NOT A BIG DEAL: IT’S ONLY A CONVERSATION CLASS
WHY TO STATE THE OBVIOUS?
In 2006, I decided to go to a language school and study Italian. I had already had a good intermediate level in Italian at that time, but I understood that I needed some guidance. While I could read, watch TV (ergo listen), study grammar or vocabulary at home, I still needed somebody to do conversation with. So I started to explore what language schools had to offer. In Florence, it was no problem to find Italian courses for foreigners. However, this experience turned out to be shocking.
At one school, I asked the ‘consulente’ to show me their long-term plan for my level, but they didn’t have any. I was even asked to write one, which they would have followed in my individual course for 35€ per hour (10 years ago!).
At another school, I joined a class where everybody was at a different level. So I took one part of the group (those less prepared than me) and while the teacher was dealing with the stronger students, I improvised an Italian lesson for the others. I really enjoyed it, but I was a paying client.
At a third school, I found a conversation class for B1-B2 students and I couldn’t wait to start the course. The lesson was scheduled at lunch time (we all worked, so this time was the most convenient), so our teacher arrived straight from the dining table… and he was nearly asleep. Then he asked some questions, like what we had been doing or what we thought of Florence. We answered them, then he asked more questions and then our hour ended. Well, this was a lovely chat, something I usually did/do with Italian friends in a coffee bar, but I pay max. for the coffee. This was NOT a conversation lesson. It missed 3 important things:
– target language provided
– structured social forms
– feedback (ergo error correction).
CONVERSATION LESSONS MUST BE PREPARED (TOO)
This all happened 10 years ago and I’m sure that language schools in Florence have improved a lot. Still, I’ve had many situations where qualified and experienced English teachers entered classroom to do “only conversation” without any preparation.
While improvised lesson conduct might happen in emergency cases (substitution), on the long run they fail giving students the language they need to move from a lower level to a higher one and even if they offer language points, they are not structured enough to be retained. Not giving proper feedback takes the chance from students to notice, recognize, understand and later avoid their mistakes.
Teachers don’t like to prepare for conversation lessons, they think it is an easy lesson that can be improvised and that students will be happy anyway, since they had the chance to talk to a native English speaker. However, good conversation lessons not necessarily need long preparation time (or only the first time) and provide much more than a small-talk session with the teacher.
Let’s see some guidelines a teacher needs to follow in a conversation lesson:
1. Choose the topic you want to talk about: You might ask 100 questions, but your aim should be to lead your students towards one lexical field/situation/grammar point. It helps to clarify the language needed and avoid pointless chatting.
2. Decide what language you are going to teach: If the topic requires specific vocabulary, choose the 7-12 most important lexical items at your student’s level. These need to be pre-taught/elicited/clarified and then practiced. For example, if you want to talk about transport at pre-intermediate level (A2), you want to make sure your students know these words and expressions: get on the bus, get off the train, get in the car, get out of the taxi, take a bus, call a taxi, at the station/bus stop, etc. While the same topic at intermediate level (B1) needs the following items pre-taught: traffic jam, parking fine, cycle lane, taxi rank, highway, coach, zebra crossing, etc. At upper-intermediate level (B2) you want to clarify an even wider range of expressions: smog, air-pollution, road rage, hunk, yield, speeding, road accidents, etc. Based on these lexical items, you can invent an exercise that suits the students’ level: at pre-intermediate level it can be a simple ‘How do I get to the railway station?’ task with a map, at intermediate level you might discuss traffic conditions and problems in your students’ country or city and at upper-intermediate level you can discuss environmental problems and possible solutions for the future (you can even link this topic to future continuous and future perfect, if your students have already been introduced to these grammar points).
If you picked a situation, you might teach functional language, e.g. how to make suggestions (How/what about going to the cinema tonight? Shall we go to the cinema tonight? Why don’t we go to the cinema tonight?) or how to express agreement/disagreement (I couldn’t agree more. I totally disagree. I see your point, but …), etc. The elicited or pre-taught expressions could be put onto cards (one set per pair) and students should use them while discussing some questions preset by the teacher or chosen with the class.
Grammar can and needs to be taught in conversation lessons. In a doctor situation, the ‘doctor’ gives advice using ‘should/ought to’, in a school situation, you can discuss what a good teacher/student can(‘t)/must(n’t)/should(n’t) do. In a job interview present perfect simple and present perfect continuous tenses can be practised easily (How long have you been working as a teacher? How many levels have you taught so far?), etc.
This part needs to be presented to the students visually (written on the whiteboard, which requires very little preparation, or on a handout, that needs to be prepared once and can be recycled many times).
