teaching-conversational-english

The Real World: 5 Tips for Teaching Practical, Conversational English to ESL Students

Teaching conversational English may seem like an easy endeavor.

You simply give your ESL students a topic and let them talk, right?

Oh, if only it were as easy as cutting them loose to talk about anything under the sun.

But chaos may ensue if this laissez-faire strategy is employed in your classroom.

Teaching conversational English has many components, and it may call upon all your ESL teaching skills. This makes having a few effective conversational English teaching tips in your pocket vital—for your students’ growth and your “teacher of the year” class nomination.

The tips we will present here allow you to build conversational confidence in an exciting way.

Why Is Conversational English Essential to Your Students?

Along with any of your other high-priority teaching endeavors, conversational English lessons are absolutely essential. Conversational English lessons can give students a powerful voice with new skills to match.

Conversational English promotes a slew of student confidence, because your students will actually be holding a conversation with you or a peer. Having more speaking confidence will encourage students to speak up during any other lesson or activity, which is always a big goal for language teachers.

These talkative lessons also allow ESL students to engage in guided discussion. Instead of Student A talking about the same old thing with Student B, they will be urged to explore new and challenging discussion topics. This is a great way to teach and reinforce more themes, topics and lessons.

Conversational English lessons emphasize practical English too. These fun, interactive lessons are a welcome break from the pages of grammar found in any ESL workbook. Students will see that they can use their new language with people in the real world, making the value of their English knowledge more apparent.

And speaking of grammar, even though your students are talking, it does not mean grammar and other ESL skills are kicked aside. Conversational English lessons enhance other ESL skills like grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and the rapid English thought they will one day need in real life. Let’s take a look at a few conversational English teaching strategies to get your students’ tongues wagging like a native speaker’s.

5 Techniques for Teaching Conversational English for the Real World

1. Pour the Conversational English Foundation

In order to teach conversational English effectively, you must first understand the importance of conversational strategy.

As an ESL teacher, you have a fluent command of English. Therefore, you may forget the basic strategies of holding a meaningful conversation since it comes naturally to you. This is a common mistake many ESL teachers make, often giving a single topic to students and letting them loose to figure out conversational techniques on their own.

In order to avoid common conversational English missteps, it is essential to present important foundational elements: for example, how to assert opinions, ask questions and use follow-up questions to keep a discussion moving forward.

Before any conversational lesson, put these efforts into practice as a class.

Here are a few ways you can pour that conversational foundation:

Asking Questions and Asserting Opinions

  • Go around the room and ask students what their favorite food is. This will serve as the introduction to asking questions.
  • They may say “pizza” or “cheeseburgers.” Now you will use this as the catalyst for asserting opinions.
  • For example, one student may say, “Pizza.” You will then respond, “Oh, I like pizza too. But only cheese pizza, not pepperoni pizza.”
  • Explain how you asserted your opinion, and then move on to the next student. After a few repetitions, they will see how asserting an opinion works.

Follow-up Questions

  • Once your students have seen how to ask questions and assert their opinions, you can present follow-up questions.
  • Explain how follow-up questions keep a conversation moving forward and not stalling.
  • Going back to the previous example about different kinds of pizza, you can include a few follow-up questions like, “Do you like pepperoni?” 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.

Pouring a solid foundation for conversational English strategies will help build confidence, and it allows your students to see the basic elements of a discussion.

Once the presentation stage is complete, let students ask you about your favorite foods following the same foundational format. You can even play a video to further their comprehension.

2. Employ the Coffee House Technique

Native English speakers have meaningful conversations every day. Most of them happen in a one-on-one scenario, like meeting a friend for coffee.

The basics of conversational English evolve from pair interaction, and you can recreate the same evolution in your classroom.

The best approach to employing the coffee house technique is to make it as practical and close to real life as possible, whether this means completely transforming your classroom into the set of “Friends” or simply bringing in a few coffee cups, napkins and other bits of coffee shop paraphernalia.

Once the coffee house stage is set, show an example conversation with another teacher or student. You can even show some clips from the hit TV show “Friends” as well.

