In this post, I’ll present my 10-step guide for teaching effective conversation classes to adult English learners.
Many adult learners enrol in conversation classes to improve their speaking skills. However, student numbers often drop as the course progresses. This can be due to several reasons:
- Students are not interested in the topics.
- Students don’t feel they are learning anything new.
- Students don’t feel they are actually improving their speaking skills.
- Students want more traditional grammar-structured classes.
- Students feel they are learning new language rather than practising speaking.
- Classes lack variety (just question and answer discussions).
Conversation classes are not always taken seriously by learners (just chatting), teachers (just listening to learners chatting) or academy owners (promotional tool for paid classes).
This is a great shame as conversation classes can be a really effective way to help our learners improve their speaking skills.
Read on for a 10-step process designed to help you give effective conversation classes.
Step 1: Get to know your learners
Conversation classes often fall flat because the learners aren’t particularly interested in the topics or don’t really know what they want from a conversation class. Some learners don’t even want to practise speaking in a conversation class!
A WIN analysis is a simple tool used in the business world that can help you discover essential information about your learners.
- W: What do they want to talk about?
- I: What are their interests?
- N: What do they need to talk about?
In General English classes, your adult learners may enjoy the freedom to discuss whatever interests them (Wants and Interests). However, in other classes (Exam or Business classes), you will have to consider their specific needs.
Tip: Ask the learners to write down their answers to the WIN analysis questions before you discuss topics with the whole class. The WIN analysis should provide you with some important information about specific learners.
You could ask the learners to do the WIN analysis in small groups but some dominant learners may force their opinions on their peers.
Step 2: Work together to choose interesting and relevant topics.
Your learners will probably have a variety of wants, needs, and interests. But, they are not paying for one-to-one classes. Therefore, they will have to accept that they won’t always be interested in the topic of the lesson. There are a number of ways you could choose topics with your learners:
- Ask learners
- Find a list of topics
- Each learner chooses a topic
- Learners choose their top 3 topics from a list
Many teachers use a course book to decide on suitable topics. Course books are often written for the average learner, which means the topics are often a) bland b) Anglo-centric c) Global rather than local (maybe not suitable for monolingual classes d) aimed at teenagers and young adults rather than more mature learners.
Tip: Use the information from the WIN analysis and the topic syllabus from a course book to create a list. Then, ask learners to decide which topics they want to discuss from the new list.
Note: If you are teaching a group of employees, there may be specific work-related topics they want and need to discuss.
Step 3: Focus on language used in conversations, not just topic-related vocabulary
Many conversation classes are designed to teach vocabulary related to a specific topic. This, in my opinion, is a mistake because we need more than specific vocabulary to discuss a topic.
Which areas of language are found in typical conversations?
- Functional language (agreeing, disagreeing, giving examples, asking for clarification, rejecting ideas, changing topics)
- Communication strategies (asking for clarification, avoidance, using synonyms, circumlocution)
- Discourse markers
- Conversation features: False starts, hesitation, backchanneling, questions
- Paralinguistic language (facial expressions, gestures, body language)
- Prosodic features (intonation, stress, rhythm, connected speech)
By focusing on teaching vocabulary rather than conversation skills, we are not preparing our learners for the reality of authentic discussions in English.
Tip: Read this article for more info about teaching functional language. There is also a useful list of functions.
Step 4: Select purposeful and authentic tasks to follow discussions
I have observed conversation classes consisting of nothing more than an introduction to the topic, presentation of topic-related vocabulary, and a list of discussion questions. This might work for 20 minutes but learners are likely to lose focus if the discussion part continues for much longer.
Unless we are making small talk, we usually have a clear purpose for a discussion or conversation. In English, we may use the phrase ‘Can we have a chat?’ which seems innocuous but is usually a pretext for something else (dealing with a complaint, looking for a solution to a problem, asking for advice).
When planning a conversation class, we should think about what can follow the discussion. Here is an example:
Topic: Learning English
Discussion: Learners share their ideas, opinions, and experiences about learning English.
Task: Learners are put into groups to create a programme for an immersive 4-week English course. They will present their programme to the rest of the class who will vote for their favourite.
Without having a clear, purposeful and authentic task in our conversation classes, our learners will feel as if they are just having a chat about a topic with no identifiable outcome.
There are a variety of speaking tasks we can use for conversation practice. Here is a short list:
- Ranking items in order of importance
- Designing and delivering presentations
- Reaching agreements about a plan or a decision
- Solving a problem
- Persuading others
- Role-plays and case studies
- Critical thinking tasks
- Summary tasks
Step 5: Find engaging materials and resources to introduce topics
Learning topic-related vocabulary takes time and effort. If we include too much new language in a conversation class, we will have to rush the discussion and accompanying task. This will result in our learners getting very little conversation practice.
Remember that our main aim is to help our learners become better at having conversations.
On the other hand, learners often benefit from having some language and content input at the beginning of the class to help them engage with the topic, activate their topic knowledge, expose them to useful language (topic and conversational).
There are a number of ways we can introduce and engage the learners:
- discussion of a picture or an image
- short video or audio recording
- controversial statement
- short text
- short presentation
- anecdote or story
If your adult learners have enough time and are sufficiently motivated, you might want to send them the materials before the lesson so they come prepared for the discussion task.
