Conversation Fodder: 5 Conversation Lesson Plans for Adult ESL Students

Your adult students crave conversation more than anything else.

Career-minded businesspeople, retirees and young adults itching to travel, immigrants living in a new country—they all want practical English that will keep them involved a meaningful discussion and not sidelined by the inability to engage.

A bit of conversation in the classroom goes a long way.

Listening, developing responses and putting critical English thinking caps on are among the trending skills that adult ESL students really want.

These are the skills that will let them get out there, survive on their own, navigate new places, meet new people and get anything done.

Give your adult students what they yearn for by utilizing a few, or all, of these fetching adult conversation lessons!

What Sets Adult Conversation Lessons Apart?

It is simple. Adult ESL lessons are often geared toward learning English for a specific purpose.

Career advancement is often the most common reason adult ESL learners will fill the seats of your classroom. There is usually a balance of these ladder climbers and general English learners (learning for learning’s sake) coupled with those who need English for conversation with family, friends, partners and natives met during travels.

As noted earlier, the element of travel may definitely be a motive for adults to take up English. You may have a handful of retirees breach your door’s threshold in search of vital travel English for their upcoming trip, or young adults ready to see the whole world.

So, combining the business topics with more general interest topics will give your adult ESL students the essential skills they need to communicate effectively with foreign friends, family, colleagues and/or clients.

When teaching adult ESL students, it is important to focus on practical English vocabulary. You want your adult students to be able to communicate efficiently, be understood and have the vocabulary comprehension to soak up sentences they may have outside the classroom. You may need to introduce a few words or phrases that may not be so grammatically sound, but that is all right for your adult students.

It is also vital to focus on practical conversations in your adult ESL lessons. Think about your own personal conversations with colleagues, clients, friends and family. What do you talk about? What type of language or tone do you use in different conversational settings? Recording a few of your daily conversations could make a great deal of difference to you and your adult students when reviewing native English conversations in class.

How to Develop Conversation Skills with English Levels in Mind

During your career as an ESL teacher, you may find a myriad of diverse adult students, with diverse skills and needs, filling the spaces around your classroom table.

The degree of challenge you will implement in your adult conversation lessons will most certainly depend on your students’ levels.

The differences in vocabulary may not be so different, but the sentence construction and focus on grammar might be. For example, while focusing on the words “job” and “work” with your students, the context, depth and sentence structure for each word may vary. For example:

  • For beginner adult students: What is your job?
  • For intermediate adult students: Do you enjoy your job?
  • For advanced adult students: What is the single greatest joy of your current job?

You can see the difference in how you would interact with your students in conversation.

Regardless of the level of language you are teaching, the emphasis on introducing vocabulary with context and practical usage for the future is quite possibly the most foundational aspect of teaching adult ESL conversation lessons.

This means that, in addition to implementing any of the lesson plans in this post, it’s highly recommended that you use authentic content in your conversation lessons. A program like FluentU can get students into the language in a way that’s engaging and realistic.

You can show one of the immersion program’s many native videos as an example. For instance, you can use clips from mockumentaries like “The Office” and “Parks and Rec,” or show a Jimmy Kimmel interview.

Exposing your students to different types of conversations is also a great discussion point. What makes a late-night interview different from a sitcom script? Why are exchanges in “The Office” often considered awkward and how can you avoid this kind of discomfort in real-life conversations?

You can follow this discussion up with homework, assigning students to watch some specific videos and shadow one side of a conversation. Students won’t be lost since any word in a FluentU video can be defined at a click.

You can also assign a quiz, which asks students to review the vocabulary and content from the video they just watched and answer questions. FluentU also lets you view the progress and wrong responses of every student so you can adjust your lesson plans to address any recurring issues you notice. 

Let’s take a look at five wonderful ways to converse effectively with your adult students of different English levels using various topics.

5 Clever Conversation Lesson Plans for Adult ESL Students

1. Talking Jobs

This conversation lesson is exceptional for your beginner adult students. It implements key vocabulary that is easy to follow while discussing the target topics of work, jobs, likes and dislikes. The essential ESL skills that are built during this lesson include reading, listening, communication, informative discussion, vocabulary and developing questions and answers that bolster practical conversation.

You will first focus on the reading and listening comprehension involved in this activity. Your beginner students will read a short text, after you read it out loud first in order to develop listening skills vital to conversation.

Sample Text:

Tom is a banker. He works banking hours, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the National Bank of Ohio. Tom truly likes his job and attended university for his degree in finance and accounting. Tom really likes his colleagues. He likes working with them, and he likes discussing their weekend experiences on Monday morning with them too. Tom also likes the people who come to the bank, especially his regulars.

