Many times I’ve taught conversation classes where English language learners were so silent you could hear a pin drop. If it’s been your experience too, we’ll show you how to change that. We’ve prepared a planned conversation lesson strategy for you to use.
The foundation for this activity is the topic or materials you’ll be using. Try to select something to talk about that most, if not all, learners would be interested in. That means choosing something relevant and interesting to them. These are two criteria to engage learners without advertising they’re actually having to learn something.
After that, review the materials and think about questions to ask. Remember, follow a progressive questioning technique. Start with something light such as an identification question that will help to prime them for more advanced questions.
So, if your topic is health, you can ask them: What are some activities people do to be healthy? Then, you can proceed to a more comprehension oriented question like: Why do you think people exercise? A follow-up question could be: Why do you exercise? Or, if you don’t exercise, why not? Finally, you can move on to something more advanced such as: What are some health benefits of regular running, resistance training, stretching, or meditating (depending on the context)?
There are two options to allow learners to prepare for the conversation. They’re discussed in detail below.
Option 1: Prepare Answers in Advance as Homework
You can ask class members to prepare their answers outside of class. They can take the questions home, the library, or wherever they can work on them. There they’ll be able to take their time. They can think of what they really want to express. They can research the vocabulary and expressions they want to use. And, they can write/type out structurally sound statements. This is probably the lowest stress version to prepare for the upcoming conversation in the next meeting.
Option 2: Prepare Short Answers in Class Together
If you prefer to complete the lesson in one sitting rather than give an assignment, a second option is to have learners prepare their answers in the classroom. You can give them an allotted time to make preparations. One benefit here is that they’ll be able to ask you questions if they’re not sure of something. Also, if you want to add specific vocabulary points, you can either brainstorm with them or provide a working vocabulary for them to use.
For either option, you can decide if you want to check each learners’ statements for accuracy. If you have the time, I’d suggest you do that. The reason is because you don’t want them using inaccurate word choices or grammatical combinations. The purpose of this activity is to build fluency and reinforce accurate English for the context. Therefore, it goes a long way if they’re using the correct combinations at the time of speaking.
Now that they’ve prepared their answers, you can begin the conversation. However, there are also a couple of variations you can incorporate into this activity.
1. Slightly Vary Your Questions
If you can get away with it (i.e. if learner levels can handle it), avoid asking the questions word for word each time. This accomplishes a couple of things. First, it trains their listening to accommodate alternative word choices that carry similar meanings. In other words, it helps them step outside their boxes to listen for meaning instead of words. Secondly, it teaches them that other words can be used—that it’s okay to use different words to express similar meaning.
2. Expand Your Questions
If it appears a learner or a group of learners can handle it, try expanding the questions based on their answers. Let’s say the topic is health. You ask them what they like to do to stay healthy, and they answer eat healthy. That’s something they can elaborate on. So, you can ask them a follow-up question such as, What foods do you eat (to be healthy)? If they answer with confidence, you can then ask them, What foods don’t you eat (to be healthy)? You get the idea.
Benefits of This Activity
What you have in today’s strategy is a way to provide learners with several benefits:
1. Low-Stress Learning Environment
Utilizing this strategy, learners take their time preparing answers. They are also preparing answers to meaningful questions. And finally, they’re able to answer questions with confidence. Each of these will likely decrease their stress levels at having to engage in a conversation unprepared otherwise. But the beauty is, they’re conversing with preparation.
2. Reinforcement of Learning
By using vocabulary they used in putting together their answers, learners are able to use it again in action. In using structure they learned previously, learners are practicing the same structure in meaningful conversations. A planned conversation strategy allows for the reinforcement of the technical (lexis and syntax) through use of the practical (conversation).
3. It Addresses Various Areas of Language Development
Grammar and vocabulary are developed in preparing answers. Listening skills are developed as they anticipate the prepared questions. Fluency is developed from using those answers to engage in meaningful conversations. Feedback addresses issues such as pronunciation and unplanned grammar weaknesses.
4. Learners Walk Away with More Confidence
Using a planned conversation strategy enables class members to enter the conversation with confidence. And, in all likelihood, end the conversation with greater confidence. That’s because they used the language accurately in exchanging ideas with one another or with you, their teacher. When all’s said and done, they’ll likely leave your class with a positive outlook on not only their learning, but their skills as well.
In the End
Whenever you’re tasked with conversation lessons, give this strategy a try. You’ll be doing them and yourself a favour. Class members won’t be able to use the I-don’t-know-what-to-say reason for being silent. Plus, you’ll have a conversation lesson where learners will be more apt to speak. In so doing, you’re able to give them more feedback. On their end: they’ll have developed their English skills in a variety of ways. Their language weaknesses within the topic will have been addressed. And, they’ll be able to leave the class knowing they accomplished something. It’s win-win!
Give it a try and share some feedback with us in the comments. We’d be happy to hear from you. And, if there’s a topic you’d like us to discuss more in future blogs, please let us know. Happy teaching!