Tag Archives: activities

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

conversation listen respond

(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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Conversation Technique for Lighting Up the Pleasure Centers in Your Students’ Brains

Maybe this is why students tend to love their ESL classes.

We can actually include something in our lessons that will fire up the reward brain circuits in our students’ brains.  However, there can be a downside to this.

Neuroscientists at Harvard found that people’s brain reward circuits lit up when they were talking about themselves.  Amazingly, doing this can trigger the same sensations of pleasure in the brain as food, money or sex.

In other words, talking about ourselves feels good.  In fact, it feels so good that participants in a study were willing to accept 25% less money if it meant that they could talk about themselves rather than talk about someone else.

This research has interesting implications for our ESL classes.

We now know how to help our students enjoy conversation activities, and that’s good.  However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Apparently, some students like the brain pleasure they feel so much that they can’t stop themselves from dominating conversations talking about themselves.

Techniques to encourage conversations/discussions but that keep students from dominating the activities.

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Whole Class Conversation Mixer Activity: Good for Students’ Skills, Brains and More

conversation standing

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

Develop techniques, bond with classmates, improve cognitive performance all in one activity!

The first time I used this type of activity, I was a relatively new ESL Conversation teacher and just wanted something to get my students talking.  Over the years, I’ve developed it more to involve additional conversational techniques.  And from cognitive psychology, I discovered why students are so energized by it.

You may be familiar with a simple version of this activity called “Find someone who” in which students are given a list of items and directed to talk to their classmates and find someone who has that item or has done that activity.  For example, find someone who has a pet or has lived in Europe or has gone backpacking.  However, that simple version has limited value.

A much improved version of this type of activity with great benefits (and handout)

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Conversation Technique: Don’t Kill the Conversation. What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say.

kill the conversation

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

There a fewer better ways to kill a conversation than to do one of these after being asked a question:

  • Say nothing for a long time while trying to think about what to say.
  • Say, “Ummmmmm. Ahhhhh” for a long time while trying to think.
  • Just say, “I don’t know.”

It’s quite common for ESL students to be in situations like this.  They are asked a fairly common question like, “What will you do this weekend?”  Then their brains have to imagine what their plans are and how to explain those plans often using their limited vocabulary and grammar knowledge.  That process can take time.  In the meantime, knowing that the questioner is waiting for an answer to a question that would be easy to answer in his/her own language, the student is feeling pressure to answer quickly, feeling embarrassed that it is taking so long and feeling stress from appearing foolish.

In the meantime, the person who asked the question can often feel impatient or frustrated while waiting for a response.  The questioner will wonder if the students didn’t understand the question or if they don’t know what to say or if they just aren’t interested.

Too often in situations like this, the conversation dies and the questioner moves on to talk to someone else, and the students is left feeling foolish and abandoned.

This activity will lead students to learn a technique that completely prevents that from happening. It’s called, “Don’t kill the conversation.”

Here is how it works and here is a link to the activity handout.

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