Sample Comprehension Questions:

  • What is Tom’s job?
  • Where does he work?
  • What does he like about his job?
  • Did Tom go to university for his job?
  • What did Tom study?

The simplicity of the comprehension questions is important for your beginner students. You want to keep them engaged without discouraging them with challenging questions right out of the gate. Here are a few more examples for this beginner conversation lesson here.

Now that your students have a handle on Tom’s job and can answer questions relating to it, open the floor for them to discuss their work. This is when the practical conversation comes into play.

Ask them about their work. Even if you have already discussed these topics, your students are much more warmed up this time around. You can also record the follow-up discussion and discuss that with your students later.

Sample Conversation Questions:

  • Would you like Tom’s job? Why or why not?
  • Do you like your job? Why or why not?
  • What do you like about your work?
  • What don’t you like about your work?
  • What are some different jobs done by your colleagues?

2. Grocery Shopping

Conducting a grocery shopping ESL lesson with your adult students may seem elementary, but it is a daily task that is actually a large part of how your student may navigate simple conversation.

If your students begin to doubt your abilities when you mention this lesson, thinking it seems like far too simple a topic to need covering in class, take those students to the grocery store—or make up a faux grocery store in your classroom with printed pictures and food items—and begin asking them multiple questions in English. They will soon find the importance of such a seemingly simple lesson.

For this conversation lesson, you will need to build a dialogue surrounding grocery shopping. Maybe you could even record your next shopping experience with a friend or family member to get some more creative ideas as well, capturing things that naturally unfold during a routine shopping trip.

Communication, dialogue, vocabulary building and snappy English thought are all ESL skills represented in this wonderful conversation lesson for your adult students.

Sample Dialogue: 

A: What do we need to get?

B: I forgot our shopping list at home.

A: Are you serious? Don’t joke with me.

B: I did, I am really sorry. Can’t believe I did that again.

A: Well, I think we need carrots, chicken, butter…

B: And milk and eggs, don’t forget those.

A: Right!

B: Should we get ice cream?

A: Remember the last time we got ice cream? It was delicious, but we ate too much!

The value of this example dialogue is to show your students how many questions and answers are commonly found in English conversation. People will often ask you things, from the small to the very, very big.

It also highlights areas of not so proper grammar, but is still how many native English speakers converse.

Sample Comprehension Questions:

  • What are these people doing?
  • What did they forget to bring to the store?
  • Have they forgotten the shopping list before?
  • What did they need to buy?
  • Do they want ice cream?

Once you and your students have built a solid foundation of understanding with these questions, practicing with a few great dialogue scripts, like this similar example you can also use, takes it all to a real-world level.

As suggested before, at this point you could accompany your students to a grocery store or create a pretend grocery store in your classroom. Either way, this is a great environment to begin a natural, free-flowing discussion surrounding shopping, cooking, what they eat normally or any other related topic that comes to mind.

Sample Conversation Questions:

  • What do you normally get for food?
  • Do you buy everything for the week? For the month? Or do you shop daily? Why?
  • How do you choose your carrots, peppers, chicken?
  • Do you normally shop alone or with someone? Why?
  • Have you ever talked to anyone at the grocery store, and what did you talk about?

3. Superstitions

This conversation lesson has plenty of discussion opportunities built into it.

Discussing superstitions, especially the bizarre ones, can bring about all sorts of colorful conversations. This lesson is excellent for your intermediate adult students with a focus on new vocabulary, discussion, reading, listening, opinions, storytelling and creative English expression.

First, you will want to set the stage for the superstition communication to take place. It is possible that your students know what superstitions are, but have never known the word to describe them until now.

Sample Conversation Questions:

  • Do you believe in superstitions?
  • Do you believe in luck?
  • Are there certain people, places, things or events that are lucky or unlucky?
  • Do you believe in ghosts or spirits from another dimension?
  • What are some superstitions from your culture?
  • What is the most strange, unbelievable superstition you have ever heard?

Since superstitions are rarely discussed in English classrooms, the vocabulary and conversation will evoke some serious English brain fuel to get things moving in the right direction. However, once it does, everything will begin to flow smoothly and so will the conversation!

Once the concept of superstition is developed, begin introducing some new superstitions that will provoke more discussion between students.

Pair your students up and give each pair a worksheet with several superstitions and their meanings. Each superstition will have a few questions your paired up students can utilize to spark up practical and inventive conversation.

