How to Teach an English Conversation Class
Conversation courses are usually taken by students who want to use and improve their speaking (and listening) skills. Their needs are different from students who take ordinary textbook-based classes.
Run more often in non-English speaking countries, these classes cater to EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students, who have little contact with English in their day to day life.
There is no right way to teach such classes, there is no textbook to guide lessons and no structure to follow. The students are an incredibly mixed bunch, different ages, and attending the conversation course for a variety of reasons.
My experience: I have taught English conversation classes in Japan and Germany, and at times found them exceptionally challenging to prepare for and teach.
Starting a new conversation class lesson plan - the first lesson in the course is the scariest, for both teachers and students. This is my favorite lesson plan - it's worked fabulously every time!
Why take a conversation course?
Students have many reasons to sign up for a class.
When a teacher knows why students are attending, they can tailor lessons to meet students' needs.
In your first lesson, find out why each student is there - get them to fill out an intro form, or take notes next to their names on a copy of an attendance sheet so you can refer back to their goals as you go through the course.
My students in Japan and Germany had four main reasons for joining an English conversation class.
English for travel:
Many non-English speakers find travelling in English-speaking countries stressful, especially if they travel outside of a tour. Ordering meals, making reservations, asking for directions and dealing with problems such as illness are useful situations.
English in the workplace:
Some take a conversation course to be more comfortable speaking English in the workplace, especially in medical or research fields. The main language used in multi-national companies or even in smaller companies spanning two countries, is often English.
Discussing and planning projects, presenting information and using workplace specific vocabulary are important aspects for these students.
English for further study:
In many countries, young EFL students must learn English in school, with a textbook. Many classrooms focus on reading, listening, and writing.
Unfortunately, in a class of 30+ students, it is commonly thought that there is not enough time for meaningful speaking activities.
Students often look for extra courses to their spoken skills, needed to pass spoken exams.
English as an opportunity to socialize:
Many older students use language courses with an emphasis on interation as an excellent excuse to get out of the house, meet people, and keep their minds sharp. With friends around the world, thanks to the internet and video chatting, younger people also want to be able to talk English just to socialize.
Which is hardest?
Which is the most difficult skill to learn (in a second language)?
How to choose good topics
Topics make it easier to practice language: they provide a 'safe' sandbox, a set of vocabulary and grammar, and a a focus for the conversation. But everyone is interested in different things.
Older people have different interests and experiences than younger people. When running a non-textbook based language class, the mix of interests and ages can make planning difficult.
You won't please every person in every class - it is much less stressful not to aim for the impossible!
In the first class, ask each student to nominate topics they'd love to talk about. Keep notes for each student, or get them to fill in an introduction form.
Select topics that are liked by more than one person as the focus for each lesson in the course.
I've discovered there is no point talking about your smartphone, if your elderly students don't like computers or technology!
Avoid controversial topics, unless you know your group well.
Politics and religion are two areas that can result in heated debates, one person monopolizing the class, or people feeling insulted. But with some groups, these topics can produce the best discussions!
Choose topics that have a focus in the real world and students will be more likely to remember new words as they go about their days, outside the class. Role plays can be good, especially with shy students, but many feel such exercises are contrived.
Choose situations where students can be creative in their role-play lines - (very ill and confused) patient / doctor, (never happy) restaurant customer / waiter, etc. to avoid limited and contrived conversations.
However, you will not be able to steer clear of all subjects that people have strong feelings about: I once had a student who strongly believed that meditation was extremely dangerous.
Easy, broad topic areas
Difficult, troublesome topic areas
slang and idioms
food and drink
hobbies and sports
home and garden
family and relationships
pets and animals
local area and events
I found this book of conversation prompts, quotes, proverbs, idioms and saying fantastic when planning my conversation classes.
You can use these in a number of ways - get students to present their points of view (agree/disagree), explain the proverb or saying in plain English and discuss whether there is a similar saying in their native language.
I've used prompts from this book in many classes with much success. It has made planning classes a lot easier.
