Talk a Good Game: How to Teach Your First English Conversation Class with Ease
You’ve prepared a lesson you think is captivating.
You could talk about it all day. Maybe it’s about traveling with dogs, the health benefits of papaya or robotics.
After the reading and exercises, it’s time for your first conversation class, that you’ve decided to relate to this, your most passionate of topics.
And no one says a word.
Sure, awkward silences are always bad. But they’re arguably worse in a classroom!
After all, you’re the teacher. You can’t come up with excuses like, “Oh I need to go to the bathroom” or “I just remembered I have to feed my grandmother’s echidna.” (Your grandmother gets extra cool points if she actually has one of those.)
Talk a Good Game: How to Teach Your First English Conversation Class with Ease
Radio silence is even worse when it’s your first-ever conversation class. You’re met with deafening silence in a space where you’re expected to inspire students to talk about anything and everything in English.
“Where did I go wrong?” you think. “I prepped the lesson so carefully and it was a super cool topic.”
Fear not, educator.
Your first conversational lesson won’t always go as smoothly as you’d wanted for various reasons. Maybe your students are shy; maybe they’re having an off day. Who knows?
The good news is that there are several different techniques to get your students to come out of their shells. Read further to learn how to optimize your initial conversation lesson and get your students excited to talk.
How to Create a First Conversation Lesson That Wins
Identify common interests
This may seem pretty obvious, but the first step towards acing your first conversation class is to make sure the students chat about something they have in common.
Chances are, you’ve been stuck in an uneventful conversation that you wanted to get out of before. Perhaps you were bored stiff listening to someone talk about papayas, only to have your mind wandering to things like to echidnas as soon as they start to talk about robotics.
Your students are the same way. If it’s your first-ever class with them, you’ve got a lot of challenges to overcome—which we’ll go into later. But you can mitigate some of those issues by first getting to know your students’ interests.
Structure the conversation around a central grammar point
What makes talking easy?
For us native English speakers, it’s because we know the structure of the language.
Maybe we had to hack at it a little when we were kids, using incorrect sentences like “I wants ice cream.”
But over time, as we spoke and listened more, we learned what is and isn’t correct English.
The same applies to your students. They’re also in the process of learning these English talking formulas. And you can help make conversational English a lot less scary for them by repeating correct grammar structures as you chat with them.
For example, if you’re having a conversation on ice cream flavors, you could repeat the following sentences to your students:
“What kind of ice cream do you like?”
“I like strawberry ice cream.”
“Do you like chocolate ice cream?”
“I like cherry ice cream.”
As you can see, the sentence structure in these examples are is quite simple: Just “I like…” and “Do you like…?”
Still, you could have a pretty lengthy conversation with just these two structures. And you could even expand the conversation by adding questions like:
“Do you like sorbet, too?”
“What’s your favorite flavor of sorbet?”
The point is, it will leave your English learners in a more comfortable space if you’re structuring their conversations around one or two central grammar points. And as they feel more at ease, you can add in more complex grammar structures.
Identify Common Interests: Pre-gaming the Conversation
Scenario 1: You’ve had class with them before
If you’re coming up with a first-time conversation lesson for a group of students you’ve been teaching for a while, thinking about what to talk about should be easy.
You just ask them.
Or, you can take the fun approach and make a big list of your ESL pupils’ favorite things to chat about. It could cover food, pets, video games and anything else they’re interested in—echidnas and papayas probably won’t be on the list, but a girl can dream.
After you’ve gathered enough topics from your students, narrow the list down to the top five interests. And voila! That’s what you’ll cover in your conversation lesson.
Scenario 2: Your conversation class is your first class with them
This can feel like a massive calculated risk.
But, if you think about it, most humans have at least a couple of things in common that we enjoy and hopefully like talking about. I recommend talking about food.
Everyone loves food, and most people also enjoy talking about what kind of dishes they like to cook or eat.
Apart from that, I’ve found that there are a few other conversational topics that may spark your students’ interests:
- Relationships (friendship, dating, family)
- Infusions (coffee, tea, mate)
- Socializing (spending time with friends and family, partying)
Or you could try a few of these ideas.
Engage Your Students with Dialogue, Games and Story Time
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use a sample lesson plan with one central grammar point to illustrate how to carry out this conversation exercise.
Know that you can use these concepts, or you can replace them with something more suited to your students’ proficiency levels.
1. Dialogue it
We’ll use the example of a conversation in present perfect talking about travel.
One of the best ways to ease students into a topic is to read an example of it. This means, when ESL learners are first introduced to the grammar, they don’t have to immediately produce their own sentences using it. They can listen, read and then try to reproduce what they’ve heard little by little, easing into the process.
To begin this exercise, start by handing out a dialogue your students can study and use as a reference. Then, read the conversation aloud to them.
In the example of the present perfect/travel theme, part of the script could look something like this:
A: Have you been to Argentina?
