The best tips for preparing conversation-based language lessons

[5 minute read] (ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! 🙂 )


Can you possibly love languages without loving conversation?

Speaking is the very manifestation of a language. Stop speaking, and you’ll quickly lose the language too.

It’s therefore crucial for language lessons to include lots — and lots! — of speaking.

But whether you’re the student or the teacher, these can be challenging to lead.

Here are some quick tips to make things a little easier for you.


Types of conversation language lessons

Conversation language lessons can be done in several ways. Here are three main ones:

1) Improvised / freestyle

Like having a coffee with a friend. 

Pros: The student talks about topics that are most relevant to them, and that they will probably talk with other people about too. Therefore, they are practicing speaking about things that matter the most to them. As a result, they will easily see visible improvement.

Cons: These lessons may end up circling around the same topics over and over again.

2) Topic-based

Pick a topic, and explore it from every possible angle.

Pros: Great opportunity for vocabulary expansion and talking about topics that might not come up naturally.

Cons: Some topics might not feel that interesting to a student. You can get around this issue by planning a variety of questions and activity types. This way you don’t have to try to force an activity to last longer, but move on to the next one when it stalls.

3) Resource-based

The student watches a video, reads an article, or listens to a talk before the class, and they discuss it with the teacher during the lesson. 

Pros: Students can talk about real-life events, and practice conversations that they could have with other people. For example, commenting on the news, discussing a cool video they saw, or explaining what the movie they watched was about.

Cons: If you haven’t read/heard/watched/seen the same resource, it can be difficult for you as the teacher/partner to think of questions. Start these lessons by asking the student to summarize what they read/watched/heard in their own words, as if they wanted to tell a friend about it.

Of course, you can also have a mix of these methods — a freestyle “coffee talk” conversation during which you also talk about the news. Or, a topic-based conversation which uses a real-world resource. Play around with it and find what works best.

The essence of conversation lessons

What is the essence any conversation?

That’s right — questions!

Tons and tons of them.

A fellow teacher once told me:

“Being a teacher is like being a professional question asker.” 

And that’s so true! Without questions, conversation screeches to a halt.

But there’s a fine line between a conversation and an inquisition.

You have to bring out your natural curiosity and wonder about everything you can. 

And there’s lots to wonder about.

The person you’re speaking to has a vast reservoir of thoughts, feelings, and opinions. These all open up to you through conversation. Speaking to someone is like having the valuable opportunity to open a treasure chest of new perspectives. 

But…

You don’t want to just robotically ask question after question.

Mix in some comments and statements as well. Make observations, summarize what you’ve understood, or repeat what they’ve said in your own words. You can also explain your reaction and feelings, or share your own experience with an anecdote.

Be expressive and have fun with it — the better you both feel during the conversation, the better rapport you can build.

6 must-use tips for the best conversation language lessons

If you approach a conversation with the attitude described above, thinking of questions will be a piece of cake. 

But of course, it never hurts to be prepared.

Here are some tips for planning the best conversation language lessons.

1. Approach the conversation with natural curiosity

Whether you’ve known your conversation partner for a week or a decade, there are tons of things you still don’t know about them. Take this conversation as an opportunity to uncover some of them. What are the gaps in your knowledge about them? What are they knowledgeable about that they could teach you more about? What has shaped them into who they are today? Everyone has interesting stories to share.

2. Don’t try to plan the whole development of the conversation

You will never be able to plan out an entire script for the conversation. Don’t worry about planning where it will go. Rather, focus on departure points. Some of these might spark an hour-long conversation with dozens of follow-up questions and comments. Others might die down after just a few minutes. Whatever it is, don’t force it and go with the flow.

3. Explore passion topics from different angles

If your conversation partner is passionate about something, they’ll be able to talk about it for hours. But you have to stay engaged to let that happen. This is what many teachers and tandem partners struggle with. After asking a few questions, they can’t think of any more. Use these tips to explore the topic from different angles:

-Use open-ended questions: What, Where, When, Why, Who, How

Consider the evolution: How has it changed from the past until now? How might it change in the future?

Look for comparisons: What is it similar to? What is it different from?

Find connections: What are its influences? What has it influenced?

Explain how you understand the concept, and ask if you’ve got the right picture.

Imagine you will have to “teach” or explain this concept to a third person later. What are you missing to be able to do that? Go ahead and ask these questions now. Become a student of this “passion topic”. Find out as much about it as you can.

4. Don’t let it feel like an interview

Naturally, leading a conversation means asking a lot of questions. But remember, you’re having a discussion, not an interview! Make sure to participate with comments, reactions, and your own contributions to the topic. Encourage the student to ask you questions as well. This will keep the conversation enjoyable, varied, and engaging for both of you.