Grammar nuggets focus a lesson
In all of my conversation classes, the students have said they want to improve their grammar. This can be difficult to manage in a mostly spoken/listening class, without a textbook and reading/writing activities.
In the first lesson, ask the students what grammar areas they'd like to improve.
A good solution is to include bite-sized grammar topics in each lesson. One grammar nugget is plenty for beginner and intermediate classes.
More complex grammar or combinations are better for more advanced classes.
Keeping the grammar focus in each class small, avoids the situation where the students are too confused to speak, or trip over their own thoughts as they try to get complex grammar correct before speaking.
If you know the students have problems with the grammar nugget, explain it with examples before the class begins.
Or take note of problems throughout the lesson, then explain and fix their grammar mistakes towards the end of the class.
However, lecture-style teaching should be kept to a minimum - the students are there to converse, not to listen to the teacher and take notes!
Correcting mistakes during the class
The goal of a conversation course is to communicate, with emphasis on quickly producing language and getting the right idea across. Students should be encouraged to avoid using patterns - language is flexible, it is not a set of rules.
Many students want a native English speaker to correct their pronunciation. But how can there be one correct pronunciation when there are so many different English accents?
Tip: Avoid over-correcting and encourage students to help each other.
My rule of thumb is to only correct mistakes or pronunciation when the meaning is unclear or wrong.
Setting the class duration
Speaking is difficult, and the students will get tired in long classes. If a class is too short, they won't be warmed up enough to speak without hesitating.
I have found that a good length is 60-90 minutes.
As a student, how long is the perfect length for a conversation course?
Handouts - good or bad?
There is no textbook, so from time to time, printouts are necessary. They can provide a focus for the conversation (pictures / news articles), explain or summarize the grammar nugget, or be used as homework to prepare for next week.
Personally, I like having a lot of information, but I've found most of my students feel overwhelmed. I have had to learn to provide less information, really just a simple overview, and leave out the complete, complex details!
One page cheat sheets for the grammar focus on the lessons have been a hit - the students love them! On the other side, I often include a few conversation prompts, questions or photos. Here are some of the cheat sheets I've used in classes, downloadable as PDF documents.
Should we set homework?
EFL students typically have no contact with English in their day-to-day lives, so even an extra 30 minutes, once per week, where they need to think in and work with English helps make their class a little more effortless.
Homework should focus on either a topic or grammar theme - telling a story, explaining a news article, or presenting a piece of information.
When the students present their homework, teachers have a chance to correct their pronunciation and grammar errors, without breaking the flow of the conversation.
In every country I have taught and studied in, students sit in the same seats and make the same small groups each week. Although this develops stronger bonds that helps students talk without fear, it also means they are not exposed to how different people use language.
It is important to mix the groups up each lesson. Use different sized groups, or randomly allocate groups, if the students are not able to group themselves.
- Work with groups of 2, 3, 4, or 5.
- Assign a number to each student.
- Group by birth month, star sign or birth season.
- Group by favorite colors, foods, or pets.
- Roll a dice.
- Use randomly assigned colored cards or stickers.
Creating an enjoyable course
Throwing in occasional vocabulary games, tongue twisters, riddles, short videos or songs, and an activity in which they can relax, helps to bring the class together.
My classes particularly love working out word based droodles - doodled-riddles. They are great vocabulary exercises, encourage bonding when solved in groups, and great for encouraging lateral thinking!
I have found that tea, coffee and cake or biscuits helps a new group lose their shyness, and helps them speak more freely together.
Even better, is when you can bring a cake or dish that is popular in your home country.
Show you are having fun too
Students are encouraged when they see their teacher having fun. Have a sense of humour - when you make a mistake as a teacher, or one lesson just doesn't work, laugh about it and move on!
Learning to communicate in another language (and teaching others) is just like any habit change - if the students and the teacher stop enjoying the process, there will be no development and progress.
If you are a teacher, how do you teach conversation classes? Is there anything in particular you struggle with?
If you are a student, are there any particular activities or topics you enjoy the most?
Let us know in the comments below!