Category Archives: *ESL Conversation & Discussion Techniques

These postings include conversation activities, teaching techniques, strategies for groupings and evaluations.

 • A More Sophisticated Technique Than Just Saying, “What did you say?” and “I don’t understand.”

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

Spoiler alert: You will hear quite a bit of laughing when students are doing the activity in pairs. 😁

Here is how I introduce this technique to intermediate-level ESL students:

If I say to you, “My cousin gave me a jigsaw puzzle,” and you say, “Pardon?” I’ll know you didn’t understand. But I won’t know which word you didn’t understand. It will help me if you let me know specifically which word you didn’t understand, so you might ask, “Your cousin gave you a what?” Then I know you didn’t understand “jigsaw puzzle.” Or you might ask, “Who gave you a puzzle?” Then I know you didn’t understand that I had said “my cousin.” This unit will give you practice in asking questions about specific information which you did not understand.

The practice for this technique involves a brief introductory exercise and a 3-step pair work activity.  (You can find the complete set of exercise to download and use with your students in the link below.)

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• ESL Students Won’t Progress In Conversation Skills Without This Technique.

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YouTube This posting is discussed on my YouTube video YouTube ESL Students Won’t Progress In Conversation Skills Without This Technique

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

In her book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers,  Amy Sutherland describes how “progressive” animal trainers help animals who may feel nervous about anything new or that they are not accustomed to. One way is called desensitizing. She explains, “When you counter-condition, you take a negative experience and make it a positive one by pairing it with something good.”

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She gives the example of a cavy, which is a South American rodent, who was terrified of the humans at the animal training school. Anytime that it needed vet care, it had to be caught, which meant chasing it around its cage, and this made it even more terrified of humans. The animal trainer set up a counter-conditioning. Each day she would enter the cavy’s cage and move just an inch closer. If the cagy didn’t hide behind a bush, the trainer would reward it with an alfalfa pellet. Overtime, the cavy allowed the trainer to come closer and closer, until one day the animal ate some pellets right out of the trainer’s hand.

I realized that desensitizing our ESL students to a “negative experience” could help them become more open to using an important technique, just as it helped the cavy.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand that.”

For many language learners, it seems so hard to say this or a similar phrase. For some, it can be embarrassing to appear less proficient than others (e.g. classmates) seem to be. Some don’t have confidence that they’ll understand even if their interlocutor repeats slower or rephrases what was said. Others don’t want to take up the other person’s time having to explain or simplify what they had just said.

I, myself even as an adult, was like this when I was trying to navigate my way around France or Japan. If the situation wasn’t dire, I usually just nodded like I understood and thanked them. But at times, when I really needed the information, I put aside my ego when I couldn’t understand and said in French or Japanese, “Excuse me. Could you repeat that?”  To my amazement, nine out of ten times, the people adjusted their speech by speaking more slowly, and/or used easier vocabulary, pantomimed, and sometimes even used some English. Over time, I became desensitized to those negative emotions I had felt about saying, “I didn’t understand.”

Classroom activities to make it easier and natural to ask for clarification. (Handout included.)

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• Don’t Give Grades For These In Conversation Class. Do This Instead.

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A former ESL student of mine, Teddy, came to my office for a chat. I asked him how his classes were going, and he showed me the mid-term exam grade from his intermediate-level speaking class that his teacher had just given him. First Bad eval form  I asked him how he felt about it. He said that he was feeling discouraged because he really tries to be active in conversation, not only telling his ideas and opinions but also responding to and including other. So he felt that he deserved a much better score than a 72%, which was a failing grade.

Then I asked him, from looking at this grade form, what he thinks he’ll need to do to improve his grade.

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He felt confident that he could ask more questions and try to respond to others more with rejoinders.

But about the pronunciation and grammar grades, he said that he wasn’t sure.

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He imagined that he might have some problems with “L” and “R” sounds.  And he thought that the grammar score was low because he always makes mistakes with prepositions. So he planned to think more carefully about those when talking.

The problem and the fix

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• Pain-Free ESL Speaking Placement-Testing Process: Reliable, Time-Efficient and User-Friendly

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

At first, all the teachers wanted to administer the oral test for placing students into one of the four levels of conversation classes. But that enthusiasm waned once they discovered what this commercially-made placement test would entail.

Two major problems with many speaking placement tests (commercial and in-house)

1)  The testing process in labor intensive. The scoring rubrics are onerous, ineffective and require time-consuming training.

2)  Rather than just focusing on the skills being developed in speaking/conversation classes, the interviewers have to evaluate several peripheral aspects of speaking at the same time.

A Speaking Placement-Testing Process That Addresses Those Problems.

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