Maybe this is why students tend to love their ESL classes.
We can actually include something in our lessons that will fire up the reward brain circuits in our students’ brains. However, there can be a downside to this.
Neuroscientists at Harvard found that people’s brain reward circuits lit up when they were talking about themselves. Amazingly, doing this can trigger the same sensations of pleasure in the brain as food, money or sex.
In other words, talking about ourselves feels good. In fact, it feels so good that participants in a study were willing to accept 25% less money if it meant that they could talk about themselves rather than talk about someone else.
This research has interesting implications for our ESL classes.
We now know how to help our students enjoy conversation activities, and that’s good. However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Apparently, some students like the brain pleasure they feel so much that they can’t stop themselves from dominating conversations talking about themselves.
Techniques to encourage conversations/discussions but that keep students from dominating the activities.
According to research, as much as 40% of what we say in everyday speech is about ourselves in some way. Thus, from a practical point of view, it makes sense that our students will benefit from being given opportunities to talk about themselves. Here are three techniques/activities that can help keep all the group members engaged and, at the same time, discourage some from dominating.
Technique 1: Use a Student A, Student B and Student C format. Some textbooks and teacher-handouts merely give a list of questions and tell students to talk about them in small groups. Too often this kind of format results in one or two “assertive” students doing most of the talking while the more passive students remain uninvolved. Instead of giving one list of questions to all the group members, we can divide the questions up. For example in triads, we can put a third of the questions on one handout (Student A), and a third on Student B’s paper and a third on Student C’s. And we can instruct them not to look at each other’s paper. This will make it more user-friendly for the passive students to participate, and keep the assertive ones from dominating. It also forces students to actually listen to each other to hear the questions that are not on their papers.
For a sample of an ABC activity, see Conversation Activity: Getting Students to Say More Than the Minimum
Technique 2: Encourage follow-up questions. This is perhaps the most important conversation technique that students (anyone!) can use to make conversations more rewarding. Passive students who tend to be reluctant to say much will need to listen carefully to their partners and then ask follow-up questions about what was said. In other words, they can’t just sit there without speaking. And the assertive students cannot just dominate the conversation. They’ll need to actually listen to the others in order to ask follow-up questions.
For practice with follow-up questions, you can use this handout with your students Conversation magic: Two most important techniques. (Part 2)
Technique 3: Give individualized feedback. This is a powerful tool that teachers can use to help each student understand their strengths and weaknesses when they are participating in groups. Often students are unaware of what their teacher expects or unaware that they are not applying conversation techniques. Here is how it works. While students are engaged in a small-group activity, the teacher circulates around the room and notes how well each student is participating, asking questions, telling some detail but not dominating, etc. After class the teacher fills out a simple feedback form for each student and gives them to the students before their next small-group activity. In sum, this is a great non-threatening way to help students focus on what they need to do to develop their conversation skills.
For more details about feedback forms and for some samples, see For Large-Class Conversation Instructors, You Can “See” if Students are Using Techniques
As a culmination to this posting, I’ll include a handout activity that encapsulates Techniques 1 and 2. It contains a short, one-page article that discusses the remarkable effect that follow-up questions can have. Also, the handout contains discussion questions about the article in the Student A, B and C format. Many of the discussion questions ask students to talk about their experiences, so this activity should give your students a lot of brain pleasure. And a bonus benefit: students tend to become more motivated to ask more questions after completing this activity.