Making Room for Conversation

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Carving out more in-class time for student-centered conversation in the past year has had my students progress more quickly as they spent more time speaking, rather than just studying the language. Confidence and experience are essential for developing fluency, and in a safe environment, students’ overall progress can improve significantly. Since doing this in my class, I’ve seen an increase in the quality and quantity of my students’ interactions with each other, and I’ve also learned that they’re interacting at a higher level within their communities.

When adding conversation time in the classroom (which is great for those multi-level classes too), it’s important to have stimulating topics from which interesting questions can be created. I like to choose topics that boost student engagement and that are based on current news events, hot topics such as the latest technology gadget, or seasonal/cultural themes. You may need to tread carefully around political/cultural sensitive subjects; however, interesting and dynamic topics can inspire even the quietest of students. Conversation questions can also flow from grammar points, vocabulary words, and phrasal verbs. I like to create a mix of both open and closed ended questions to help stimulate and guide the conversations along. Not to worry if you’re too busy to be making up your own, there are plenty of ready-made topics and discussion questions available on the Internet.

Depending on the topic, conversation questions can also help give students a better sense of their community as well as the world around them (I’ve even become more knowledgeable and culturally aware from this – who knew there was a soap war going on in one South American country, or that wearing white to a wedding is considered a “no-no” in certain cultures). In terms of the conversations themselves, I try to allocate about 20 minutes before the end of each class and prefer to keep group sizes to no more than 3 to 4 students. Many students enjoy the opportunity to read a current news story and then summarize it in their own words to a partner or group. They also enjoy sharing personal experiences as well as presenting and exchanging ideas and opinions (whether others agree or not)! For the most part, I wear the hat of a facilitator/moderator, and make sure everyone gets involved.  If necessary, I’ll jump in to stretch their thinking and expand their functional vocabulary while making sure the environment stays relaxed, positive, and most importantly, enjoyable.

Making room for conversation has made a big difference in my classroom and, I think, in the lives of my students. It has helped improve their confidence, increase their fluency, and further develop their listening and social skills (i.e. taking turns, interrupting, and body language); all of this enhances their ability to function in and out of the classroom. It’s definitely something I intend to stick with and something I highly recommend to any teacher looking to jump start their students’ progress while adding a little liveliness to their classroom.

Carolyn Flores is a certified LINC Instructor with the Centre for Skills Development & Training in Burlington, Ontario. She also shares her 20 years of combined classroom and 1-on-1 teaching experience through her blog,, where she provides weekly topics/themes and conversation questions for ESL teachers and tutors around the world.


6 thoughts on “Making Room for Conversation”

  1. I completely agree. Conversation is becoming more and more central to my morning class, a demographic in dire need of listening/speaking practice. It is also a weekly component of my literacy class, as we do at least one peer survey per week. Even though the literacy students cannot say much, they find it really fun to go around the room and ask each other just two or three simple questions.

    1. Yes….the beginner students do love to be able to hear themselves speaking English. I like to give them questions on a particular topic (simple WH questions) and have them try to do first with their group. We then go over them with correct sentence structure and then have them repeat the conversation using the questions and corrected answers. They enjoy this activity!

      1. I like that strategy of having students first try to communicate before you give them any language so that they discover what they don’t know. Next model some language that they can use. Then let them try again with a new partner or in a new setting. This is great at any level. This week we’re using Ken Lackman’s “CAT: A Framework for Dogme” technique, which makes use of this principle.

        1. Agreed!
          And giving them the freedom to discover what they don’t know usually results in greater retention of the lesson/vocabulary..etc

  2. Excellent article!
    The number one need for most students is to improve their speaking. This is also something that they cannot do on their own at home so we need to facilitate this opportunity for them. Thanks for this timely piece of advice!

    1. Glad this is working for you Karen! Your students will really appreciate the time to just “talk” and to practice what they learn in class!

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