• Expanding Students’ Conversation Opportunities with Small-Talk Techniques (Includes a Group Mixer Activity)

conversation listen respond

*(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

Imagine that you are at a party and standing next to either Curt of Mari. You try to start a conversation with him or her:

You:     How was your day?
Curt:    Fine.

You:     How was your day?
Mari:   Fine. I heard a really interesting story at work.

Which one will you be more motivated to continue to talk to: Curt of Mari?

Let’s say you are a student and arrive to your night class about 10 minutes early. You sit next to either Luis or Jay and decide to try to start a conversation.  

You:     How was your day?
Luis:    It was good. But I’m ready to start the weekend. I’ve got some great plans.

You:     How was your day?
Jay:      OK.

Which one seems like they will be more fun to have a conversation with: Luis or Jay?

Finally, imagine that you are sitting on an airplane.

You:                 Where are you flying to today?
Passenger 1:    Home.

You:                 Where are you flying to today?
Passenger 2:    I’m going to Vancouver. How about you?

Which passenger will be more likely to have a conversation with you? Passenger 1 or 2?

I’ve had many students like Curt (“Fine.”), Jay (“OK”) and Passenger 1 (Home) who tell me that they wish they could have more chances to practice their English beyond their ESL lessons.  Opportunities do arise when they are standing in lines, sitting in waiting rooms or at bus stops, in a cafeteria, at a club event or when they are in situations like those above, at a party, early to class, or as a passenger, etc. They just need the conversation technique to take advantage of these occasions. Mari, Luis and Passenger 2 all have it; it’s called using small talk.

A unit on developing small-talk skills (includes downloadable handout)

Step 1: Learning how to use small talk

Instead of explaining to students what small talk is and how it can be effective, the unit starts with some inductive exercises. Students read some situations with a short dialog (similar to those above with Curt, Mari, Luis and Jay) and identify which person was better at small talk.

Next, they read situations and “opening” question that someone says to start a conversation. Then the students write good responses for each situation based on what they saw in the previous exercises.

This is followed by a controlled conversation in which students are in pairs (Student A / Student B) and have a “small-talk” conversation.

1) Student A starts by reading an opening line to start a conversation.
2) Student B listens, looks at his/her paper which has two possible responses and then choose the best one.
3) Student A listens, looks at his/her paper which has two possible responses and then choose the best one.

Step 2: Applying small talk

At this point, they have a good idea about how to use small talk and are ready to apply it. In this culminating activity, students participate in a structured “mixer” activity in which they practice using the small-talk techniques as they rotate among their classmates. Each time they are given the situation (for example, waiting at a bus stop or in a lunch room, or taking a break). Then sometimes they are instructed to start the conversation and sometimes wait for their classmate to start and have a short, 30-second conversation using small talk.  Then they are given a new situation and told to rotate to a different classmate for another short conversation.

Here is a link to the unit, which you can try out with your student. Small Talk Unit Basic Conversation Strategies   

For similar conversation-skills-development activities, see Pro Lingua Learning–Basic Conversation Strategies

Also, for another “mixer-activity” from Basic Conversations Strategies, see Whole Class Conversation Mixer Activity: Good for Students’ Skills, Brains and More

For a related conversation activity that includes a handout which you can use with your students,  see   Conversation Technique: Don’t Kill the Conversation. What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say.

 David Kehe

*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.

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