3. Provide language input:People don’t just talk, they want to express/communicate something. So give your students a task: a role play, questions to discuss, a problem to solve, a decision to make, a text to read and comment or a track to listen to and interpret. This makes the whole conversation realistic, since these are mostly situations from real life. As for the latter points: you can always involve other skills (reading, listening, writing for homework) into your conversation class. They support your lesson, but they can never dominate the lesson, otherwise it won’t be a conversation lesson any more.
4. Use different social forms:in order to give every student the possibility to speak, avoid frontal Teacher-Student interactions in the practice-phase. Put your student into pairs or small groups and make them speak contemporarily. Use some music if they seem shy at the beginning and also to get them used to speaking up when there is background noise (as it in real life very often happens).
5. Monitor your students: The aims of monitoring them are two: 1) to make sure that they are doing what they were asked to do (in English), 2) to make sure that they use the target language (accurately) and collect good examples/typical mistakes in their utterances. If the students don’t use the target language (correctly), you must stop them and remind them of the structures to be used or to re-teach them if the students haven’t assimilated them at the first clarification. Then you can give them the same task and restart the practice activity.
6. Provide feedback at the end of the task: This can be done in open class straight away or again in pair-work or group-work, then in open class. Traditionally we consider two types of feedback.
– content feedback: emphasizes good ideas, solutions to the problem or surprising statements and shows the students that they were listened to during the task.
– language feedback: points out (correct or incorrect) grammar and lexical structures used by the students and aims at motivating them (in the first case) or making them notice their mistakes (in the latter one).
Classical ways of language feedback are:
– the teacher writes 3 sentences he/she heard from students, two incorrect and one correct examples. Students find the incorrect ones and correct them (in groups, pairs or in open class);
– the teacher elicits how to express an idea, collecting good examples from students (How can you refuse an invitation politely?);
– the teacher points out typical mistakes and clarifies them, e.g. in an auction game, probably in the next lesson, since it needs preparation or in an error-soccer game.
7. Repeat the task: Giving students the same task helps them to unload their first pressure of thinking about content/finding the right form/pronouncing their ideas, and it also gives them the opportunity to do the same activity better than the first time, since they know what mistakes to avoid or what lexical items to use.
In task-based teaching, the teacher gives the task at the beginning of the lesson (as a fluency exercise) and checks what students know about the target language, then after language teaching, he/she makes the students repeat the task and this time the teacher monitors for the accurate use of the target language.
In a classical conversation lesson, the students can be given the same task (possibly with new partners) after the feedback-session (if time allows) and the teacher is supposed to monitor this second time for the language points discussed previously.
An excellent way of finishing a conversation lesson is to insert a quick game (a board or card game) which recycles the same language points, but in a fun way.
8. Recycle your materials: Everything you prepare today, can and will be useful in a future lesson. After some time every teacher has his/her ready-to-use ideas for every level. They will also have their jolly-joker topics per level for substitution lessons. So from the beginning follow these guidelines:
– prepare your materials on the PC if possible, and save the files using clear names that helps you to identify the file later on. Names like ‘conv.q.elem’ or ‘traffic_int’ are not really useful, since you don’t know what topic you dealt with in the first case and what type of activity you did in the second. Use names like ‘int_traffic_vocab’ or ‘int_traffic_conv_q’, so you can understand that in the first one you dealt with lexis linked to traffic, in the second you prepared questions for a discussion about traffic, both at intermediate level. This way, you can always find these materials on your PC and reuse them.
– laminate the best exercises: if one exercises has worked very well 3-4 times, you might want to make the prompts (pictures, maps, cards, question slides, etc.) more lasting and laminate them. This way, even if many students hold them in their hands in many lessons, they will resist time. Consider how long it takes to cut the conversation cards every time you need them: you save all this preparation time in the future.
– file your materials: have (shoe) boxes for every level ready to keep your materials there, have your folders for the best exercises you want to use in the future, this way you have them ready for any emergency case or normal lesson preparation. This saves again a lot of time for you.
9. Evaluate your lesson: Ask your students/yourself at the end of the lesson what they have learnt. Every conversation lesson (as every lesson) needs target language, an aim why we teach what we teach. Students need to be able to express orally something extra before they leave the classroom. If this is the case, then you did a conversation lesson. If the answer is that they spoke a lot, then you’ve only had a lovely chat with them. Next time offer at least some coffee to them.
Good news is that you will find plenty of materials ready to print (even for free) online. You just have to type in your search engine the topic, level and some keywords of the type of activity you want to do with your class and you will find something: www.onestopenglish.com or www.busyteacher.org are only two of the many websites that offer help to teachers. Have them saved among your favorites and start creating your own materials. And above all, have fun with your conversation classes.
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