually listening to their partner and understand what their partner has said.  It’s called “Using Rejoinders.”

Rejoinders can be categorized as showing that you are:

  • interested– “I see.” “That’s nice.” “Oh, yeah.”
  • happy– “That’s great!” “Terrific!” “Cool!” “Wonderful!”
  • sad– “That’s too bad.” “I’m sorry to hear that.” “Oh, no!”
  • surprised–”You’re kidding!” “I can’t believe it!” “Oh, really! /Oh, really?”

After the teacher has introduced the purpose of rejoinders to the students, (1) the students can participate in the following exercises.

Exercise 1. To demonstrate how rejoinders are used, they read a dialog and fill in some blanks.  The fill-ins are important to get students to really focus on the meaning; without the blanks, students tend to mindlessly read the dialog.

I see                 That’s great                 That’s too bad

1.A: Hi, how was the tennis match?

2.B: I won!

3.A: ______________________________! Who did you play?

4.B: My brother.

5.A: ______________________

6.B: But after the game, he fell down and hurt his leg.

7.A: ________________________________________

Exercise 2. In pairs, students work on a two-way task (2) in which they have different information and complete the task by not looking at each other’s page. This involves three steps going from controlled to more free form. (Please note: Student A’s and Student B’s papers would be on different pages so that they could not see each other’s.)

                    Student A

Step 1: Say these sentence to Students B.

Student B will respond with a rejoinder.


1. My sister lost her cell phone again.


2. I have one brother and one sister.


Step 2: Listen to Student B and choose a correct rejoinder.

3. That’s nice.


4. Cool!

I’m sorry to hear that.

               Student B

Step 1: Listen to Student A and choose a correct rejoinder.

1. That’s great!

That’s too bad.

2. That’s great!

I’m sorry to hear that.

Step 2: Say these sentence to Students A.

Student A will respond with a rejoinder.

3. My little brother likes fruit.


4. I’m going to live in Hawaii for two years.


Step 3 is more free form in which students apply what they learned in Steps 1 and 2.  They start by customizing some of the statements to their own personal lives.  When they read these statements, they seem to enjoy hear the type of reaction they get.  Also, if their partner responds with a “wrong” rejoinder, they know that there probably was a communication breakdown.

Step 3: First fill in the blank.  Then listen to Student B and respond with a rejoinder.  Also, say these sentences to Student B, who will respond with a rejoinder.


5. I don’t feel well today.


7. I have a date with ___________ tonight.


Step 3: First fill in the blank.  Then listen to Student A and respond with a rejoinder.  Also, say these sentences to Student A, who will respond with a rejoinder.


6. I have a pet dog and a pet ___________.


8. In elementary school, I was the best student.

(1) For a brief introduction that the teacher can tell the students, see p. 129 in Conversation Strategies by David and Peggy Kehe, Pro Lingua

Here is the link to the complete activity.  rejoinders-from-cs-pdf

(2) For more information about the benefits of two-way tasks, see soon Necessary ingredients for successful pair work under “Categories: Conversation” on this website.


For lower-level students, each type of rejoinder is practice individually; see Basic Conversation Strategies by David & Peggy Kehe (Pro Lingua).

For advanced-level students, rejoinders are review together with follow-up questions in Discussion Strategies by David & Peggy Kehe (Pro Lingua).

READ MORE about Technique 2: Follow-up Questions and see an activity in the next post.

David Kehe

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