10-step guide to teaching effective conversation classes
Dylan Gates 22/08/2017
10-step guide to teaching effective
In this post, I’ll present my 10-step guide for teaching effective
conversation classes to adult English learners.
Many adult learners enrol in conversation classes to improve their speaking skills.
However, student numbers often drop as the course progresses. This can be due to
Students are not interested in the topics.
Students don’t feel they are learning anything new.
Students don’t feel they are actually improving their speaking skills.
Students want more traditional grammar-structured classes.
Students feel they are learning new language rather than practising speaking.
Classes lack variety (just question and answer discussions).
Conversation classes are not always taken seriously by learners (just chatting), teachers
(just listening to learners chatting) or academy owners (promotional tool for paid classes).
This is a great shame as conversation classes can be a really effective way to help our
learners improve their speaking skills.
Read on for a 10-step process designed to help you give effective conversation
Step 1: Get to know your learners
Conversation classes often fall flat because the learners aren’t particularly interested in
the topics or don’t really know what they want from a conversation class. Some learners
don’t even want to practise speaking in a conversation class!
A WIN analysis is a simple tool used in business which can help you discover essential
information about your learners.
W: What do they want to talk about?
I: What are their interests?
N: What do they need to talk about?
In General English classes, your adult learners may enjoy the freedom to discuss
whatever interests them (Wants and Interests). However, in other classes (Exam or
Business classes), you will have to consider their specific needs.
Tip: Ask the learners to write down their answers to the WIN analysis questions before
you discuss topics with the whole class. The WIN analysis should provide you with some
important information about specific learners.
You could ask the learners to do the WIN analysis in small groups but some dominant
learners may force their opinions on their peers.
Step 2: Work together to choose interesting
and relevant topics.
Your learners will probably have a variety of wants, needs,
and interests. But, they are not paying for one-to-one
classes. Therefore, they will have to accept that they won’t
always be interested in the topic of the lesson. There are
a number of ways you could choose topics with your
Find a list of topics
Each learner chooses a topic
Learners choose their top 3 topics from a list
Many teachers use a course book to decide on suitable topics. Course books are often
written for the average learner, which means the topics are often a) bland b) Anglo-centric
c) Global rather than local (maybe not suitable for monolingual classes d) aimed at
teenagers and young adults rather than more mature learners.
Tip: Use the information from the WIN analysis and the topic syllabus from a course book
to create a list. Then, ask learners to decide which topics they want to discuss from the
Do you want to talk about
this topic? Y / N
Do you need to talk about
this topic? Y / N
Showing 1 to 5 of 5 entries
Note: If you are teaching a group of employees, there may be specific work-related topics
they want and need to discuss.
Step 3: Focus on language used in conversations, not just topic-related
Many conversation classes are designed to teach vocabulary related to a specific topic.
This, in my opinion, is a mistake because we need more than specific vocabulary to
discuss a topic.
Which areas of language are found in typical conversations?
Functional language (agreeing, disagreeing, giving examples, asking for
clarification, rejecting ideas, changing topics)
Communication strategies (asking for clarification, avoidance, using synonyms,
Conversation features: False starts, hesitation, backchanneling, questions
Paralinguistic language (facial expressions, gestures, body language)
Prosodic features (intonation, stress, rhythm, connected speech)
By focusing on teaching vocabulary rather than conversation skills, we are not preparing
our learners for the reality of authentic discussions in English.
Tip: Read this article for more info about teaching functional language. There is also a
useful list of functions.
Step 4: Select purposeful and authentic tasks to follow discussions
I have observed conversation classes consisting of nothing more than an introduction to
the topic, presentation of topic-related vocabulary, and a list of discussion questions. This
might work for 20 minutes but learners are likely to lose focus if the discussion part
continues for much longer.
Unless we are making small talk, we usually have a clear purpose for a discussion or
conversation. In English, we may use the phrase ‘Can we have a chat?’ which seems
innocuous but is usually a pretext for something else (dealing with a complaint, looking for
a solution to a problem, asking for advice).
When planning a conversation class, we should think about what can follow the
discussion. Here is an example:
Topic: Learning English
Discussion: Learners share their ideas, opinions, and experiences about learning
Task: Learners are put into groups to create a programme for an immersive 4-week
English course. They will present their programme to the rest of the class who will vote for
Without having a clear, purposeful and authentic task in our conversation classes,
our learners will feel as if they are just having a chat about a topic with no
There are a variety of speaking tasks we can use for conversation practice. Here is a
Ranking items in order of importance
Designing and delivering presentations
Reaching agreements about a plan or a decision
Solving a problem
Role-plays and case studies
Critical thinking tasks
Step 5: Find engaging materials and resources to introduce topics
Learning topic-related vocabulary takes time and effort. If we include too much new
language in a conversation class, we will have to rush the discussion and accompanying
task. This will result in our learners getting very little conversation practice.
Remember that our main aim is to help our learners become better at having
On the other hand, learners often benefit from having some language and content input at
the beginning of the class to help them engage with the topic, activate their topic
knowledge, expose them to useful language (topic and conversational).
There are a number of ways we can introduce and engage the learners:
discussion of a picture or an image
short video or audio recording
anecdote or story
If your adult learners have enough time and are sufficiently motivated, you might want to
send them the materials before the lesson so they come prepared for the discussion task.
