ESL Conversation Techniques:
Get Your Students Talking

ESL conversation techniques and activities are helpful because talking about something in a different language is more complex and challenging than filling out a worksheet or reading a text and answering questions. You can’t just ask your students to “talk to your partner about___”.  The clearer and more specific a task you can give them, the better the results.

Conversation in an ESL or EFL class.ESL class conversation
Conversation in an ESL or EFL class.ESL class conversation

Some good tasks include surveys and interviews, information gaps (each partner has information the other lacks and must request), and sentence starters (“My favorite sport is _____ because…”)

All of these can be made easier for beginners by providing the form of the question and the basic structure of the answer, or more challenging for intermediates by making them think up Qs and As. 

Most students need constant practice with the 3rd person singular and the auxiliary “do”, so it’s a much harder exercise to be told “ask your partner how many uncles and aunts she has” (& then convert back: “report to the class—or your group—how many she has”) than “Ask: ‘How many uncles and aunts do you have?’”

The more advanced your students, the greater variety of tasks they can handle. 

Beginning students, for example, can do very simple role plays of everyday activities after practicing a simple dialog on the same subject. Advanced students don’t need the dialog, and can take on more complicated situations (see below for some ideas.)  Advanced students can also discuss their opinions and preferences much more freely, problem solve, etc.

For extensive lists of ESL conversation topics with suggested questions (mostly Intermediate up) visit iteslj.org,  ESL Discussions, or KeepEmTalking  (which also has links to related readings. audio, and video including TED talks.)  TEFL.net has a set of excellent ESL conversation lesson plans with suggested questions aimed at pre-Intermediate students.

Some ideas for Role Plays:

·       Planning a family vacation (with each student in a group taking the role of a different family member-- let your ‘contrary’ students be the teenagers!)

·       Family (or business department) budgeting

·       Complaint/returns department

·       Resolving problems with a landlord

·       Doctor visit

·       Job interview

·       Receptionist/co-worker: taking & leaving phone messages

Other Good ESL Conversation Starters:

·       Corners: Decide on four discussion topics (or points of view on a topic) related to your current lesson or teaching point. Label or designate one corner of the room for students who choose that topic to congregate. This lets each student choose the topic or angle on a subject that interests them most. Students in each corner discuss their topics, then (for an intermediate or advanced class) may choose a representative to present their insights or conclusions to the class.

(If you try this for beginners you might skip the ‘reporting back stage.’ Beginning topics can also be quite simple: pets, brothers and sisters, favorite foods, etc., and discussions can be quite brief, with possible forms or examples on the board: “I have (a)/ _______.” “I have a brother and two sisters.” “I like ice cream, but I don’t like bananas,” “Do you like _______?,” etc.)

·       Picture activities: finding things in pictures from a list on the board, or describing similar pictures to a partner to discover a certain number of details that are different, or just discussing the pictures. (What’s happening here? What do you think they will do next? Why is the man so excited?)

·       Line up (partner exchange) for short Q & As: Each student in one line has a question. The student opposite him/her in a second line answers that question (either his personal answer or according to an assigned role), then rotates one student to the left and answers the next student’s question. This is similar but shorter (and less open-ended) than a Mingle, below.

·       Mingles: Give each student a subject on which to write a question (to get to know each other better; possibly based on that day’s lesson or teaching point, or open-ended if the students are able to talk freely and there is plenty of time.) Students find partners, ask and answer each other’s questions, and then exchange questions and find a new partner to ask the new question-- continuing as long as most students are interested or class time lasts. This technique is from ESL flow , which gives lots of ways to use it (as well as a large number of other speaking activities according to language level, with related grammar lessons.)

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