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Adult English Lessons / Discussion Classes / English Teaching / Standard Classes

Introduction to Teaching an English Conversation Class

So many teachers think "discussion" classes are simple. You sit down with the students and say "What's new?" to start a conversation. This is very wrong. Learn the correct way to teach a discussion class.

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In the next couple of articles we’re going to go over one of the more common types of classes that you may teach at an English school. These classes we generally call “discussion” classes. There are various types of discussion classes but they all have the same common goal, which is to allow students a place and time to practice their English in conversations with other people. These classes are different from the “standard English” classes in that there’s not necessarily a key point that the teachers are trying to teach the students, the teachers are trying to get the students to initiate conversations. During these conversations the students will have chances to use anything that they have learned in the previous “standard English” classes. The key here is simply conversation. I like to use a boxing analogy. The “standard English” classes are more similar to practicing certain techniques or certain punches, you’re not in a real fight you’re just practicing individual techniques. The “discussion” classes are more like sparring. Sparring is more or less a practice fight. When you are sparring you’re trying to use the techniques that you learned in previous practice in a more realistic setting.

There are three major types of “discussion” classes. Let’s briefly list them here

  • Subject based discussion classes
  • Situation based discussion classes
  • Free talk classes

 

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Subject based discussion classes

Subject based discussion classes are where a teacher will choose a specific subject to talk about during the lesson. So let’s say that I decided that my classes are going to talk about friends and friendship. Usually with subject based discussion classes there’s a little more structure to the class. The teacher will present the topic. Maybe the teacher will ask some related warm-up questions. Then they can write some related vocabulary words on the board. They might then write some different sentence structures on the board that the teacher wants the students to use during the discussion. Then once the teachers have gone over all of this new information with the students he lets the students loose to talk about the subject. The teacher can split the class up into groups of two or groups of three. As the students are discussing the topic the teacher will walk around and listen to some conversations and occasionally join the conversations.

The idea behind having subject based discussion classes is that it is important to talk about a variety of topics when learning English. The more topics that the students talk about the more vocabulary words that they can learn and the more comfortable they will feel in any conversation that the students might find themselves in.

 

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Situation based discussion classes

Situation based discussion classes are centered on a certain hypothetical situation. For example, maybe there is a man who doesn’t want to go out drinking with his boss but because he lives in Japan he feels that he has to. Or a young girl’s mother is always dressing up and acting like a teenager, this bothers the daughter who wants her mother to act her age. These classes need a kind of “setup”. Usually situation based discussion textbooks will have an example conversation on the first page. This is a great class to help practice stating opinions, agreeing or disagreeing with other students, and many more things.

Of course, like most of the other discussion classes we want to introduce new vocabulary, we also want to introduce new sentence structures and questions. Each class should have a set of related vocabulary words that the students can use during their discussions. There should also be a set of sentence structures that the students can again use in their conversation. You can introduce these vocabulary words and sentence structures in the beginning of class or you can do one round of “discussions” and then come back and introduce the vocabulary and sentence structures.

 

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Free discussion classes

Free discussion classes are classes where there is no is specific subject or topic. Conversations might start about someone’s week and plans and then naturally change to baseball and then again to girlfriends and boyfriends and then again to your hometown. There really is no structure. Of course the students are not randomly jumping to different subjects or topics. There are arriving at new topics in a natural way. Let’s look at the conversation below:

Mike-Susan, what are you going to do next weekend?

Susan-I’m going to Hiroshima with my boyfriend.

Mike-What are you going to do there?

Susan-We’re going to go see a professional baseball game.

Mike-Really? I didn’t know you like baseball.

Susan-Well, before I really wasn’t interested in baseball but my new boyfriend loves it. So I have found myself slowly becoming more interested in it.

Mike-That’s nice. I wish my girlfriend would take more interest in my hobbies.

Susan-Mike? How long have you been dating your girlfriend?

Mike-Well, we started dating in high school so it’s been about seven years.

Susan-So you two are from the same town?

