Category Archives: ESL Conversation & Discussion Techniques

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

For Large-Class Conversation Instructors, You Can “See” if Students are Using Techniques

Pair Conversation

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

You,the conversation teacher, are happy because the noise level in the room is high.  That means that the 12 pairs of students (24 total) are engaged in the conversation activity.   At the start of the next class, you want to give them feedback on their performance today, especially because you want to give positive comments to those who are very active.  There are also a couple of pairs who need some “re-direction.”

Needless to say, you’re not going to be able to give each student specific feedback specifically on what they said because you can’t actually hear them above all the talking.  But you can actually see whether or not they are using conversational techniques.  (See previous posts of two important techniques Conversation magic: Two most important conversation techniques (Part 1) and Conversation magic: Two most important techniques. (Part 2)

Even if you can’t hear them, you can see if they are engaging in a natural conversation; it looks like ping-pong, in which they are reacting to each other, asking follow-up questions and giving understanding responses.  You can also see if they are more like bowling, in which one monologs for a while while the other “zones out,” then the other monologs.  You can see if someone is dominating and if someone is very passive.  Interestingly, you can even see if they have switch from English to their native language; often when they do this, their voices lower and their faces aren’t as animated perhaps to “hide” from the instructor.

If you suspect that a pair isn’t using natural conversation techniques or isn’t speaking in English, there are things that you can do.

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Discussion Technique to Get Quiet Students Involved (Part 1)

talking passive

Not just listening

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

There are techniques which guarantee that all students will be engaged in a discussion.  In other words, the discussion will look like a game of table tennsi, in which students react and respond to what their group members have said.  It doesn’t look like bowling, in which one member tell his/her opinion, followed by a second member, then by a third etc., without necessarily even listening to the other members.

Some of the techniques that compel students to listen to each other and actively interact are:

  • asking follow-up questions
  • seeking and giving clarification
  • using comprehension checks
  • soliciting more details from others
  • interrupting others during a discussion
  • helping the leader of a discussion

A great technique to practice early in a discussion course is “seeking and giving clarifications.”  This involves using expressions such “Did you say …?”  “I didn’t understand …”  “Can you explain … more?”

After students have used the two attached handout-activities, they usually find the technique to be a “tool” that they can use not only in group discussions but also when interacting with teachers and others outside the classroom.

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Making the Perfect Mixture of Structure and Autonomy in Conversation Activities (Customizing Exercises)

conversation autonomy

Conversational Autonomy

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
Here is the link to the exercise handout:  Expressing opinions

“Ms. Brown, do we really have to do anything we want to do again today?”*  Ms. Brown is probably an extreme case of instructors who try to give their students autonomy because they believe students know best what they are interested in.

The chances are that you are from a different culture, different generation and/or different socio-economic group from your students.  You probably have a different marital status, different interests and/or different goals.  So how can you tap into what will be most stimulating for your students to talk about when they are practicing conversational techniques?  In other words, how can you customize the exercise for your current group of students?

A key phrase in the question is “conversational techniques.”  Students should be learning techniques that they can apply in conversational situations.  Some technique examples are: beginning a conversation, giving understanding responses, clarifying something, politely interrupting someone, rephrasing something, soliciting details, giving opinions, summarizing what was said, ending a conversation.

Let’s say Ms. Brown wants her students to practice giving opinions.  To customize the activity, she tells the students to think of topics that are interesting to them, get into groups and tell their opinions.  But, without any kind of structure, the students will probably just take turns monologuing, not actually engaging in a conversation.

The “perfect mix” of structure and customizing involves three parts:

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Fun & Student-Centered  Speaking/Listening Activity: Truth or Lie

owl and hat

The owl and the hat

One of my students, Sebastian, told our Conversation class this experience: “I was on a hike in the Hundred Acre Woods (a forest near campus).  It was a beautiful morning.  The sun was shining through the tree branches.  Suddenly, I heard a wooshing sound near my head.  Something attacked my head.  And then my hat was gone.  I looked up and notice an owl flying away with my hat.

The Sebastian left the room, and Kenji came in and told this experience:  “One day, I was walking in the Hundred Acre Woods.  I had a small backpack with my lunch in it.  I was wearing a jacket and a baseball hat.  All of a sudden, I heard a sound near my head, and before I could look up, an owl took my hat and flew away with it.”

Which of these students, Sebastian or Kenji actually had this experience?  Finding this out is the goal of this “Truth or Lie” game.  The students love it.

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Best Subject for an ESL Integrated-Skills Class (Parts 3 & 4: Discussion and Writing aspects)

discussion abc

Discussion and Writing Skills

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

It may surprise some how closely discussions and writing assignments are intertwined in an academic integrated-skills course.  The writing assignments are often related to the readings in the course, and the students are required to summarize and paraphrase from the passages.  One of the best ways to helps students do this is if they’ve had a chance to talk about the ideas in the passages.  In other words, they “orally paraphrased” the readings before they are asked to paraphrase from them in writing tasks.

To illustrate how reading, discussion and writing can be integrated to help students develop each skill, we’ll follow up to the reading passage about why Asians often seem so shy in social situations compared to westerners from Part 1. Best Subject for an ESL Integrated-Skills Class (Part 1 Overview) I’ll include some specific activities:

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Great Self-Study Conversation Technique: Not an Oxymoron


Self-study conversation technique

When I was living in Japan and in Africa, I occasionally met a non-native English speaker who spoke almost fluent English with clear pronunciation, natural intonation and mature vocabulary and had great listening skills.  Naturally, I assumed that they must have spent time in an English-speaking country or had English-speaking friends or a tutor, but all of them told me that they had never left their country and had little contact with English speakers.  However, I soon learned that all of them had one thing in common: each of them had developed their oral skills through one fairly simple technique.

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

"That's interesting!" Photo by alvesgaspar

“That’s interesting!” Photo by Alvesgaspar

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

Making conversation magic happen

After a colleague used these techniques, she told me with wonder in her eyes, “I saw magic happen in my class today.  My students suddenly became very animated, their voiced rose, and they were laughing!” 

Then she wondered if it was some kind of set up.  In other words, by using these techniques, students have no choice but to feel like someone is interested in what they are saying.

In a sense, she is right.  But isn’t that what we hope our students will experience? These are the two techniques:

1) Use rejoinders to show that they understand what the other has said by giving understanding responses.

2) Ask follow-up questions to maintain the conversation and to show interest in each other..

When someone uses these in a conversation, their interlocutor can’t help but feel like someone thinks they are interesting to talk to.

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