One of the keys to teaching ESL well is to know your students well. ESL is based on meeting needs often in a way that teaching other subjects is not. More times than not, ESL is either a class that your students have chosen to take or a class in which your students need to take in order to survive in an English-speaking environment.
Because of this practicality that sets ESL apart, your goal as a teacher is to enable and empower your students to communicate, learn, and exchange information with others in the English language. However, it’s easy to get into a funk with conversational English. It’s easy to get into the habit of listening to scripted conversations, filling out worksheets, or doing simple discussion activities. Yet none of those things actually help your students engage in conversation in the long haul.
Below you’ll find two new ways to approach conversational English in order to help your students engage in naturally arising conversations and use English in their daily lives. You have a huge advantage, as a teacher, over textbooks in that you’re able to tailor your lesson plans, activities, and classroom goals specifically to meet your students needs. Learn more about how you can use this opportunity to build a healthier and more rewarding classroom environment below!
Focusing On Naturally-Arising Conversation
Most times, ESL students are more than prepared to understand and comprehend a scripted conversation that they either have to read, watch, or listen to in the classroom. It’s easy to become accustomed to scripted and well-paced “conversation” that are built specifically for ESL learners. However, a lot of times students find themselves ill-prepared to understand, comprehend, and respond to naturally arising conversations in the grocery store, with their child’s teacher, or amongst friends.
Naturally arising conversations are harder to plan for because, simply, there is no time to plan. They also have a tendency to be irregularly-paced. People talk at all different speeds and put emphasis on all different things, not to mention the confusion that can arise from accents!
So, how do you plan for unplanned, spontaneous conversation? Simply getting into the habit of exploring the questions that your students have is a great place to start. It’s easy to get into the habit, as an ESL teacher, of deflecting and pushing off questions in order to stay on track or follow the lesson plan exactly. It takes practice to slow down and respond to your students’ questions in the moment.
Take advantage of the questions that come up in your classroom! If your students have a question, talk about it. Don’t lecture about it, but discuss it with the whole class or have your students break up into small groups to discuss the question, brainstorm answers, and share with the class. Questions like “how do you make the word, (blank), plural?” or “is ‘fly’ a noun or a verb?” are great opportunities to have students use English to problem solve with their peers.
Another great way to plan for naturally arising conversation is to make space in your classroom to share stories, ask questions, and build relationships.
A simple way to do this is to start your beginner-level class by asking your students, “what did you do yesterday?” and then have each student respond in a full sentence. Write the sentence on the board and ask a few questions to get more detail. Once all of your students’ sentences are on the board, review the sentences with the whole class, ask a few comprehension questions, and let your students and the sentences lead the conversation for a few minutes.
If your students are a chatty bunch, schedule in informal time to “hang out.” Have coffee/snacks at the beginning, middles, or end of class and tell your students that the only rule is that they have to use English. You can even make it a bit of a game, and if you hear your students using their native language you can have a consequence (or whoever uses English the whole time gets an advantage/prize). Either way, hang out for 15-20 minutes and learn about your students as people. Ask them about their lives and share about your own. Informal conversation is still learning in the ESL classroom!
With an Emphasis on Situational Needs
A lot of ESL lessons, especially those in textbooks, tend to be focused on situations and locations that students are likely to need English. Focusing on situations is a great way to meet your students’ needs because it gives you an opportunity to explore vocabulary, grammar, sentence structures, and so much more that your students are likely to confront in their day-to-day lives. However, textbooks have to anticipate what your students need, whereas you, as the teacher, have the power to both anticipate and respond to your students’ needs.
Taking note of the locations and situations that your students mention when talking about their lives (especially when they’re talking about their lives in naturally arising conversation *hint, hint, see above!) is a great way to make sure you’re meeting needs.
Your students may not be entirely aware of their own ESL needs, which is where you, the teacher, have an opportunity to take note of the locations and situations that your students find themselves in often and, more than likely, need English in. You can easily build a lesson around food shopping, going to work, sending your children to school, etc.
The advantage that you have as a teacher and not as a textbook is that you have the opportunity to let your students lead their own learning. When discussing food shopping, ask where your students often food shop. When discussing work, ask about the titles for different people in their own workplace (boss, employee, secretary, etc). Personalize the lesson to your students!
If you’re not ready to build an entire lesson around the situations your students have found themselves in, make a simple adjustment to your warm-up at the beginning of class. Simply ask your students which situations they have found themselves in the past week in which they wished they had more English skills. In what situations did they feel they were lacking?
Give your students time to respond to those questions personally in a notebook before asking them to share with the class. If time allows, address some of those needs briefly. If not, just make note of those needs for future lessons.
Not only does this activity help to inform you, but it also gives your students some control over their learning and gives them the opportunity to reflect on what they know and what they still need to learn.
Conversational English can be such a rewarding thing to teach because you have an opportunity to not only get to know your students personally, but you also have the opportunity to provide and teach a skill that your students need and will use to better their lives.
Simply providing space for your students to express themselves, use English naturally, and take charge of their own learning can make your classroom come alive.
I Want to Hear From You!
What are your go-to conversational ESL activities?
How do you tailor your conversation class to your students?