Mike-Yep, born and raised.

Susan-What’s your hometown like?

We can see that this conversation has natural transitions. This is very much a real conversation. Just like you or I would have at a bar or restaurant.

 

Student levels

Most students can take advantage of conversation classes but generally intermediate and advanced students will get the most out of it. It’s not to say that upper beginner students can’t join these classes but when you do have a conversation class with lower-level students you’re going to have to provide much more structure and the time given to the conversation must be much shorter. Having said that, I do like the idea of forcing lower-level students to occasionally join a discussion class. (maybe new article)

 

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Basic Objectives

  • Improve conversation ability
  • Improve vocabulary
  • Improve listening skills
  • Natural flow of conversations
  • Sentence patterns
  • Asking questions
  • Pronunciation practice

 

Improve conversation ability

Obviously a class named “discussion” class is aiming to improve a student’s conversation ability. As mentioned before, the idea is to simply give students a chance to use all of the English that they have learned through textbooks, or their previous classes in a real conversation.

 

Improve vocabulary

Discussion classes are great way to help students improve their vocabulary. The basic idea being that each discussion class will be going over a different subject or topic. Each topic has related vocabulary that the students must use in order to converse about the topic. Using new vocabulary in the conversation is one of the best ways to learn and remember new words.

 

Improve listening skills

Discussion classes are also a great way to improve students listening ability. In my experience I found that students who often take discussion classes have some of the best listening skills.

 

Natural flow of conversations

Natural flow of conversation refers to a student’s ability to smoothly discuss any topic. Things like follow-up questions, smooth transitions, getting others involved in the conversation are important but often forgotten components of a good conversationalist.

 

Sentence patterns

Similar to improving students’ vocabulary through discussion is improving students’ use of various sentence patterns. These patterns can be quickly reviewed before any conversation phase of the class and they can be referred to by the students when they are trying to make a particular point. Using the sentence patterns in real conversations allow students to remember and in later conversations reproduce various sentences.

 

Asking questions

Many students have little trouble answering questions but conversely have quite a lot of trouble initiating conversations. Learning how and when to ask questions to the person you’re conversing with is an essential tool for any English student.

 

Pronunciation practice

Conversations provide instant feedback upon the student’s pronunciation. If the student’s pronunciation is not good enough the person they’re talking with simply can’t understand them. Also one of the best ways to improve pronunciation is simply by speaking as much as possible. The more chances you have to speak, the better your pronunciation becomes. There might be situations or students where they need specific pronunciation practice but for your average student simply talking and listening can greatly increase their pronunciation.

 

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Primary Objective Method

As we have mentioned there are three basic types of “discussion” classes. We are going to go over basic lesson plan for each of the classes. (link out to new article for each?)

 

Subject based conversation class

Topic related warm-up questions

Vocabulary list

Sub topics

Conversation

Example questions

Conversation

Sentence structures

Conversation

 

Situation based conversation class

Topic related warm-up questions

Conversation/short reading

Vocabulary

Comprehension questions

Conversation

Example questions

Conversation

 

“Free” conversation class

Conversation

 

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Secondary Objective Methods

For these discussion classes the primary objective is simply to have the students conduct conversations. There are also many secondary objectives that we want our students to study so that they can improve their conversational abilities. Here are a few common secondary objective activities:

  • Mind map
  • Point of view/reading
  • Sentence patterns and personalization
  • Discussion/questions/discussion strategy sentences
  • Follow-up questions
  • Role-playing
  • Co-location sets
  • Speeches
  • Writing

 

Textbooks

Textbooks are absolutely essential to the majority of discussion classes. But at the same time teachers have to be very careful to not focus too much on individual activities that are in the textbook. The main focus of this class is discussion, conversations. If the majority of your class time is involved looking at the textbooks then you are doing something wrong.