B: Yes, I have.
A: Oh, have you been to San Telmo? The market is so beautiful.
B: No, I haven’t. But I have eaten lots of medialunas and drunk lots of coffee.
A: Me too. I’ve been to the cafes so many times.
Then, you can have your students practice the dialogue in pairs. Remember to have them use not only their words, but also their bodies.
Total physical response (TPR) is a great technique to incorporate into any lesson, but it’s especially useful for conversation activities. After all, most people use their hands to talk to some extent.
Just think: In a conversation in your native language, you probably move your hands when narrating or when you get particularly emotional about something. You can use that these gestures to help your students learn English by connecting certain words with hand movements. Or you can link certain parts in a dialogue or story with corresponding body language.
After once you’ve covered the dialogue, you have two options remaining:
- Explain how the present perfect is used.
- Analyze the sentences and see if the students can figure it out for themselves.
Of course, the success of option two depends on how advanced your students are. It would be unrealistic to expect a bunch of beginners to understand the nuances within perfect tenses.
Finally, after you’ve covered everything you needed to teach, it’s time to let your students practice on their own. Have them either roleplay a similar dialogue as your sample you’ve created or write and act out their own dialogues.
It’s your call. Determine whether your students need more practice reading or writing, or if they’re advanced enough to write their own conversations.
Ultimately, the idea is to solidify your key grammar structures in a no-pressure way for future activities and conversations.
Looking for fun and engaging resources that get your students excited to practice their conversational skills? Add FluentU to your English classroom.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
2. Game-ify it: Never have I ever
Games are always motivating, and they tend to have a special potential for sparking conversation.
Instead of focusing on keeping the dialogue alive, your students can concentrate on winning the game—all while practicing their speaking skills.
Games are also great because they’re useful for motivating sluggish students, giving them an end goal to work towards (with a candy prize, maybe ?).
My favorite party game and ESL game of all time is “Never have I ever.” Not only is it greatly repetitive with the present perfect, your students get to find out all kinds of interesting things about their classmates. Moreover, this game is perfect for your first conversation class because it energizes the classroom and creates a positive association with subsequent conversation lessons.
This is how you play:
First, divide your students into groups. In my experience groups of four works best.
Each person takes a turn saying, “Never have I ever [action].” The catch is that the student must say something they’ve never done. For example, in my case, “Never have I ever gone bungee jumping.” And no, I’ve never gone bungee jumping. But if someone else in the group has, they lose a point.
Since the goal of this game is to instill natural language, I recommend using a more common sentence structure: “I’ve never [action].”
So, my example should look like this: “I’ve never gone bungee jumping.”
You can decide how many points students get when starting out depending on how long you’d like the game to run. As soon as the first person gets to zero points, the game is over.
This game is great for helping students become comfortable using past participles in their conversations. If needed, review the most common past participles you’ll use with your topic. Since I’m talking about travel in this lesson, common past participles include: gone, taken, eaten, traveled, read, etc.
For this activity, I’m including two potential options: Scenario A and Scenario B.
Scenario A: Find or write an engaging travel story
If your students are advanced enough, you could choose a story from the travel section of a website. Otherwise, you can write your own story that’s better suited to their proficiency level.
For this activity, each student should read a paragraph or a little part of the story aloud. Once finished, hand out a list of questions in the present perfect that relate to the narrative. For example, if it’s anecdote about getting lost in Barcelona, the questions could read like this:
- Have you ever gotten lost?
- Have you ever been to a foreign country?
- Have you ever asked strangers for directions?
You could have students ask each other and report back on their answers. Or you could call on people in class to answer the questions.
Ideally, you want your students to connect their own personal experience to the story. That way, they’ll remember the narrative better and they will be more eager in holding a conversation.
Scenario B: Have them write their own story
This can be done as a follow-up to the previous activity, or you can have students write their own story at the beginning of class. Joining the two activities is a good way to make a well-rounded lesson.
Begin the activity by asking your students to write a short story about their own experiences. The anecdote can be based on a real event or made-up.
The narrative itself can be in any verb tense your learners are comfortable with: present, past or a mix of tenses.
To challenge them, have your students listen to each other’s stories carefully and then improvise questions in the present perfect to ask. Of course, if they want to, they can take notes while listening.
Writing a story will activate a different part of the brain than simply listening. Your learners will need to think about their grammar more carefully and engage their memory and creativity. When they think of questions in the present perfect, they’ll also need to have a quicker reaction time to invent questions.
All the activities listed will get your students’ brains jump-started for more dialogues and make them excited to chat further.
Bringing It All Together
So, next time you wonder why your first conversation class on echidnas who love papayas (well, ant-covered papayas, maybe) didn’t work out, now you know!
Make sure your topic fits within the students’ interests and go from there.
Then activate those neuronal connections with the activities listed above.
Pretty soon your little grasshoppers will be chatting in English even outside of class, for the pure joy of it.