How to Teach English Conversation | Teaching English Speaking

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Find out how to teach English conversation

How to Teach English Conversation

Many foreign ESL teachers abroad, especially in places like South Korea, teach predominantly English conversation classes. Some teachers (and students too!) have the perception that teaching English conversation involves just “talking” to the students.

Free-talking does have a role in helping students learn English. However, it shouldn’t be the only thing we do in our English conversation classes.

Teaching English Conversation: More than just Free-Talking

There is far more to English conversation than just free-talking. In my first year of teaching, I was given a “free-talking” class with middle school students. My boss told me to just talk to them. The students wanted to just hang out and speak in English.

After a couple weeks of this, I felt like nobody was actually learning anything! The students were just making the same mistakes, over and over again. I introduced a bit of structure, introduced some new grammar and vocabulary and found that the class went much more smoothly.

The best part? The students improved their English skills!

English Conversation Activity Ideas

Try out these games and activities that are guaranteed to get your students talking. The best part about them is that you can target some specific grammar or vocabulary, and push students to integrate these things into their previous knowledge base.

This is better than free talking because I find that students often just use the same few grammatical structures and 100-200 vocabulary words they always use.

Partner Conversation Starters/Role-Plays: An excellent way to get even low-level students started with English conversation. These students can speak in English to each other if you give them the structure to be able to do it.

Teach Someone How to Do Something: Perfect for the “hobby” unit that seems to be in just about every single ESL textbook. It doesn’t have to be boring!

Small Talk ESL Activity: Small talk is a vital, yet often neglected aspect of English conversation. Give your students some serious practice in it with this activity. It’s fun, challenging and has an element of competition to it.

Surveys: I love a good ESL survey because they cover all 4-skills, are completely student-centered and can cover just about any grammar or vocabulary point. I use them so often in my own classes that my students let out a bit of a sigh, but I know they secretly love them. Haha! Here are six ESL surveys that I use in my own classes with university students in South Korea.

More Activities and Games for English Teachers

English Conversation Starters

If you’re looking for some ideas to get some interesting discussions going, check out the following below. They can turn into an entire class, or you can use them for a quick warm-up at the beginning of class.

Top 10 Conversation Starters for Adults

Top 10 Discussion Starters for Children

English Conversation Class: Things to Remember

Here are a few quick things to keep in mind as your teach English conversation.

#1: Repetition is Key

Be sure to provide plenty of opportunities for your student to practice. Start out with controlled practice, and then move to freer speaking sessions where students can experiment with using the language. Then, follow-up with review in subsequent classes.

Another thing to think about is teaching language in “chunks.” If students can get to the point where these things become automatic, they’ll be well on their way to becoming fluent in English.

See Scott Thornbury: How to Teach Speaking, Chapter 2 for more details on “chunks” or multi-word units. Here are some examples that he mentions:

Collocations (rich and famous)
Idioms (cool as a cucumber)
Phrasal verbs (log out)
Sentence frames (would you like a…)
Discourse markers (by the way)

#2: Context is Necessary

Good lesson plans always begin with activating prior knowledge and finish with personalization. This helps to make the language far more memorable. We can study all the vocabulary and grammar we want, but if we don’t know when to use it, it’s useless to us.

#3: Student Centred is Always Best

“It is lack of genuine speaking opportunities which accounts for many students’ feeling that, however much grammar and vocabulary they know, they are insufficiently prepared for speaking in the world beyond the classroom.”

Thornbury, Chapter 3

Help your students feel prepared for the real-world by giving them plenty of opportunities to practice using English in your class. The best way to do this is student centered teaching.

See this article for more details about how to make your English classroom more student-centered.

You can also check out my top 5 student-centered speaking activities.

#4: Listening + Reading = Also Important

An integrated approach to language teaching reflects the real world because in most cases, students will have to use a combination of skills. Studies have shown that extensive reading aids in written and spoken skills and not just in reading.

In my experience, students who watch a lot of English TV or movies are often the best at knowing when to use a certain phrase or idiom as well as just having a natural “feel” for the language which is almost impossible to teach.

In order to assist students, we can use integrated approaches such as the task-based approach or the communicative approach.

#5: Fluency + Accuracy = Keep in Balance

In years gone by, it was all about accuracy when speaking and in places like Korea, it’s still predominant with the use of things like the audio-lingual and grammar-translation approaches in public education.

Many teachers revert to this as well simply because it’s easier to pick out errors in pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar and then correct them than it is to help students speak more quickly or easily.

However, there has been a radical shift in thinking in the past 10 or 20 years and there is a focus on fluency before grammatical accuracy. It’s how we learn our first language when we’re young. We utter things, fluently, that actually make no grammatical sense but grammatical accuracy comes later.

Similar to the previous point, you can use communicative, task-based approaches that are kind of like throwing students into the deep-end and just expecting them to swim as opposed to guiding them along by the hand, to deeper and deeper water.

English Speaking Activities to Build Fluency

You could also try some of these activities to work on building fluency:

Re-tell the story

Telling  a Story, ESL Style

#6: Don’t Forget to Have Students Change Partners

Check out this video to find out why:

#7: Provide a Demonstration

A normal way that people learn a language is by first “seeing” and then “doing.”

You can demonstrate the target language to your students in various ways such as using a video clip from a movie, song, podcast, or the MP3 listening files and reading exercises that are in your textbook.

Of course, you, the teacher, can also provide an example for your students but it’s good for them to hear different genders, accents, and levels of English speakers so be sure to change it up from time to time.

Keep in mind that there are many English speakers in the world who speak English as their second, third or fourth language so be sure to use some of these examples as well.

Lesson Plans for English Conversation

If you’re looking for a few lesson plans to assist you in planning your English conversation classes, check out the following below. They will work for students in just about any country. If you teach children, check them out as well. You can see the basic structure for planning your own ESL lessons.

The Conditioned ESL Lesson Plan (for adults)

Technology and Sleep (for adults)

Google Investing One Billion Dollars in Renewable Energy (for adults)

Learn More about How to Teach Speaking

How To Teach Speaking
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If you’re looking for some more information about the theory behind teaching speaking to ESL or EFL studetns, you’ll want to check out this book: How To Teach Speaking.

Among the options for “theory” books about teaching speaking, this one is probably the best. It’s simple and easy to understand, but covers all the highlights you’d expect.

Teaching English speaking is lot more than just “talking” with the students, and Scott Thornbury does a great job at explaining this. He covers theory, but also gets into the practical with lots of tips and tricks to use in your own classroom.

Love these English Conversation Ideas?

If you found these English conversation activities useful, then you’ll need this book: 101 ESL Activities: For Teenagers and Adults. It has all the ESL speaking activities and games you’ll need to plan your lesson quickly, and easily. The best part about it is that your students will have fun while learning English.

You can get the book in both electronic and print formats. The cheaper digital format can be read on any device-smartphone, tablet, Mac, PC, or Kindle reader. You just have to download the free Kindle reading app. Click the link below to check out this ESL activity book on Amazon today:

How to Teach english Conversation: Have your Say!

What are your thoughts on how to teach English conversation? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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