Making Small Talk:
an Intermediate Level Lesson Plan

This is a 1 1/2 hour lesson for Intermediate students on making small talk and choosing appropriate topics for casual conversation.

Preliminary Planning

man and woman having coffee together and making small talk.small talk
man and woman having coffee together and making small talk.small talk

Lesson objective:

Students will be able to identify appropriate and inappropriate topics for making small talk, and will be able to begin or continue a brief conversation on several appropriate topics.

Materials needed:

  • a worksheet with about 16 possible conversation topics listed (the weather, sports, a popular TV show, the national election, religion, family, your financial situation, etc.),
  • 1 pair of scissors,
  • 2 paper clips,
  • a game board for each group of 3-5 students with directions to follow on each space (you can design or find a game board template, make enough copies for your class-- the number of students divided by 4 or 5, and mount these on thin cardboard.) If you don’t feel artistic enough to design your own, there are templates online, such as here (the Bubbles path is quite neutral, and you could add instructions in the bubbles.)
  • 1 die to roll per group of students
  • About 10 cards per group, each labeled with one good topic for small talk (i.e. sports, popular TV show, the weather...)

Assumptions (skills your students will need to benefit from this lesson):

  • Students are (should be) familiar and fairly proficient with most English tenses and structures and proficient with questions and answers;
  • Students have some knowledge of Anglo-American culture;
  • Students have played board games & are familiar with rolling dice, moving markers forward, etc.

Anticipated problems and possible solutions:

Problem 1: Students may be unsure what topics are acceptable to discuss in English-speaking cultures.

Solution: group discussion of various topics, comparing notes and opinions, followed by whole class confirmation (or correction.)

Problem 2: many students may feel shy & uncertain about how to begin a small talk conversation.

Solution: discuss the importance of small talk, reassure students that this is a common feeling, allow ample practice and chances to hear other students’ attempts.

Making Small Talk (the Lesson Itself)

Introduction/presentation (20 min.)

Introduce topic by asking students for occasions when they might want to have short conversations with acquaintances or co-workers. Elicit a few examples of topics they might discuss. Write “small talk” on the board and ask what it refers to. (Explain briefly if necessary.) “Today we’ll practice making small talk.”

Point out that many people (including native English speakers) find starting a casual conversation awkward. Ask students why it matters to be able to use small talk. (Again, discuss reasons if students can’t: it sets a friendly tone for business meetings or encounters with neighbors, co-workers, and others we deal with frequently, and it generally keeps social relations pleasant.)

Ask students about their experience with small talk in their own culture and in English.

Guided practice(40 min.): students discuss appropriate topics for small talk

Point out that some topics of conversation are appropriate for making small talk and others are not. Elicit a couple of examples of each, and ask why the inappropriate ones aren’t good. Instruct students that they will work in groups to discuss which topics are good and which are not and WHY they’re not.

Groups (of 3 or 4) will cut apart the topics on the list and after discussing each, place each into the “appropriate” or “inappropriate” piles. Ask each group to think of at least two other topics and write them on the bottom of their sheets, adding those “cards” to the proper pile after discussing them.

Groups will report back to the class on their decisions. (A spokesperson for group 1 will give one appropriate topic, & other groups will note if they agreed or disagreed. Then group 2 will list another, until all appropriate topics in each group’s piles have been mentioned. Then they will take turns listing topics in their inappropriate piles.)

Elicit from students, and post on the board (and if needed provide more) possible ways to express discomfort or change the subject if an acquaintance brings up a topic a student doesn’t want to discuss. (i.e. “Isn’t that rather personal?” or ”I’d prefer not to talk about that,” etc.) In groups students talk about any such experiences they have had or observed.

Communicative Practice with Small Talk (30 min.)

In groups (after a demonstration), students play a board game in which the spaces they land on direct students to draw a card from the pile of appropriate topics and 1) initiate a conversation on that topic, 2) carry on a 2 minute conversation with the next player on that topic, 3) make a brief comment on any of the topics, or 4) refer back to an earlier student’s comment and continue the conversation. If a student cannot think of anything to say within 30 seconds or so, he or she does returns to his/her previous spot until the next turn.

The next player, after rolling the dice & moving to a new space, may either respond to the previous player’s unanswered card or draw another. (The teacher circulates, listening to the comments/conversations, noting errors to work on later, and helping as needed.)

After the board game, have a class discussion about which topics are easy & which are difficult to talk about. (If many have problems with some topic, that might make a good future lesson.)


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