Step 6: Raise learner awareness of language used in conversations
Many adult learners feel the need to know specific vocabulary before discussing a topic.
This can be a problem as it can lead to vocabulary presentations dominating the classes.
In your first class with your new learners, it’s a good idea to have a discussion about the
objectives and outcomes of conversation classes. I usually tell them that conversation
classes will help them develop their ability to have conversations and discussions about a
variety of topics.
Then, we discuss the communicative functions and communication strategies used in
conversations. I like to show them a video of a conversation or discussion (an interview or
debate show) and raise their awareness of specific features.
Getting adult learners to think of reasons for having conversations and the objectives of
participants in discussions can really help them identify what language and skills they
need to acquire to become better conversationalists in English.
Another useful activity is to discuss what makes somebody a good or a weak
conversationalist. This can be used to prepare the learners for the next task.
For some reason, the learners didn’t want to
discuss the fascinating topic of accounting
Finally, when your learners are more aware of what they need to improve to become more
capable conversationalists, you should consider finding a way to measure progress. This
could be done informally (discussions with learners) or more formally (create a set of
assessment criteria). You could include some of the following:
Range and accuracy (grammar)
Range and accuracy (vocabulary)
Communicative functions used
Communicative strategies used
Examples of good language
Tip: Look at the assessment criteria for speaking exams and adapt them for your
conversation classes. Make sure you get feedback and input from your learners about the
appropriacy and relevance of the criteria. In general, most learners seem to benefit from
receiving ongoing feedback (formative assessment) and you might want to consider
asking learners to assess their own performance or even keep a learning journal.
Step 7: Agree on a Conversation Class Code of Conduct
Introverted learners or less confident learners often struggle with conversation classes.
Extroverts, more confident learners, and more fluent learners tend to dominate. Therefore,
I would recommend creating a conversation class code of conduct. You could include
rules such as:
Do not use aggressive language
Don’t interrupt rudely when other learners are speaking
Respect the opinions of other members of the class
Sexist, homophobic or racist language will not be tolerated
All learners should be given the opportunity to share their ideas
Correction should be sensitive
Discussions can get quite heated, especially when talking about sensitive topics.
There is a strong argument for saying that learners need to develop the ability to defend
their point of view and deal with interruptions and disagreement. To some extent, they will
develop these skills naturally if you are able to develop a good rapport with your learners
and they learn how to work together as a team.
Another tip is to introduce the concept of playing devils’ advocate. By doing this,
learners can oppose the views of the peers without causing offence.
Encourage your learners to look at an issue from
both sides by playing devil’s advocate.
Step 8: Create a Conversation Class Lesson Plan Template
By this stage, you and your learners will have a clear idea of:
the objectives and outcomes of a conversation class
suitably interesting and relevant topics
how to behave during the lessons
linguistic and sociocultural aspects of successful conversations and discussions.
All you need to do is plan the lesson. The good news is that putting the work in at the
beginning should result in enabling you to create simple but effective lessons plans.
My own preference is for the following lesson plan structure:
Choose topic (Food and drink)
Select specific topic focus (Fast Food)
Choose suitable materials to introduce topic (video of effects of fast food)
Identify communicative functions for lesson (agreeing, disagreeing, sharing
Task: Learners have to present a Healthy Fast Food project to rest of the class.
Controversial statement: There is nothing wrong with fast food.
Pyramid discussion: Learners consider statement individually, discuss with a
partner, each pair joins with another pair, report back to whole class
Brief discussion: 5 questions about fast food ranging from the personal (How often
do you eat fast food?) to the more general (Why do so many people eat fast
food?). This could be done as a mingling activity.
Put learners in small groups. Tell them they have to brainstorm a list of healthy fast
Learners stay in groups. Tell them they have to submit a project for a new healthy
fast food restaurant in their town. They have to decide on: type of food, name of
restaurant, logo and slogan, location, menu, advertising strategy etc.
Each group presents their ideas to the rest of the class who ask questions after
Learners vote for the best presentation (they are not allowed to vote for their
Congratulate learners on successful performance of the task.
Review any errors, identify any interesting language used by learners in class, fill in
Leave time for practise of functional or communication strategy language which
learners need to work on
Set some action points (Review exponents of giving opinions and aim to use in the
Step 9: Get feedback from learners
The final step is to get some feedback from your learners. This could be done in small
groups or as the whole class, You could even ask them to respond individually after the
Here are some sample questions:
1. Did you enjoy the class? Why? Why not?
2. What did you practise in the class?
3. What new language did you learn?
4. What would you like to practise in the next class?
5. Was there anything you didn’t enjoy about the class?
Step 10: Encourage Learner Autonomy
This final step is very important for encouraging learner autonomy. When learners start
taking more responsibility and control of the conversation classes, your job will become
much easier and you will have to do less teaching and more guiding and supporting. After
a while, your learners will choose the topics, present new language, provide feedback on
each other’s performance and share useful resources and materials. Then, you will really
be responding to their needs.
When learners feel involved in making discussions about the syllabus and
management of the classes, they are more likely to get involved in the planning and
even delivery of the classes.
This will give you the time and space to focus on providing personalised feedback which
will really help your learners improve their speaking skills.