Category Archives: *ESL conversation & discussion techniques

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

Stimulating Small-Group Discussion Activity 1: Which Is More Effective– I’m Calm or I’m Excited?

Discussion triads

 

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

Some reasons why students seemed stimulated by this discussion:

1) They were surprised that they were currently feeling different emotions on that day.
2) They seemed interested to hear about different ways they coped with stress.
3) They were surprised by the findings of the research in the article and how they could apply that to their future.
4) They enjoyed comparing experiences giving speeches or performing.

Here is the basis for this discussion: Researchers have found that when we are in a stressful situation, we will be better at handling it if we say to ourselves that we are excited rather than try to calm ourselves down.

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 experience and opinions about the topic before discussing them in groups.
4) Small-group discussions of the article in which each student is given a paper with different content/personal experience questions in the form of Student A, B or C.
5) Optional writing reflection activity.

About Discussion Activity 1: Which Is More Effective–I’m Calm or I’m Excited? and the handout.

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One of the Worst Mistakes Conversation Teachers Make

race competition

For some strange reason, some ESL instructors think they can improve any activity by making it as some kind of competition between students or between groups.  Unfortunately, doing this can be counterproductive and actually discourage the most serious students.

To illustrate, consider an information-gap activity like the one from the March 1st posting Another Conversation Activity: Listen to Partner and Ask Questions to Complete Information-Gap Chart .  In this, pairs of students fill in missing information in a schedule by talking, asking questions, and using clarification strategies.

Imagine the teacher tells the students that he will give a prize to the pair who finishes the schedule first.  This is what will happen and how students will miss out on the skills that the activity is meant to develop.

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Another Conversation Activity: Listen to Partner and Ask Questions to Complete Information-Gap Chart 

image schedule chart

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

At first, this pair-work activity looks like it’s about getting students to talk a lot by filling information in a chart.  But that’s not the most important value of it.

Yes, students will talk a lot during this.  But by including a short pre-exercise, they will see how they should ask clarification questions when they need more information or if they didn’t understand.  Asking clarification questions is the strategy that they can use in future conversation situations in and outside the classroom.

In this activity, the students will be filling in information about a class schedule.  They’ll need to listen to their partners tell them the name of courses, days, times and room numbers.  They’ll have many chances to ask questions, especially if they don’t understand.

There are three steps in this activity:

  • Step 1: Brief work with a model showing how to do Step 2.
  • Step 2: Pair activity (Student A/ Student B)
  • Step 3:  Exercise to do if they finish before other pairs have finished.

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Conversation Activity: Stimulating Students to Listen and Respond to Each Other

 

conversation listen respond

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

Students are going to make the most progress in their conversation skills if they get into the habit of doing two things:
(1) Listen carefully to what the other person is saying and
(2) Respond to what was said.

This information-gap activity is great practice for a couple of reasons.  First, students will immediately know if they hadn’t understood clearly what their partner had said.  And second, it provides an example of  how to respond to what the partner had said.

There are three exercises in this activity.

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Customized Speaking/Listening “Game” (Actually, more than just a game.)

Three classmates are playing the game.

Vy: Here are the names of four classmates.  Which one is special? Julie,  Mai,  Saura, Thi.
Katya: Could you repeat that again?
Vy: Sure. Julie,  Mai,  Saura, Thi.

Alessa: I know.  Julie is special.
Vy: OK.  Why?
Alessa: Because she is not Asian, but the other three are.
Vy:  That’s right!  But there is another one.
Katya:  Let me see.  Oh, I got it.  Thi is special.  She is the only one who knows how to drive.
(Everyone laughs.)
Vy: You got it.
Danica: I know another one.  Saura is special.

Katya: Really?  How come?
Danica: She is the only one who finished her homework for today.

(Eruption of laughter.)
Vy: Now it’s your turn, Alessa.

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

While the students were in engaged in this activity in triads, I was standing on the perimeter.  I could overhear the list that Vy read, but couldn’t think of anything special about the four names except the obvious one that Julie was the only non-Asian.  A minute later, I heard the sudden explosion of laughter and talking from them.  I realized that they had shared an inside joke.

The basis of this game (Odd Man Out) might sound familiar to many of you.  But by exploiting it more, it turns into a great interactive activity that is not only fun but also a chance to internalize many useful expressions and produce a lot of conversation.  And students are intent on listening to each other.

In its simplest format, student read a list of four words to their partners.  The partners have to choose which word is strange or odd or special and explain why.  For example:
cat, lion, dog, fish

Most of us would probably identify “fish” as being odd because it is the only one that lives in water.  However, another choice could be “lion,” since the others are common pets.

Making this a good learning tool and customizing it

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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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