Small Talk – Getting Conversation Classes Right (Part 2)

Note: If you would like to cover the background theory and the reasoning behind a lot these activities, please read Part 1.

The How?

So, hopefully, you’ve read the What? and the Why? and now you’re on the lookout for the How?, i.e. the activities and tasks that can be used in the language classroom to really help your learners develop their conversation skills. What follows is a (very short) list of some activities that I have found particularly useful for achieving this goal. Hopefully you find some of them as useful as I have!

Video analysis – Turn-taking

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Using video in class is always a favourite of learners, however it is also great because it provides more than just the verbal level of communication – it shows that communication is more than just verbal behaviour, rather it includes a whole range of para-linguistic features.

I like to use video to demonstrate features of turn-taking, some of which include moves that indicate the speaker wishes to hold, take or relinquish the conversational floor. I have found that rather than saying what learners should be doing, it is easy for them to see for themselves, conduct mini-analyses, and then tell me what they need to incorporate/do/change.

I’ve used the following worksheet and video to highlight the features of a bad conversation and how not to interrupt. The video is from the movie Austin Powers (classic movie, by the way), so it is not an authentic conversation – but it worked for introducing the features that I wanted learners to notice.

I followed this up with a bunch of other videos, again showing what not to do in conversation. Some examples include videos with Donald Trump (always a fan favourite) and other politicians. With one of the videos, I actually only showed learners the video without sound so they would focus solely on the physical features of turn-taking.

One of the interesting things I found when creating these lessons was the distinct lack of authentic conversations. In my mind, there are two ways around this: record your own conversation, using yourself and another teacher (or anyone really), or get your learners to create the conversations. Both of them are good options, but perhaps for highlighting good features of conversation, recording yourself is better. That being said, when my learners have filmed or recorded themselves, they have been able to identify what they did well (and not so well) – it was a great follow-on from the videos!

Things to consider when using video:

  • Level of learners – will they be able to identify the features?
  • The content of the videos – are they natural conversations? Do they highlight clearly the features you want learners to notice? Are there both native and non-native models?
  • Ensure to provide good and bad models or at minimum highlight both good and bad features.

Conversation cards – Interrupting

minion interrupt.jpg

As a follow-on from the video analysis (or done separately), conversation cards which get learners to speak with certain objectives are a great means of getting learners to put in practice their interrupting skills. Firstly, however, it is generally good to provide learners with some necessary vocabulary.

This activity, taken from Keller and Werner’s Conversation Gambits: Real English Conversation Practices (1988: 9), is something that I’ve had learners do in pairs/groups. It’s fairly easy, quick and simple, however it provides learners with a good bunch of phrases to refer to when speaking. It’s important to highlight that some are more formal than others and to reinforce that other verbal and non-verbal cues (e.g. intake of breath or raising of hand) are also acceptable. 

Screenshot 2018-12-06 10.30.04

So, the cards. I made the following for my B2 class and they worked a treat. For lower levels, you could provide more developed starters (e.g. last summer I went…); for higher levels, you could make the topic more abstract (e.g. In your opinion, what makes people want to be cooperative?) or use more speaking objectives (e.g. interrupt and disagree with your partner).

Screenshot 2018-12-06 10.43.44

And, for those learners that love being the centre of attention, try putting them in the hot seat! Bring a learner to the front of the class and get them to talk about a topic. Members of the class then interrupt (or can be directed to interrupt by you) and ask a question. The learner in the hot seat deals with the interruption and then continues with his or her previous line of thought.

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Draw my street – Negotiation of meaning

Providing negotiation of meaning practice is a vital component of language teaching (we will have a look at why momentarily) and there are many ways to realise this. But firstly, let’s have a look at what negotiation of meaning is.

‘[Negotiation of meaning is] the mutual process by which participants try to ensure that they understand (and are understood by) each other, by means of comprehension checks, clarification requests, and so on.’ (Lynch, 1996: 162)

Now, the why. Negotiation of meaning is a vital sub-skill of speaking, especially with regard to conversation. Furthermore, it is important in the development of learners’ active listening skills. And, perhaps most interestingly, when working in monolingual contexts, it becomes even more important as learners from the same L1 background are far less likely to have communication issues than learners in a multilingual classroom (Lynch, 1996: 11) due to shared background knowledge and experience.

