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How to Teach an English Conversation Class

Updated on February 15, 2017
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Kymberly has taught in music, programming and natural languages for over 15 years. She is crazily passionate about learning!

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!

Many foreign language students find writing / reading easier than listening / speaking.
Many foreign language students find writing / reading easier than listening / speaking. | Source

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)?

See results
My students in Japan had English every day, but could only communicate in patterns - they needed a conversation course!
My students in Japan had English every day, but could only communicate in patterns - they needed a conversation course! | Source

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
personal health
family and relationships
pets and animals
local area and events
Compelling Conversations:: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics - An engaging ESL textbook for Advanced ESL students
Compelling Conversations:: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics - An engaging ESL textbook for Advanced ESL students

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.

How long?

As a student, how long is the perfect length for a conversation course?

See results

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.

Pack the computers away - they completely block all conversation!
Pack the computers away - they completely block all conversation! | Source

Grouping students

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.

Cookies are a hit in my conversation classes.
Cookies are a hit in my conversation classes. | Source


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!


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    • buckleupdorothy profile image

      buckleupdorothy 4 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      A very helpful and thorough introduction for teachers just starting out - and for more experienced teachers who may be stuck in a rut. Voted up, shared and -since they've disabled internal bookmarks- pinned for my own future reference! Thanks!

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Buckleupdorothy - Glad this was useful! I got in a bit of a rut during my first term teaching conversation classes, and couldn't find any good resources to help. I tried a few different things, tweaked the content to be less 'busy', and found the classes worked much better.

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      Shadowbill 4 years ago

      I am struggling with some conversation classes I've been assigned to as it seems difficult to focus on specifics. Students simply want to work on their fluency, don't want to do homework or grammar, and don't want a book. While it's nice to not be too structured, I get the feeling that we're not making much progress in their skills. Any suggestions?

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Shadowbill - when the students are reluctant to speak up or focus, it is difficult.

      Grammar is always a sore point in conversation classes. I try for one bit of grammar (one tense, a couple of modal verbs, use of adjectives, or prepositions) per class, and give them a 'cheat' sheet - a table that can serve as a reference when they leave the class. The cheat sheets have especially been appreciated! If I cover a particularly complex area of grammar, I spend a couple of weeks on in, and bookend these classes with easier, revision classes.

      If you cover even a small grammar 'nugget' each class, (and again in a homework task), students will progress. I'm toying with the idea of recording the students at the beginning of the next semester, and then again mid-way or at the end - this will show how far they have progressed.

      Sometimes I'll search out songs, news articles and videos, that use the target grammar, and make a quick worksheet/transcript. This gets them used to other accents and different media. But I keep it to under 10 minutes, so it doesn't take over the lesson.

      I try to make homework tasks related to either the conversations in the class just finished, or the topics for the following week. I've found students have enjoyed telling stories (true or made-up), around themes such as travel, family, dreams, memories, difficult situations, perfect holidays, etc. You can usually pose a question that integrates the grammar they have just covered.

      Occasionally I'll get them to bring in a short news article, a photo or memento to use as a conversation prompt. Vocab games are good for warming up, but I need to be careful how often I use them (or they get boring).

      My current struggle is to get the right balance of 'fresh' topics, especially as many of these students have been with me for a year now. At times I feel I've exhausted travel, literature, food, hobbies, so I've been sneaking in some news/politics/science stuff that the minority of the students are interested in.

      Let me know if you find some of these ideas useful!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This is a very complete and well-written article. Starting in the 1970s, I have been teaching conversation classes to adults. My most recent class was a group of 15-20 employees and their boss at a small company in Thailand which produced commercial posters. During my first session, I learned as much as I could about the company and what the students wanted to learn. I was also able to get a good feel through question and answer of everyone's ability. The class wanted to use a textbook, but I couldn't find anything that was suitable for its needs. Consequently, I prepared one sheet handouts for each class which included key vocabulary being covered, and examples of short dialogues used in various workplace and social scenarios. After practicing the dialogues in a group setting, the students would break into pairs practicing model dialogues. When students were comfortable doing this, we moved into more uncontrolled free conversation. I only had the class for one two hour session on a late Saturday afternoon. It would have been a lot better if the class could have been held 90 minutes three times a week. Voted up and sharing with followers and on Facebook. Also Pinning.

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Thank you Paul! And especially for sharing your experience and tips.

      I have trouble selecting textbooks for my classes of elderly students - most textbooks are written for much younger adult students (20's-30's). There are a couple of 'conversation class' textbooks, but they are mainly teacher's resources. One sheet handouts must be popular the world around - so far Thailand, Australia (ESL), Japan and Germany!

      90 minute classes for conversations are a good length. Longer and the students seem to get very tired and often revert to their native language. Unfortunately, I've only seen my students once a week. You are right - 3 times a week would improve their skills and confidence in leaps and bounds!

