Category Archives: ESL Conversation

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

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:

Part 1) Introductory exercise
Students are introduced to the technique and briefly work with some examples of how it is used in conversational situations.  In other words, they don’t just mindlessly read some sample dialogs.

Part 2)  Structured exercise
Using questions or prompts, students practice in pairs/small groups.

Part 3) Customizing exercise
Using Steps 1 and Steps 2 as models, students in pairs write prompts or questions.  Then in new groups, they use these student-made items to further practice the technique.

To demonstrate this perfect mix, we’ll look at how Ms. Brown could have made her “giving-opinions” activity more productive and engaging.

The conversational techniques they will practice in this example are;
1) using natural statements to express an opinion;
2) using natural statements to agree;
3) using natural statements to disagree.

Here are samples of Parts 1-4.

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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

transcribing

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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Conversation magic: Two most important techniques. (Part 2)

Driving

A: Do you like driving?               B: I love it!                   A (follow-up) How many miles do you drive each week?

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

The conversation magic: Making others feel like they are interesting people by asking follow-up questions.

Combined with rejoinders (explained in Part 1), this technique is almost guaranteed to engage students in animated and enjoyable conversations.

The second activity involves maintaining and extending the conversation by questions about what their partner has said.  It’s called “Using Follow-Up Questions.”  See Part 1 about Rejoinders  Conversation magic: Two most important conversation techniques (Part 1)

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Conversation class: Necessary ingredients for successful pair work (from research)

Engaging pairs

Engaging pairs

An important ingredient for making pair work activities successful learning experiences would seem to be active involvement on the part of both members; and it seems obvious that certain tasks would produce more involvement than others.  In fact, research has been conducted on the type of communication present when pairs are involved in one-way and two-way tasks.

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