Daily Small Talk

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As a person and as a language instructor, I hear the words ‘small talk’ and I shudder. However, I have learned – after teaching online for nearly three years now – not to underestimate the opportunities and utility of focusing specifically on Small Talk in class. Focusing on Small Talk has always been successful. When surveyed, learners consistently report that they want more Small Talk rather than less. 

I started teaching virtually with a fairly small class (CLB 7) who really responded to Small Talk. For one thing, I found the class needed to deal with mental health issues – near the beginning of COVID – and needed to feel as social as possible in a virtual environment. That’s when I started to develop Small Talk as an integral activity. Most recently, I had a much larger class that also responded very well to the Small Talk activities. This activity is not a one-off lesson but rather focuses on best practices, routine, feedback, and refinement.

The Setup Activity

  1. First, I model best practices (as best as I can) for a few days with the class.
  2. Then, with three or four reference articles (search “Small Talk Best Practices” on any search engine), I ask learners to read one article and make a shortlist of best practices.
  3. This becomes a pyramid-ranking activity from individual to small group to whole group. 
  4. We resolve, as a group, a short list of best practices and have an open discussion about personal experiences with Small Talk.

I have found this pyramid-ranking activity useful all by itself. Not many learners have really thought about Small Talk as a skill or considered it strategically. Additionally, having learners derive their own list of best practices already initiates some buy-in.

I develop a PBLA rubric for Speaking – Interacting with Others. I include the best practices list as part of that rubric while focusing on prioritizing listening more than speaking, diplomacy, and equitable time.  

The Activity

One learner volunteers as host for the day. They host the class for about 20 minutes at the start of class. I track vocabulary and expressions, but only as an aside (if online, it’s in the Zoom chat box). I try not to interfere, and I rarely have to. Then I assess the host and give written and actionable feedback – focusing on the best practices we already outlined. This gives learners an immediate understanding of what they can do better to keep a conversation going. 

Variations

I’ve had classes where Small Talk works so well that I needed to continue to adapt it in order to keep it going as a (nearly) daily activity. Besides the general activity, I’ve developed a few varieties of Small Talk based on the needs of the class:  

  1. Review a TV show or a movie – plan to include classmates who don’t know it.
  2. Current events and news.
  3. A random topic – learners are given a randomly generated topic and given 5 minutes to plan and prepare. (I wouldn’t start with this one, but I found that learners were more than capable of this challenge.)

Outcomes

Critically, Small Talk creates a welcoming space for the whole class where learners feel heard. The class understands, quickly, not only how to participate, but how to help the acting host. The class works together to notice what makes good and useful Small Talk. Small Talk really works well to elicit content-specific vocabulary and to build on vocabulary they already know. Small Talk also gives me a unique opportunity to focus on listening to one learner at a time including noticing any grammatical or pronunciation challenges.

More than anything, Small Talk builds confidence, not only for the host but for participants too. This activity makes Small Talk as authentic as possible while increasing learner-talk time, and offering participants the opportunity to learn and practice topic-specific vocabulary, to learn about current events, to practice diplomatic language, and to express opinions.  As an added, if incidental, bonus, Small Talk encourages punctuality: learners felt it was respectful to join class on time so that they didn’t miss a classmate hosting Small Talk.  

Small Talk – Best Practices

  1. Be a good listener. Effective Small Talk is really more listening than talking.
  2. Keep the focus on the other person.
  3. Keep a positive attitude. Don’t be too negative. 
  4. Demonstrate you are listening: ask questions and follow up questions.
  5. Demonstrate you are listening:  remember facts.
  6. Learn and use people’s names – everybody likes to hear their name.
  7. Give compliments – everybody likes to hear compliments.
  8. Be interested and watch body language. 
  9. Make connections.
  10. Pretend you are talking with an old friend. Show empathy and affection.
  11. Be yourself.
  12. Find opportunities to include people wanting or waiting to connect, i.e., quiet or shy people.

Have you integrated Small Talk activities in your class before?

My name is Kevin Slack. I am new and old. I mean: I have been teaching ESL for the TDSB for the last three years, but I taught EFL in Korea and Ecuador years ago (when nothing at all popped or cracked when I stood up). I also taught high school English and Visual Arts. Between my bookends of teaching, I was an artist, a writer, and a freelance web developer. I am ever-curious about language, communication, and self-expression, and it continues to excite and satisfy me to be part of a welcoming, engaging, and enriching space where people can connect, share, and expand – with language, of course, but not only for language. I like coffee, irony, Oxford commas, and semicolons; I generally dislike socks – huzzah for teaching online! – and exclamation points.

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