Sample Conversation Questions Based On Common Superstitions:

  • It is bad luck to put your hat on a bed. Have you ever put your hat on a bed? Do you do that a lot? Do you believe in this superstition? Will you put your hat on a bed now that you know about this superstition?
  • To avoid bad luck, you should knock on wood when good fortune is brought up. Have you seen anyone do this? Have you done this before? What would you knock on if you can’t find wood? Do you believe in this superstition?
  • A ringing ear means someone is thinking about you. Do you think this is true? How will this change your perspective when your ear rings?
  • Breaking a mirror is seven years bad luck. Have you ever broken a mirror? Do you believe in this superstition? Why or why not?

You could even fold a personal writing activity into this lesson, having students dictate their conversation partners’ answers to the questions. You can utilize these great superstition examples for developing this lesson plan further.

4. Career Cache

This lesson is similar to the beginner lesson previously discussed. However, this lesson is more concentrated for listening comprehension, a valuable ESL skill in communication, and wonderful for your intermediate adult students.

The ESL skills involved in this conversation lesson include listening, communication, English thought and expression when answering questions during discussion.

For this lesson, you will need to develop a few short paragraphs explaining different people’s careers, similar to the previous beginner conversation lesson on jobs and work, but more robust in description.

First you will read the short career captions, having your students listen only. This will allow them to hone those vital listening skills! There are plenty of excellent examples you can draw from on the Internet, like this one, to make this lesson a home run for your adult students.

Sample Text:

Harry is a firefighter and he loves his demanding job. Harry wakes up very early in the morning, at around 5 a.m. on the days he works and drives 30 minutes to the fire station in downtown Los Angeles. He needs to know a lot about different firefighter techniques and tools. He also needs to have basic medical knowledge for emergencies. He really likes his fellow firefighters, especially Larry, his best friend. They completed firefighter training together. Harry works 24 hours straight and is then off of work for two days.

Sample Comprehension Questions:

  • What does Harry do for work?
  • Does he like his job?
  • What does Larry do for work?
  • At around what time does Harry need to get up on working days?
  • Does Harry like his colleagues?
  • What skills does Harry need to perform his job effectively?
  • How long is Harry’s shift at the fire station?

You can develop several of these career-minded paragraphs and comprehension questions. After a few, let your students develop a short paragraph about their careers and have them read them out loud to you or to partners.

Break them down into pairs (if they are not already in pairs) and have them listen to each other’s job descriptions while they read them aloud again. Then they should take turns asking each other questions about those job descriptions.

Then your students can ask you a few comprehension questions to spark more conversation during this communicative conversation lesson.

5. Coffee Table Controversy

This conversation lesson is perfect for your advanced students ready to discuss current events that may be controversial and trending on various news outlets.

The ESL skills your advanced adult students will gain from this exceptional communication building lesson are reading, listening, English expression, critical English thought, vocabulary and advanced grammar. You may even find it useful to add a few idioms or phrasal verbs as well, depending on your students’ comfort levels.

First you will need to find a controversial issue that may be of importance to your students. It is always a wonderful idea to find a topic that relates and/or will be of interest in order to keep your class engaged. You can use utilize the below example or check out this link for more great ideas.

Sample Text:

The overfishing of the Pacific Ocean has become a very serious debate over the last few decades. Asian countries have been the brunt of much negative press after fishing vessels in the Pacific pull up giant whales for the fishery market. Many North American and European activists are wholeheartedly against the business of catching and killing whales for food. However, many Asian countries maintain that it is part of their culture and subsistence practices.

Sample Conversation Questions:

  • Does your culture eat any food that may be controversial to other cultures? What kind of food? Have you had this experience?
  • Do you think it is right for whales to be killed for food and/or science? Why or why not?
  • What are your thoughts about other countries trying to stop the Asian fish industry from catching whales? Do you think it is just, or is it an intrusion on their culture?
  • Do you think catching whales for food is the same as beef markets in North America and Europe?


Developing conversation lessons for your adult ESL class is essential to the growth and success of your students, both in language learning and professionally.

They will have the exceptional support and knowledge of you while they navigate practical adult conversations that will keep them in the discussion at work with colleagues and clients.

Your students will also develop faster response times to questions and begin honing their listening skills as conversations happen in real time, just like a native speaker.

Stephen Seifert is a writer, editor, professor of English and adventurer. With over 8 years of teaching experience to students worldwide, he enjoys the many aspects of culture and traditions different from his own. Stephen continues his search for writing inspiration, boldly enjoying life to the fullest.

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