Step 6: Raise learner awareness of language used in conversations
Many adult learners feel the need to know specific vocabulary before discussing a topic. This can be a problem as it can lead to vocabulary presentations dominating the classes.
In your first class with your new learners, it’s a good idea to have a discussion about the objectives and outcomes of conversation classes. I usually tell them that conversation classes will help them develop their ability to have conversations and discussions about a variety of topics.
Then, we discuss the communicative functions and communication strategies used in conversations. I like to show them a video of a conversation or discussion (an interview or debate show) and raise their awareness of specific features.
Getting adult learners to think of reasons for having conversations and the objectives of participants in discussions can really help them identify what language and skills they need to acquire to become better conversationalists in English.
Another useful activity is to discuss what makes somebody a good or a weak conversationalist. This can be used to prepare the learners for the next task.
Finally, when your learners are more aware of what they need to improve to become more capable conversationalists, you should consider finding a way to measure progress. This could be done informally (discussions with learners) or more formally (create a set of assessment criteria). You could include some of the following:
- Range and accuracy (grammar)
- Range and accuracy (vocabulary)
- Pronunciation issues
- Communicative functions used
- Communicative strategies used
- Task completion
- Error correction
- Examples of good language
- Action points
Tip: Look at the assessment criteria for speaking exams and adapt them for your conversation classes. Make sure you get feedback and input from your learners about the appropriacy and relevance of the criteria. In general, most learners seem to benefit from receiving ongoing feedback (formative assessment) and you might want to consider asking learners to assess their own performance or even keep a learning journal.
Step 7: Agree on a Conversation Class Code of Conduct
Introverted learners or less confident learners often struggle with conversation classes. Extroverts, more confident learners, and more fluent learners tend to dominate. Therefore, I would recommend creating a conversation class code of conduct. You could include rules such as:
Do not use aggressive language
Don’t interrupt rudely when other learners are speaking
Respect the opinions of other members of the class
Sexist, homophobic or racist language will not be tolerated
All learners should be given the opportunity to share their ideas
Correction should be sensitive
Discussions can get quite heated, especially when talking about sensitive topics.
There is a strong argument for saying that learners need to develop the ability to defend their point of view and deal with interruptions and disagreement. To some extent, they will develop these skills naturally if you are able to develop a good rapport with your learners and they learn how to work together as a team.
Another tip is to introduce the concept of playing devils’ advocate. By doing this, learners can oppose the views of the peers without causing offence.
Step 8: Create a Conversation Class Lesson Plan Template
By this stage, you and your learners will have a clear idea of:
- the objectives and outcomes of a conversation class
- suitably interesting and relevant topics
- how to behave during the lessons
- linguistic and sociocultural aspects of successful conversations and discussions.
All you need to do is plan the lesson. The good news is that putting the work in at the beginning should result in enabling you to create simple but effective lessons plans.
My own preference is for the following lesson plan structure:
- Choose topic (Food and drink)
- Select specific topic focus (Fast Food)
- Choose suitable materials to introduce topic (video of effects of fast food)
- Identify communicative functions for lesson (agreeing, disagreeing, sharing experiences, persuading)
- Task: Learners have to present a Healthy Fast Food project to rest of the class.
- Controversial statement: There is nothing wrong with fast food.
- Pyramid discussion: Learners consider statement individually, discuss with a partner, each pair joins with another pair, report back to whole class
- Brief discussion: 5 questions about fast food ranging from the personal (How often do you eat fast food?) to the more general (Why do so many people eat fast food?). This could be done as a mingling activity.
- Put learners in small groups. Tell them they have to brainstorm a list of healthy fast food options.
- Learners stay in groups. Tell them they have to submit a project for a new healthy fast food restaurant in their town. They have to decide on: type of food, name of restaurant, logo and slogan, location, menu, advertising strategy etc.
- Each group presents their ideas to the rest of the class who ask questions after each presentation.
- Learners vote for the best presentation (they are not allowed to vote for their team’s project).
- Congratulate learners on successful performance of the task.
- Review any errors, identify any interesting language used by learners in class, fill in any gaps
- Leave time for practise of functional or communication strategy language which learners need to work on
- Set some action points (Review exponents of giving opinions and aim to use in the next lesson)
Step 9: Get feedback from learners
The final step is to get some feedback from your learners. This could be done in small groups or as the whole class, You could even ask them to respond individually after the lesson.
Here are some sample questions:
- Did you enjoy the class? Why? Why not?
- What did you practise in the class?
- What new language did you learn?
- What would you like to practise in the next class?
- Was there anything you didn’t enjoy about the class?
Step 10: Encourage Learner Autonomy
This final step is very important for encouraging learner autonomy. When learners start taking more responsibility and control of the conversation classes, your job will become much easier and you will have to do less teaching and more guiding and supporting. After a while, your learners will choose the topics, present new language, provide feedback on each other’s performance and share useful resources and materials. Then, you will really be responding to their needs.
When learners feel involved in making discussions about the syllabus and management of the classes, they are more likely to get involved in the planning and even delivery of the classes.
This will give you the time and space to focus on providing personalised feedback which will really help your learners improve their speaking skills.