Carol at ESL Lesson Plan recently posted some great tips for teaching conversation classes, and it got me thinking about the scope and challenges of this type of class.
First of all, what is “conversation”?
I often find myself thinking that “conversation class” is sometimes a misnomer. In everyday language, to me anyway, a conversation is an informal exchange between two or a few more people who know each other; a chat. When I go and buy a metro ticket, or order a pizza, I wouldn’t say I’m having a conversation with that person – yet this is very much what some conversation classes teach. I might call this functional language – the set of phrases or expressions you need to carry out some every day event.
I’ve taught a few classes billed as “communication” classes, where we didn’t have a textbook or a grammatical syllabus to follow…but my take on conversation classes in general is that they often focus on functional language.
What are the challenges?
One is coming up with useful and engaging material, especially if you don’t have a book, and finding more to do with it than simply have students memorize and/or recite dialogs. Another, which will probably vary more based on the context of the class, is dealing with students’ more traditional ideas about grammar, ie that they need to focus on it. First of all, practicing and roleplaying everyday conversations that students are likely to have in English is generally more practical and effective than working through the grammar bit by bit. Second, many students just need practice expressing their ideas in English, and it can be hard for some to accept that there isn’t a “right answer” – they really do just need practice.
Finally, as Carol mentions, there are a number of areas that students are practicing conversation skills – interrupting, showing interest, turn taking – where the language in question (Oh really? Aha Sorry, but….) is not that difficult concept-wise, but using it naturally is what they need to practice. One challenge with this is to find topics that are motivating enough to your students that they can find enough to say about them (as a background for interrupting, showing interest and turn taking) without becoming too passionate and neglecting the target language or skills. I’d have a hard time expressing my opinion, i.e. finding enough to say about “red cars are better than blue cars”, whereas if I needed to speak about a topic I cared about a lot, I might pay attention to that topic and not to, say, using transitions.