There are many “discussion” textbooks out there that you can use in your classes. Most of the textbooks will be divided into two groups. Subject based textbooks and situation based textbooks. Also be aware that many of the textbooks will not have a specific level written on them (this is usually because they want to sell as many as possible) most textbooks will have level specific content. Some of the content will be easier and some will be much more difficult. Of course this depends on the makeup of your classes as well. If you have enough students where you can make a high level discussion class then by all means try to find some more difficult conversation topics for them. But if you have a mixed class with some upper beginners, intermediate and advanced students then you have to think more about the topics and subjects that you use in your discussion classes.

If at all possible you should get a subject based textbook and a situation based textbook. If you can find one it’s good to have a lower level subject and situation based textbook and also an intermediate/advanced set of each as well.

Click here to look at some of our recommended textbooks. (need article)

 

Review

For discussion classes, review can be at times difficult, but there are several ways that you can introduce real review into these classes. One way is to have the “mini-discussion” as a warm-up. Basically the teacher will choose from a list of subjects or situations that the class has previously talked about and in the beginning of that day’s class the teacher will simply have the students form groups of two and tell them that for five minutes they are to talk about a certain topic. Hopefully the students all have notebooks and they can go find the pages in their notebook that they used for that class and quickly review on their own. If they forget certain words or structures then they can look back at their notebook and try to use it during the conversation.

Another way to review is to simply go over the same topic. You don’t want to do this too soon after the first time a class goes over a certain topic. But let’s say that six months or year has passed. Going over the same subject or situation would be great practice for all of the students involved. More than likely you’re going to have some students who are new to the class. So six months ago they never had that class about “economics” so for some students it will be a review and for some students will be new.

 

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Student Encouragement

Just like any other class it is very important for the teacher to constantly be giving encouragement to their students. Often many of the students in the discussion classes will have a reasonable degree of English skills. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that they all have lots of confidence. They still need encouragement just like any other students. For more on student encouragement click here.

 

Cautions and Warnings

There are a couple of problems that often occur in discussion classes. One of those is when the teacher simply talks too much. You have to remember this is not a listening class. This is a discussion class. This is a conversation class. And if your students are not doing that then you are doing something wrong. Each class will be different and each teacher will be different but at the most a teacher should only be speaking for 30% of the time. In the best scenario the teacher would be speaking 10%. Of course there will be some classes that refuse to have discussions about certain topics. Maybe they are all shy. Maybe they are not confident enough to create conversations on their own. There are many reasons. But as a goal, you as a teacher should try to speak as little as possible during these classes. For more ideas about how to get shy students to speak click here (insert link).

Another common problem is when students refuse to talk. This also depends on the country or the nationality of your students but it can be a common occurrence when you have five students in the classroom and they are all shy or simply scared to make a mistake that they stay silent for the majority of the lesson. In these situations there are a couple of things that you need to think about as a teacher. Perhaps the student’s skill level is not adequate for a discussion classes. They might need to have a few more “standard” classes and then when they improve their fundamentals they can again attempt to join a “discussion” class. Perhaps the students need more structure or direction from the teacher. In this case you need to write out various sentence structures and questions that they can use to talk about the topic.

Occasionally in these discussion classes you will have a student who has been studying English for some time and they are very comfortable in “discussion” classes. Certainly not always but sometimes the students can monopolize the discussion. I’ve had students who more or less give speeches rather than join conversations. I’ve had students who demand attention from the rest of the students. I’ve had students who will give a 30 minute monologue that would rival a Shakespearean play. The problem is obvious, one student uses all the time and the other students have no time to practice their English. There are quite a lot of strategies and tactics that you as a teacher can use to fix this. Some of them are:

  • Creating smaller groups
  • Moderating discussions
  • Writing sentence patterns on the board

 

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Conclusions

For most students occasionally having “discussion” classes is absolutely essential. This is where the students put everything that they learned in other classes together to create discussions. At the same time only attending “discussion” classes would not be a good idea. It’s important for students to have a good mix of both “discussion” classes and “standard” classes.

 

 

 

 

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Randy League owns an English School in Japan and has been teaching English for 20 years. In his free time he trains MMA , plays video games and studies Japanese.

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