Category Archives: *ESL Conversation & Discussion Techniques

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

• 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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• Helping Our Students Who Feel Invisible

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In the documentary, Becoming, about Michele Obama, Michele is asked about feeling invisible. Her description made me think more about how many of our ESL/International students probably feel invisible in classes, on campus and in society, and how we can help them.

My personal experiences with feeling invisible are quite trivial compared to what some of our students experience, but a recent episodes gave me a bit of a taste of how it feels.

I was talking to a colleague (we’ll say his name was Ben) outside the library when a young woman whom I didn’t know walked up to us with a smile on her face. The two of them obviously knew each other and started talking animatedly, without Ben introducing us. After a couple of minutes, they walked off together across campus.

That experience had little effect on me other than feeling a tad off balance or slightly irritated momentarily. But for International and minority students, being treated as invisible can be quite disheartening.

One young man described it this way, “The problem is that to many people, I am simply invisible. Nobody says ‘hello’ to me. Nobody nods to me. Nobody recognizes me as a person with something to say. Nobody listens to me. People make assumptions about me on the basis of my color and where I come from…But I am a person and have something to say — both as an individual and on the basis of my distinctive experience.”

In our classrooms, we can see the students who are probably feeling invisible. They are the ones who are not greeted by others who look past them and start talking to more familiar friends. Or the ones overlooked when their classmates are told to find a partner for an activity. Or the ones who sit silently seemingly unnoticed in group discussions.

How to help our ESL students feel visible.

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

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(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)

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• Stimulating Small-Group Discussion Activity 7: Very, Very, Very Smart Children vs. Creative Ones

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

Some reasons why students seemed stimulated by this discussion:

1) Before reading this article, many just assumed that very smart children (prodigies) would become the most successful as adults.

2) They seemed interested to hear about prodigies that their classmates knew or that were in each other’s countries.

3) They were surprised by how important or unimportant approval by their parents was to their classmates.

4) They enjoyed comparing how creative they were and how much each of them was a conformist and/or non-conformist.

5) They liked to talk about their passions.

Here is the basis for this discussion: In his book, Originals, Adam Grant explains how many people believe that life would be easier and people would admire us if we were very, very smart. Actually, though, being creative improves people’s lives more.

This and future discussion activities include four parts:

1) A one-page article usually including a brief summary of a high-interest research study.

2) Ten true-false comprehension questions.

3) Pre-Discussion Exercise in which students read and think about several questions about their own experiences about the topic.

4) Small-group discussions of the article in which each student is given a paper with different questions in the form of Student A, B or C.   

About Discussion Activity 7: Very, Very, Very Smart Children vs. Creative Ones (and the handout).

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