Here’s how coffee shop talk will look in your classroom:

  • First, transform your classroom into a coffee shop. This can be done as a class, or you can have it completed before your students arrive. You might find a couch or chairs in your school helpful for making the environment more casual.
  • Next, pair your students up. It is best practice to choose students with similar interests first before challenging them.
  • Once in pairs, let 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. Or for kids and teens, the guided topic could be sports, homework or even favorite teachers. You may find that letting your students choose a topic is effective too!
  • Let the conversation move naturally and jump in when help is needed. You can simply say, “assert your opinion” or “follow-up question” since they will already have those terms down.

After a few rounds of different pairs, mix it up and pair boys with girls, or pair up students that otherwise never talk together. You should have a pretty good view of your students and the classroom dynamic before using this conversational English technique.

3. Make Fluency a Top Priority

Fluency and student talk time (STT) is vital when teaching conversational English. However, many teachers get too caught up in teaching and begin interrupting discussions. Your teacher talk time (TTT) should be low. In fact, it is recommended that TTT be 15 to 20 percent during conversational lessons.

Another important rule of thumb when teaching conversational English is to make balanced corrections. Students will inevitably get mixed up, pronounce words poorly or even struggle with the right word to say. As tough as it may be, limiting your corrections is essential to your students’ growth.

Here are a few strategies you can use to make fluency a top priority:

  • Once you have presented the discussion topic or agreed on a topic of student choice, keep them gabbing for as long as possible. Remember, fight those teacherly urges to interrupt.
  • If Student A is struggling with a word or a word’s pronunciation, make a note and mention it later.
  • You can also encourage peers to make corrections during pair conversation. You may just find that students are naturally correcting one another. This is a large part of conversation between a native speaker and non-native speaker, like finishing one another’s sentences. It should be encouraged!
  • Once the conversation dies down, you can then give some helpful feedback. This is your 15 to 20 percent TTT. Present correct pronunciation and grammar that was missed in your students’ discussions.

Putting STT before TTT is a sure-fire way to promote fluency in conversation.

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.

4. Let Students Guide the Conversation

An essential aspect of any conversational English lesson is teacher guidance. Otherwise your classroom will spiral into chaos.

However, you can implement guided conversations in such an exciting way that your students won’t even notice. One way to keep students interested is to not force them to talk about topics of little to no interest.

Letting your students choose their conversation topic on their own, as a group or in pairs, is an excellent strategy for keeping discussion lively and holding their attention. There are a few ways you can do this.

One way is to employ the “What do you like. . .?” discussion opener to help students discover similar interests. You can also have students write down a few discussion topics they are interested in discussing and let them work it out once they are paired up with a conversation partner.

Here’s how you can employ both student-guided strategies: 

What do you like. . .?

  • This student-guided discussion opener is similar to meeting someone for the first time. In order to keep the interest of your conversation partner, you need to find a common ground.
  • For example, have Student A ask Student B the following openers. These discussion openers will serve as the catalysts for conversation, and your students will naturally agree on a topic without even noticing it.

“What do you like to do on the weekend?”

“What do you like to eat in the morning?”

“What do you like to do on vacation?”

Discussion Topics

  • You start by having students write down things they like and do not like. This strategy also 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.
  • Student A may find a topic of interest written by Student B and begin with discussion openers like, “Why do you like playing the piano?” or “I didn’t know you were interested in paintball too.”

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

5. Get Your Students Moving

How often do you have conversations on the go?

This aspect of discussion is essential for your students to master, because there are plenty more distractions when moving about. And this fantastic conversation teaching concept can be added to any discussion lesson.

This little conversation technique will also get your students up and moving, adding an element of ESL fun that students crave.

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

  • First, show your students how to engage in conversation while walking. Demonstrate little details like showing interest via brief eye contact, as well as interjecting with check-up 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?

 

Conversational English teaching tips are as plentiful as conversation lessons.

Combining lessons with great tips in an effective and exciting way for your students is the recipe for sure-fire ESL classroom success.

Many ESL teachers will develop their own conversation lesson strategies over time as well. Being organic and staying flexible during a conversation lesson is an essential part of filling your students with confidence to speak on any topic.


Stephen Seifert is a writer, editor, professor of English and adventurer. With nearly a decade 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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