5. Use various activities and resources

A conversation can be based on something you’ve read, heard, or seen. Use resources from the real world to add more depth to the discussion. Use pictures or even real objects to give your eyes something to look at and make the lesson feel more dynamic. Different activities can also keep the lesson from feeling too repetitive or monotone:

  • Role-play simulations
  • Games (Would you rather, Taboo, What would you do if…, etc.)
  • Debate format
  • Riddles
  • Puzzles
  • Choice (your favorite, the best, the worst, etc.)
  • Reviewing/Critiquing (rank different things from best to worst, or give a score, and defend)
  • Discuss quotes

6. Have a system for correcting

The difference between a conversation language lesson, and any other conversation, lies in the feedback. This kind of lesson is the student’s chance to practice a real world-skill — it’s not filling in blanks, not conjugating verbs, but actually speaking to another person. At the same time, they can get feedback about how they’re expressing their ideas and communicating through the language.

You need the conversation to be fluent and keep going in order to have something to give feedback on. But don’t fall into the trap of forgetting about feedback entirely — otherwise, the lesson only has entertainment and not educational value.

Agree on a system that allows the conversation to keep going, but also the student to learn and improve. This will depend on both your preferences. Here are some options:

1. Correct the student immediately. This requires a lot of interruption, so it’s not recommended if the student makes frequent mistakes. On the other hand, it alerts them of the mistake immediately and is likely to help them learn faster.

2. Write down corrections in a shared Google Document. The student can immediately see them without you having to actually interrupt them.

3. Write the corrections down and share them at the end of class. This can help if students feel overwhelmed by a large quantity of corrections or insecure. You can group mistakes together to share only a couple main issues to focus on. On the other hand, if some mistakes happen frequently, sharing them only once at the end of the lesson may not be effective enough to fix them.

Getting ready for your next conversation lesson

That’s it for now! I hope you’ve found these tips and suggestions useful, and that you can apply them to your next conversation lesson. These are some of the most dynamic lessons you can have while learning a language, and they have so much potential. Let me know in the comments below which tip you like the best and if you have any more to share from your own experience — I’d love to share them with my community!


ESL Notes (15 words / expressions)

Definitions written with reference to Cambridge Dictionary

the very: Used like this, “the very” has the meaning of “exactly”. For example, if you say you had dinner with John last night, and someone asks you “Oh, was that John Smith?” You could say “The very one!” to confirm, as in “Yes, exactly that John.” (Back to the text)

crucial: very important. (Back to the text)

get around: avoid. (Back to the text)

stall: stop making progress. (Back to the text)

play around: experiment, try different things. (Back to the text)

fellow: used to refer to someone who is in the same group as you, for example they have the same job or interests as you. Since I am a teacher, I can say another teacher is “a fellow teacher”. (Back to the text)

screech to a halt: screech is the loud noise you might hear when a car very suddenly stops. “Halt” means “a complete stop”. This expressions means something suddenly and quickly stops. (Back to the text)

there’s a fine line between: there’s only a very small difference. (Back to the text)

vast: extremely big. (Back to the text)

gaps: holes, spaces. (Back to the text)

script: the words of a film, play, broadcast, or speech. (Back to the text)

spark: cause something to start. (Back to the text)

die down: becomes slower, stops flowing. (Back to the text)

struggle with: have difficulty with. (Back to the text)

alert: warn someone. (Back to the text)


EXERCISE

Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • What is a crucial to succeeding in your field? What is a crucial aspect of environmental pollution?
  • How can you get around traffic in your city?
  • What do you usually do when a conversation stalls?
  • Do you like playing around with new gadgets, apps, or software programs?
  • What advice would you give fellow language learners to build confidence in their English / the language you’re learning?
  • What kinds of comments or questions would make conversation screech to a halt?
  • Think about your job, a hobby, or something you are passionate about. Explain a little about it, using the expression “there’s a fine line between…”.
  • Think about the city or town where you live. What can you say about the vast majority of the population? (first language, values, habits, appearance, etc.)
  • Do you think a large age gap can affect how easily two people can have a conversation?
  • Have you ever memorized a script? Have you ever read the script of a movie or play?
  • What initially sparked your interest in the hobbies you have today?
  • In your neighborhood, what time does noise (from traffic, bars, people on the street, etc.) usually die down?
  • What do you struggle with the most in English / the language you’re learning?
  • Do you receive news alerts in your area?

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.


Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply!

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