      Thanks for sharing this article too - I really appreciate it, and I'm glad it is useful!

    • Tealparadise profile image

      Tealparadise 4 years ago

      Thanks for writing this! I have begun to teach a small conversation group in Japan, and am pretty lost. I already ran into some of the stumbling blocks you mentioned - it may appear more interesting to talk about politics etc, but can students handle the vocabulary- and will that vocabulary ever be useful outside of the class? Great article & good ideas.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 4 years ago from SW England

      Great points. I had groups of multi-national students on the early 70s. They forgot their shyness and worry about making mistakes when they started to have fun. I used to give quite a few lessons on idioms; it was great fun and they loved the imagery. Your pointers are excellent and really good reminders for new and experienced teachers alike. Up and useful.

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      annart - Thank you! Idioms and slang have certainly been fun classes with both my younger and older students too! Especially when the older try to find 'matching' idioms, or local idioms I had not heard of.

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      pamela 4 years ago

      thanks. some interesting ideas - but - i find the usual "safe" topics can get really boring really quickly. politics, religions topics, even personal health are things that most people passionate about and without passion, the conversation can be boring and stale. i guess it's important to know how far you can go as a teacher without offending or insulting anyone.

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Pamela - Teachers definitely need a soft touch and understanding when it comes to the 'hot' topics. Occasionally I'll offer to split the class in two topics -- one safe, and one more controversial, as a way to let the students choose and have a bit more variety. It's been interesting to see the reactions of the 'safe' students when their friends cross over to the other group to discuss politics!

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      Celeste 3 years ago

      I find this article and the comments also really useful for me, thank you very much for being so short and clear, I though I was lost before reading it, but now I fell more confident to give my first conversation class tomorrow.

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 3 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Celeste - I'm glad I could help! I hope your first class went well - although they are always nerve-wracking!

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      Erosgilberto 3 years ago

      this has been really helpful, i have been given the task of providing a conversational class in the university i am currently enrolled in. i thought that it would be an easy job but as soon as time passed i noticed that knowing the language and how to speak it doesn't necessarly make you good at teaching it. i'm twentyone years old and its actually somewhat difficult to plan conversational classes,.. but your experience in this area is extremely helpful. right now i have to prepare a lesson plan for a class, daily and for the whole semestre. hopefully i'm not asking a lot. thank you again!!!

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      Ang 7 months ago

      What do these Cheat Sheets look like? I'm getting ready to teach my first beginner class of conversational English. How long do you spend outside of the class room preparing and looking over homework? Thanks so much, Angela

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 7 months ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Hi Ang,

      The cheat sheets look different depending on the grammar involved. I try to keep them as simple and as short as possible, in table or list form, and with one or max two example sentences. I highlight the grammar in focus with bold/italics, or in another color, so it's easy to identify in the example sentences.

      Outside classes, I spend about 1 hour, sometimes more for a difficult topic, preparing the cheat sheets and a lesson outline for me, and less than 30 minutes correcting homework. Now that I have a good collection of cheat sheets, puzzles, and conversation prompts for various skill levels, I simply re-use them and minimize preparation time.

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      Hellandhighwater 5 months ago

      Hi. I've been teaching a conversation class to 15 to 17 year olds once a week for 2 hours for the last month. The main problem is that they don't speak to each other only to me. If they do speak to each other it is in L1. How can I rectify this? It is getting boring for them and for me and I want them to enjoy the class. Any ideas?

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 5 months ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Hi Hellandhighwater, Do they like competitions? You could provide very small prizes as motivation (lots of them). The 15 year olds I taught loved stickers, so I had a wide range of them for staying in the target language during a lesson. When I ran very informal classes with older students, I was surprised they were happier to stay in the target language - turns out they didn't want to be corrected (fear of being shown up as stupid in front of their peers perhaps?) In that class, food/drink, card and board games, charades, word puzzles, funny photos and videos worked well, better than any activities structured around a grammar points. In both classes, a short presentation (alone for the confident ones, and as a group for the lesser confident) about something they really like or want to tell the others about sparked a lot of conversation. But with all of these, in the older group I had to correct a lot less than usual in order to keep them participating. Let me know what you think!

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      funandexciting 7 weeks ago

      Hi! I would love it if you could share an example of your cheat sheets. Do you sell these anywhere? I have started teaching a class of advanced students English and am finding it very difficult to plan for the class. They want to become more fluent and also write better English.

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 6 weeks ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Hi FunAndExciting - I haven't published any of my 'cheat sheets' yet, but I am working on it. Thank you for asking about them!

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 5 weeks ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Hi FunAndExciting - I've just now published a blog post with some of my cheat sheets, available as downloadable PDFs. Please let me know if you find these useful, and I can make more available:

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