If you’ve learned (or tried to learn) a second language, you’ll know that getting over your fears and simply talking can be the biggest hurdle to get over. If you find that your students aren’t engaging in your discussion tasks, or maybe aren’t engaging as much as you’d like, be aware that there are many things that can hold your students back. They may be afraid of making a mistake, afraid of the social cues that they don’t yet know, not quite sure about what to say regarding the topic at hand, or they may simply not feel prepared.
Nevertheless, there’s nothing worse than a silent conversation class. Getting ESL students to break out of their shell and begin using the language they are learning can be pretty difficult, but there are plenty of ways that you can help your students feel more confident, safe, and even excited to speak to their peers. Whether your students are just beginning their language learning journey or are nearly fluent, these tips and tricks will help the conversation in your classroom flourish!
Sometimes the reason your students are hesitant to talk is because they don’t know how to begin. This is why teachers use discussion starters and teach conversational phrases in the classroom, so that students can have the help they need to just start.
Simply asking your students to begin discussing their favorite childhood memories can be overwhelming to ELLs. A great way to structure this discussion task is to ask your students to discuss their favorite holiday memory from their childhood, how it impacted them as a child, and how they could continue that memory in their present lives (probably through traditions).
This simple “structure” can give your students a framework to follow so that the conversation doesn’t end in 2 second!
Discuss Something Debatable
This is perhaps the most dangerous suggestion in this article, but discussing something debatable in a safe and controlled environment can be really conversationally stimulating. You’ll want to make sure that you have a good understanding of your students, their backgrounds, and which topics may be offensive or taboo to talk about.
That being said, discussing something debatable doesn’t have to mean discussing something politically charged. It can also mean discussing whether it’s better to wake up early or stay up late, or whether it’s better to watch a movie at home or go to the cinema.
Finding topics that your students are passionate about and which could be easily debated is a great way to really get them talking and using the language you’re teaching.
Be Intentional About Meeting Your Students' Needs in Every Lesson You Teach!
Students can often feel inadequate when it comes to discussion topics. If they don’t know enough about the topic, they won’t have much to say, but focusing on experiences is a surefire way to make sure your students are prepared to talk.
It can be tricky to find topics that your students enjoy talking about, know a decent amount about, and have the language to properly discuss. However, your students will always have experiences to talk about, and it’s not difficult to teach them the language necessary.
Asking your students about experiences from their past life or current life can be very rewarding and is an extremely versatile task. You could use this method with almost any discussion topic. If you’re talking about city transportation, ask your students about an experience they had on the subway. If you’re talking about shopping, ask your students to discuss and “rate” their experiences shopping at different store. The possibilities are endless.
Make it Creative
One of the biggest struggles that my ELLs have had to overcome is the fear of saying the wrong thing or giving the wrong answer. When speaking in a second language, you’re always going to have to risk saying something incorrectly, but getting rid of the fear of a right/wrong answer is an easy adjustment to make.
Try to make your discussion task more creativity-focused instead of fact-focused. Instead of discussing driving laws in America, ask your students to create a fake set of driving laws for a fake country and try to convince their peers that their laws are the best. At the end of the discussion task, take an anonymous vote to decide which set of driving laws are superior.
The great thing about making a discussion task more creative is that more times than not you’re using the same set of language and discussing the same questions. However, a creative task will give students freedom to have fun and talk without fear of being wrong.
Give Time to Prepare
One of the smallest, but most impactful, changes you can make in the classroom is to give your students 5 minutes to think about and write down an answer to the discussion question before actually discussing it. As a native speaker, it may seem unnecessary. However, those 5 minutes can help your students feel more prepared and confident when going into the task.
It’s really as simple as that! Before launching into a speaking structure for your discussion task, ask your students to write down their response to the discussion question. If you don’t want your students to simply read their answer to their partner, have them leave their response at their seat. After all, the prep time isn’t there for them to practice reading, it’s there to give them time and space to plan out what they’d like to say.
Discuss the Discussion
A great way to figure out how you can help your students, while also giving them more autonomy and control over their learning, is to simply discuss the discussion task. If you have a particularly unfruitful discussion activity, ask your students how they think the task could have been improved and what holds them back.
Your students may not initially have a lot to say, but if you make a routine out of reflecting on and discussing your students’ learning, it can be a really beneficial task! It can take some people a while to understand their own learning habits, needs, and preferences, so don’t expect your students to have a lot of input the first time.
Patience and open communication can go a long way when working with adult learners in the ESL classroom. Asking your students’ input not only helps you to better understand them and their needs, but it also improves your relationship and, consequently, your students’ learning.
Speaking in a second language is an intimidating task, but there are ways that you, as the teacher, can help your students feel more confident when discussing with their peers in the classroom. Something as simple as giving your students a minute or two to think before launching into the discussion task can make a huge difference!
I Want to Hear From You!
What holds your students back from engaging in discussion tasks?
What things have you found to be successful in getting your students to engage?