It’s time for your intermediate students to leave the paint-by-numbers shores of English.
But as they set sail into the expansive oceans of advanced learning, make sure your learners aren’t swept adrift!
One great solution that’ll keep your students afloat and progressing is to incorporate discussion-based activities into your lessons.
I’ve highlighted five such activities below, which also provide a healthy challenge and some action for your learners! But first, let’s take a look at some challenges to consider with learners at this level, as well as the benefits of discussion.
Challenges to Consider When Teaching Advanced ESL
The language journey is a long one, so many can fall by the wayside long before reaching fluency. Those who continue into the more advanced stages will have already overcome peaks and plateaus. They’ll likely possess the thousand-yard stare, infamous among those who have engaged in linguistic contortions for years on end.
So, motivation could be a problem. The beauty of discussion is that you can easily build your lessons around the interests of your students. Context is everything, however, so while a discussion on the abolition of the monarchy might be a perfectly acceptable topic for discourse in the U.K., for example, in Thailand it will likely result in your imprisonment.
But, giving consideration to all things contextual, cultural, religious, societal, etc., you should easily be able to find some juicy topics for discussion that will see your students enthused and you still at liberty! (Some good ideas for topics are here and here.)
Catering to a range of abilities
Now if you’re the observant type, you’ll have noticed reference to “advanced” in the title of this post. “What makes discussion an advanced activity?” you might well ask. The truth is, of course, discussion can be a useful tool at intermediate levels as well. The difference is qualitative.
Whereas discussion at intermediate levels may necessitate the pre-teaching of related vocabulary and phrases, at advanced levels it’s more about students thinking critically in the target language and expressing their own thoughts and opinions with fluency.
That said, differentiation in any group will still be required. Don’t be afraid to help your weaker students with support materials such as sentence starters (i.e. “In my opinion,” “It seems to me that ~ is ~ because…,” etc.), and to give consideration to groupings. Remember, also, that differentiation is multi-directional; it’s important to keep the stronger students challenged too!
Benefits of Discussion for Advanced ESL Students
Organic vocabulary practice
One of the greatest benefits of classroom discussion comes from its unscripted nature. Students will draw on their vocabulary and grammatical knowledge to express opinions, agreeing and disagreeing in an organic way that closely simulates “live” situations, but with the advantage of the supportive classroom environment, familiar faces, helpful peers and teacher.
Increased speaking confidence
Practicing discussions regularly in class will also bring the students confidence as their abilities grow. This confidence is a transferable skill too, not limited to expressing themselves only in English.
Improved body language
There is an art to discussion. Making a point is not the mere sum of the meaning of the words employed. Through discussion ESL activities, you can encourage your students to consider the importance of their body language when making their point.
I find watching videos of history’s great orators, such as Martin Luther King Jr., very beneficial. Remember too that not all gestures mean the same thing everywhere. The thumbs up, for example, has a very different meaning in Iran than it does in the U.S.!
Opportunities for real assessment
Using discussion activities in the classroom affords excellent opportunities for undertaking some real assessment. That fact that these activities lend themselves to being student-led means that you’ll have many chances to listen to the conversations of your students. You’ll be able to spot areas of difficulty and use this information when planning for future lessons.
5 Action-packed Discussion Activities for Your Advanced ESL Students
1. Discussion: Speed-dating Style!
This is a fun one that can be used as a main activity or as a warm-up to a lesson. First you’ll need to rearrange the classroom a bit, if you’re able to in your teaching environment.
Organize your class into two concentric circles with chairs from the outer circle facing in, and chairs from the inner circle facing out. The structure of this activity is much like the deeply romantic modern courtship ritual of speed dating. Choose one circle to be “mobile.” After three minutes of discussion, students in the “mobile” circle will cycle clockwise to speak to a new partner.
There are a number of ways you can organize the topics they will discuss. You could call out a new topic every three minutes, or, to really get your students to develop an opinion, you could have them discuss the same topic with each person in the opposite circle.
Time is of the essence here; it’s best to keep your topics fairly straightforward, as there won’t be much space for reflection as the seconds tick away. I find relatively light topics such as “Is it really that good being young?,” “Which are better: cats or dogs?” and “Should students wear uniforms?” to be very effective for this format.
When teaching a course on discussion and debate at the Thai university where I work, I always use this activity as an ice-breaker for the students to get to know each other. It warms them up and helps them become comfortable with each other, which can be very important in encouraging students to express their opinions to each other.
