Category Archives: ESL Conversation & Discussion Techniques

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

Guaranteed Active Whole-Class Discussions (3rd Technique: Redirecting a question to a classmate when you don’t know what to say)

 

Redirect quest image

(This posting includes an attachment teacher’s script which you are welcome to use.)

As mentioned in the previous two previous posting about the first two techniques, whole-class discussions can be an alien concept to some students.  When trying to conduct a discussion with the whole class, it’s not unusual for the teacher to call on a student to answer but the student for some reason is unable to answer in a timely manner.  It could be because he doesn’t know what to say, or how to formulate the answer in English, or isn’t confident in his oral skills.  This can result in some awkward moments as the student is clearly experiencing stress and/or embarrassment, and the teacher doesn’t know whether to give him more time to answer, to ask some leading questions or to just move on to a different student. Meanwhile, the rest of the class might begin to become restless.

This technique is a kind of “escape” for students in that kind of situation.  If, for some reason, they can’t answer within a reasonable amount of time, they can use one of these expressions:

  • That’s a good question. I’d like to think about it first. Perhaps (a classmate’s name) could answer it.
  • I’m not sure, but (classmate’s name), what do you think?
  • I have no idea. How about you, (classmate’s name)?

When students use this technique, it can actually turn into a humorous situation.  Almost any time a student has used one of these expression, it has elicited a lot of friendly laughter by the classmates and teacher.  The classroom tension is immediately released.

To help your students become comfortable with this technique, you can use the handout and attached script, which I’ll explain about below. 

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Discussion Technique to Get Quiet Students Involved (Part 2)

Akiyo Noguchi and Anna Stöhr during the semifinals at the IFSC Boulder Worldcup Vienna 2010

Listen and summarize

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

Most of us have had experience like this with an ESL student: Someone is talking for a half a minute or more, and the student is just looking at the person.  When the person stops, the student just nods his/her head.  The speaker isn’t sure if the student really understood. 

There is a technique which students, both the listener and speaker, can uses in conversations to avoid that type of situation.

The technique expands on the one introduced in Part 1. Discussion Technique to Get Quiet Students Involved (Part 1) Instead of asking a clarification after each paragraph, in this one, the listener summarizes in one sentence what s/he thinks was said.

By doing this, the speaker is able to feel confident that s/he is being understood correctly and the listener can confirm his/her understanding.

Just as with the technique introduced in Part 1, 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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Guaranteed Active Whole-Class Discussions (2nd  Technique: Volunteering to Answer)

Volunteer answer

(This posting includes an attached teacher’s script which you are welcome to use.)

As mentioned in the previous posting “1st Technique: Responding to others,” Guaranteed Active Whole-Class Discussions (First Technique: Responding to Others)  whole-class discussions can be an alien concept to some students.   This is the second technique.

International students in Western-style classes often feel ignored during whole-class discussions if the instructor doesn’t directly call on them.  In some of the classes, instructors expect students to freely offer their comments or ask question.  Also, some hesitate to call on International students because they think those students might feel uncomfortable speaking to the whole class.

This technique, Volunteering an Answer, is very effective in helping even passive students involved in whole-class discussion, and in the process, impressing their instructors.

To help you students become comfortable with this technique, you can use the attached script, which I’ll explain about below.  (Notice: for this technique, there is no handout for the student, just a teacher’s script.) Script Whole class Technique 2 Volunteering to answer

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Guaranteed Active Whole-Class Discussions (First Technique: Responding to Others)

Discussion responding

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

During a whole-class discussion, one of the students, Santos, made a comment.

Then Mai said, “I’d like to ask Santos a question …”

Then Lan gave her opinion, and Camilo replied, “Lan said something very interesting …

These students were employing a discussion technique “Responding to Others,” which had taken just 10 minutes for them to pick up.

The concept of whole-class discussions can be an alien one to students from non-Western countries. Students are told that participation in class discussions is expected in Western academic settings and that if they are active participants, it can affect their grade in a positive way. Nevertheless, these students don’t know what “active participation” means, other than to state one’s opinion.  For instructors preparing students for mainstream, academic coursework, the techniques introduced in these next postings could help students develop five specific techniques that they can apply to be active.  

                                  Five Techniques
Responding to another student’s comment
Volunteering an answer
Redirecting a question when you don’t know what to say
Reporting what someone else has said
Summarizing what other group members have said

An additional benefit to those students who employ these is that their classmates will feel good about them and future instructors will be impressed.  For research about this, see  Want Your Students to Seem More Likeable? Research Says: Teach Them Follow-up Questions

The first technique and handout is explained below:

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Want Your Students to Seem More Likeable? Research Says: Teach Them Follow-up Questions

Likeable

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

This could be one of the most useful researched-backed techniques that your students can learn.  If they want to make a positive impression on others during a conversation, they should ask a lot of questions, especially a lot of follow-up questions.

Karen Huang and her research team at the Harvard Business School analyzed more than 300 online and face-to-face conversations between people getting to know each other.  In one study, participants engaged in a 15-minute conversation with a randomly assigned person.  Some of the participants were told to ask many questions (at least nine) and others were told to ask few questions (less than four).  After the conversations ended, the participants told the researchers how much they liked their conversation partner.  The results showed that the people who asked more follow-up questions were considered more likeable.

A second study and activity for students continues below.

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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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