So, how can we provide learners with the required negotiation of meaning practice? One answer is through task-completion activities. Task-completion activities are those which involve learners communicating with the purpose of completing an action, task, drawing, etc. The main point is they need to work collaboratively. The following activity, Draw my street, is a simple activity that can be used at any level (with minor modifications).

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Procedure:

    1. Two learners are paired together, sat back-to-back.
    2. Learners are given task instructions – the teacher emphasises that learners need to ask questions to ensure that they understand their partner’s descriptions.
    3. One learner is given a blank page to draw on.
    4. The other learner describes the street that they live on to their partner, who draws this on the blank page.
    5. Teacher monitors
    6. Learners look at the page and see how accurate they were.

If you would like to give your learners some more vocabulary specific to checking understanding, then you could include this adapted activity (Keller & Warner, 1988: 81). You would need to consider the level of learners, however you could adapt it even further to lower-level learners.

Screenshot 2018-12-06 10.52.51

Other types of task-completion activities include:

    • Building something small following the instructions (e.g. setting up a small electronic device)
    • Drawing a picture of a described place, person, etc.
    • Preparing a table so that it looks the same as a picture (one learner giving instructions)
    • Organising stationery into different boxes, colours, etc. (Good for YLs)

An alternative to the task-completion activity is giving learners problem cards. One learner reads the problem card aloud and the other learner has to solve the problem. The complexity of the problems will elicit the need to use the repetition and checking phrases.

Screenshot 2018-12-06 11.54.09Screenshot 2018-12-06 11.54.17

Can you work out the problems? Find the answers at the bottom of this post!

Complete the conversation – Fillers

Fillers are another part of speaking that teachers often overlook in class. They are useful for a number of reasons. One, they allow speakers to hold the floor while speaking, i.e. prevent someone else from interrupting, and, two, they allow the speaker time to think. Jack Richards (one of the ELT gods) advises teaching fillers in conjunction with video – effectively showing how they can be used to serve the aforementioned purposes. Combine that with the following activity (Richards, 2008: 26), and learners will no doubt become more aware of the importance and use that fillers have in conversation.

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You can consolidate this exercise by having learners write and then practise their own conversations, ensuring to use a number of fillers.

The Devil’s advocate – A bit of everything

This has to be one of my all-time favourite activities for the classroom. In a nutshell, a discussion point/argument is boarded, the class is divided into two teams and each team is given a point of view that they must argue. Take for example something light-hearted like Cats are better than dogs. One team is told that they must be FOR the argument whilst the other team is AGAINST. Teams are given two or three minutes to talk about their argument and think about what the other team might say. After the time limit is up, the teacher pairs learners and they have a discussion, presenting their points of view and then agreeing and disagreeing.

Some other statements that you might like to use in class:

  • Homework is beneficial
  • Students study too many subjects
  • Curfews keep teens out of trouble
  • Video games contribute to violence
  • Recreational drug use should be legalised (Older teens and adults)
  • Money can buy you happiness

I mean, the choices are really endless. I’ve created whole lessons based on a discussion topic and they have gone down amazingly!

That’s (not) all, folks!

So, I’ve given you a short list of some activities that can be used in class to promote the use and learning of conversation skills. There are countless other activities that you could use as well; all you need is a little bit of time to work out how they can be modified to suit your context. If you have any other ideas, please comment below – I would love to read them *cough (steal and use in my class)! If you would like to print off and use the activities from this post, feel free to download this nifty little pdf.

Answers to problems:

  1. 35
  2. 5 children
  3. Today is her eleventh birthday
  4. The chef.

References

Keller, E. & Werner, S. (1988). Conversation Bandits: Real English Conversation Practices. Hove: Cengage Learning, Inc.

Lynch, T. (1996). Communication in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J. (2008). Teaching Listening and Speaking: From Theory to Practice. Retrieved from https://www.professorjackrichards.com/wp-content/uploads/teaching-listening-and-speaking-from-theory-to-practice.pdf

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