Also called “Talking Partners,” this activity begins by giving the class a topic to think about. They can think quietly about the topic for a few minutes and are then assigned a partner.
Students will discuss their opinions about the issue with their partner. After a set number of minutes is up, pairs can share their opinions about the topic to the class as a whole.
Possible topics for Think-Pair-Share might include “Nurses should be paid more than lawyers,” “Alcohol should be made illegal” and “Money defines success in life.”
This activity lends itself to easy differentiation: You might pair up a weaker student with a stronger one, or decide to partner two strong students together to keep them challenged.
Likewise, when each pair is sharing their opinions with the class as a whole, you may wish to have each student explain the position of their partner rather than their own opinions. A kind of “devil’s advocate” then can be a useful exercise to lead into more formally organized debates.
3. Pros and Cons
This simple activity is very useful—whether as preparation for structured discussion or debate, or as an end in itself. It can also be a great way for students to reflect on a topic while forming their own opinion.
Pros and Cons involves individually making lists of the pros and cons (or the for and against) of a given topic. It allows the student to weigh the different arguments and counterarguments in their minds.
It can also provide a useful jumping-off point for extended pieces of writing. I sometimes provide students with word banks of target phrases, vocabulary and sentence starters during this activity, helping the students express their ideas more coherently.
When the student has completed their list of pros and cons, they can use this as a basis for writing their arguments in the form of an essay or debate preparation. The list allows them to see points and counterpoints they can develop, and also highlights the fundamental differences between mere propaganda and a well-developed argument that has taken counterarguments into full consideration.
“TV does more harm than good,” “Group English classes are better than private lessons” and “Celebrities are overpaid” can be good starting points to get that pros and cons ball rolling!
An important aspect of discussion is empathy. The ability to understand things from another’s point of view can be crucial in helping us develop a more sophisticated opinion of our own. “Rounds” effectively does this by putting the student briefly in the position of playing devil’s advocate.
Begin the activity by writing a contentious discussion statement on the whiteboard, such as “Zoos are a necessary way to safeguard endangered species” or “Third level education is not worth the financial investment.” Have the class divide itself along the lines of for and against, based on their actual opinions. The more contentious the issue, the more beneficial the exercise.
Then, tell students that those who are “for” must now speak for 30 seconds against the statement, and those “against” must speak 30 seconds for the statement. You may wish to have a number of different statements ready to prevent students merely repeating the arguments of others.
In this activity the opinions expressed are less important than the intellectual gymnastics required to understand the opposing opinion and formulate an argument against their own stated belief. The is also a useful skill to develop when undertaking formal debates.
5. Socratic Circles
A Socratic Circle is a more formal discussion method developed from the idea of the Socratic dialogue, whereby we arrive at the “truth” by a process of questioning and answering, then reflecting and critiquing, and finally resulting in a very refined argument or position. In the context of the classroom it usually revolves around responses to an open-ended question based on a written text.
To begin, assign a suitable text or passage to the class for homework. The students should read, analyze and annotate the text with their own thoughts and opinions. Some very interesting articles to inspire discussion can be found here.
In the next lesson, divide the class into two concentric circles, both facing inwards. Students sit in their assigned circles with their text.
The inner circle then discusses the text, using their notes to help them formulate their ideas. You can use a series of prepared open-ended questions to simulate the discussion.
The outer circle sits quietly while observing closely, and may take notes. After 10 minutes (or whatever time is appropriate for your group), the outer circle then provides feedback to the inner circle based on their observations. The groups then switch and the process repeats.
This activity provides excellent training in listening and speaking, and bridges these skills to reading and writing. Generally the focus of the questions will be a moral dilemma of sorts. This does not mean, however, that it can only be used with older students. Important philosophical questions are raised in many children’s texts too, especially in fables such as “The Tortoise and the Hare.”
As the teacher, you can also differentiate the complexity of the questions in line with the maturity of your students. Usually the text will be a short thought-provoking piece. While fables work well with younger students, strong opinionated newspaper editorials are great for older students.
Discussion activities are a great way to bring life into any advanced ESL classroom. When our students are passionate about a topic, their passion motivates them to push the boundaries of their language limits in a desire to express their opinion.
And that’s a huge part of what this whole language learning business is all about, isn’t it? So use one of these discussion activities today, and you’ll witness your students growing and learning!