Teaching Conversational English: 11 Tips

Teaching conversational English can be tougher than it seems.

Aside from potentially teaching phrases that don’t appear in conventional textbooks, you may have to exercise all of your ESL teaching skills to master the many components of this particular branch of English.

Luckily, this post has you covered!

First, we’ll go into why conversational English matters for your students. Then, we’ll dive into how to teach conversational English.


Why Is Conversational English Essential to Your Students?

Along with your other high-priority teaching endeavors, conversational English matters to your students for the following reasons:

  • Boosts your students’ confidence. Conversational English lessons help students practice what they’ve learned in a safe environment—i.e., they don’t have to worry too much about the consequences of any mistakes, since they’ll have a teacher to correct them. After mastering conversations in a controlled classroom setting, they’ll feel more at ease using their skills in the “real world.”
  • Encourages students to speak up during lessons or other activities. The more engaged your students are with their lessons, the more likely they’re going to learn—and that’s always a goal for ESL teachers.
  • Encourages students to venture into new conversation topics. As you know, real-life conversations don’t always flow the way they do in textbooks. In fact, they’re more likely to be spontaneous than not. By easing your students into more challenging discussion topics, you can reinforce more themes, topics and lessons, not to mention help them become more comfortable with the way actual English conversations go.
  • Helps them relax while seeing the value of what they’re learning. Since conversational English emphasizes the use of practical phrases and fun, interactive lessons, students get a welcome break from the pages of grammar that ESL workbooks typically have. At the same time, students will see that they can use their new language with people in the real world.
  • Enhances other ESL skills. Focusing on conversational English doesn’t mean letting other language skills fall by the wayside. If anything, conversational English can help improve your students’ mastery of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and ability to think in English.

Now, let’s take a look at the specific strategies you can use to teach your students conversational English.

How to Teach Conversational English to ESL Students

1. Kickstart the conversation with a question or two

Since your students may not be comfortable initiating English conversations at this stage, you’ll have to be the one to break the ice.

And one of the best ways to do so is to ask questions.

Depending on your students’ level, you can start with “Yes-No” questions or those that only have a single answer (e.g., “What’s your favorite pizza flavor?” “Pepperoni.”).

Then, you can move on to open-ended questions that require your students to think more deeply about their responses (e.g., “Why do you think so-and-so is a good movie/show/what-have-you?”).

2. Follow up your students’ answers with answers or opinions of your own

Of course, conversations don’t only consist of a single back-and-forth interaction—you asking the question, and your students ending the conversation with an answer.

Real-life conversations are made up of several back-and-forth interactions, which you can demonstrate by following up your students’ answers to the question(s) you asked in Step 1.

For example, if a student says they like pepperoni pizza, you can respond with, “Oh, I like pepperoni, too. But cheese is the best flavor, in my opinion.”

Explain how you asserted your opinion, and then move on to the next student. After a few repetitions, they’ll start to see how asserting an opinion works.

3. Ask follow-up questions as well

Once your students understand how to ask questions and respond in turn, you can present follow-up questions. Explain how these keep a conversation moving forward.

Going back to the previous example about pizza, you can then ask questions like, “Do you also like mozzarella?” or “Where is the best pizza place in town?”

Explain how one simple question pertaining to someone’s favorite food can be the catalyst for asking and talking about places, other foods and personal preferences.

4. Get your students to ask questions in turn

At this point, you’ve already demonstrated how to ask questions and keep a conversation going. You can now reverse the roles and encourage your students to start their own discussions this time around.

Teach them about the seven WH questions in English. Thoroughly discuss what these mean and in what contexts they can be used. Then, encourage your students to formulate questions based on each of the WHs while staying on the current lesson topic. 

5. Encourage them to repeat back what the other person just said in their own words

Aside from asking and responding to questions, another great way to keep a conversation moving is to validate what the other person said or ask them to clarify what they mean.

For example, if you ask a student what their religion is, and they respond with something like “I’m a Muslim. As such, I do this-and-that,” say, “Ah, so as a Muslim, you do so-and-so, is that right?”

Continue the conversation in this vein, and explain to your students the importance of validating or clarifying what the other person said. Emphasize that, if they’re repeating someone’s words, they should do so in their own words to demonstrate how well they understood the other person.

6. For advanced students, teach them how to change conversation topics

Real-life conversations often don’t stay on a single topic for long. A discussion about a football match can quickly devolve into an argument about politics, for example. (You may want to steer clear of emotionally charged topics for the time being, though!)

Once your students are at the advanced level or already have a strong grasp of the fundamentals of conversation, you can now teach them how to change topics in a tactful and respectful way.

For example, here are some instances where a conversation topic can (or should) be changed:

  • When there’s a prolonged silence in the conversation
  • When the people involved in the conversation are talking about the same thing without adding to it over and over again
  • When the conversation goes into awkward territory (e.g., someone says something that made another person feel bad)
  • When the previous conversation topic has a “hook” with which to start a new topic (e.g., “You know, pepperoni pizza reminds me of my childhood. Is it okay if I talk about that for a little bit?”)

For the first three, starting a new conversation as though a previous one never took place usually works. For the fourth one, teach your students how to find these “hooks” and segue their way into a new topic. Their real-life conversations will feel much more natural and rewarding this way.

7. Role-play real-life conversations

Most real-life conversations occur in a one-on-one context, like meeting a friend for coffee.

Fortunately, these contexts can be reproduced in a classroom setting through role-play.

Of course, for role-play to work as a conversational English teaching tool, it has to simulate the real thing as closely as possible.

For example, if you want to demonstrate what a coffee house conversation is like, you can bring in a few coffee cups, napkins and other bits of coffee shop paraphernalia.

Once the props are set, show an example conversation with another teacher or student. You can also play some clips from the hit TV show “Friends,” like the one below:

It’ll also help to pair your students up before letting the coffee talk begin. Give Student A and Student B cups of coffee and guide them through the conversation.

For example, tell Student A his friend Student B has just lost his job. For kids and teens, the guided topic could be sports, homework or even favorite teachers. 

After a few rounds of different pairs, mix it up and pair boys with girls, or pair up students that otherwise never talk to each other. You should have a pretty good idea of the general classroom dynamics before using this conversational English technique.

8. Let your students do most of the talking

Many teachers make the mistake of interrupting student discussions in a well-meaning attempt to, say, correct someone’s grammar. However, your teacher talk time (TTT) should be low. In fact, TTT should make up only 15 to 20 percent of conversational lessons, while student talk time (STT) should compensate for the rest.

Students will inevitably mix up sentences, pronounce words poorly or even struggle to find the right word to say. Let them make mistakes that they can learn from later. Make a note of these in the meantime.

Alternatively, you can encourage peers to make corrections during pair conversations. You may find that your students will correct each other naturally. This is a large part of conversations between native speaker and non-native speakers, like finishing one another’s sentences, and should therefore be encouraged.

Even if a student is looking at you with those puppy dog eyes for help, let them work it out on their own. This will build comprehension and confidence.

9. Let your students choose the conversation topics

On the one hand, teacher guidance is essential for keeping conversational English lessons on track.

On the other hand, you also want to give your students the freedom to talk about any topic they choose.

Letting your students choose their conversation topic on their own, as a group or in pairs, is an excellent strategy for keeping discussions lively and holding their attention.

There are a couple of ways you can help students start discussions among themselves:

  • Ask them to open with a question that starts with “What do you like … ?.” Questions like “What do you like to do on the weekend?” or “What do you like to eat in the morning?” can help your students discover peers with similar interests and make friends—which is how most conversations go!
  • Let students write down conversation topics they can then hash out with a partner.  This strategy allows students to develop other ESL skills like writing, reading and grammar. Plus, it gives them a chance to create a sort of cheat sheet, so they can plan what to say and how to say it.

No matter which conversational English strategy you employ, letting your students guide the conversation is a win-win. You’ll find your classroom ringing with natural conversation filled with tones of excitement.

And in case your students are stuck on what conversation topics to use, show them this video:

You can also show them examples of real-life conversations via the language learning platform FluentU.

10. Get your students on their feet—literally

Conversations don’t always take place when people are sitting down. Many of them occur when two or more people are walking together down the school corridors, for example.

Since there are way more distractions when they’re out and about, it’s important that your students also master the art of conversation on the go.

Plus, discussing this aspect of conversation can get your students up and moving, adding an element of fun.

Here are a few tips on how to get your students moving and talking:

  • Show your students how to engage in conversation while walking. Demonstrate nonverbal gestures like showing interest via brief eye contact, as well as interjecting with words that show interest in their discussion partner, like “yes,” “really” or even a simple “uh-huh.”
  • After a few rounds of sample conversation, let your students begin walking and talking like any native speaker would. You can throw in obstacles like a puppy crossing their path, or running into a friend during the conversation. This will make it a three-person discussion with introductions and questions to be navigated around.
  • Spice this strategy up with as much practical flavor as possible, allowing your students’ discussions to blossom. What topics might typically be discussed on a friendly walk? On a run? On a lunch break when you’re walking over to a restaurant?

11. Offer general feedback after each lesson

Once the conversation dies down, you can then give some helpful feedback. This is your 15 to 20 percent TTT. Talk about correct pronunciation and grammar that was missed in your students’ discussions.

Since you’re in a classroom setting, it’s important not to single out anyone when you’re making corrections. Instead, say something like “I noticed that some of you tend to do this-and-that … In real-life conversations, the better way to go about it is …”


Tips on how to teach conversational English are as plentiful as the lessons you can teach on the topic. Combined with effective and exciting lessons, these tips can result in a recipe for sure-fire success in the ESL classroom.

Over time, you can develop your own conversation lesson strategies based on your experience. What’s important is that you’re flexible enough to adapt to your students and help them become more confident speakers on any topic in any way you can.


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