I often hear students say they like any chance to have a casual conversation in English. Literacy learners, however, are much more likely to avoid a conversation because they’re not confident enough to use the language yet. As ESL teachers, we prepare well-thought-out lessons that focus on grammar, composition, pronunciation, and structured activities, but we rarely foster a free flow of dialogue that encourages the students to just “use the language.”
I recently wrapped up an introductory English course with literacy learners and got some valuable feedback from my students. After three months of students learning verbs, adjectives, and nouns, and practicing sentence structure and pronunciation, during our last lesson I decided to take a break from the routine and just engage students in a casual chat.
The power of “chat”
According to Lytle and Kuhl (2018) in the Handbook of Psycholinguistics, social interaction can dramatically impact new-language acquisition by activating brain mechanisms that link perception and action.
With some subtle prompts and lots of encouragement, my students rose to the challenge. It was their first use of English in a conversation in class, which can be daunting but also thrilling. After our “conversational lesson,” a few students suggested “next time, let’s talk more. That was good!”
No matter how shy or nervous your students may be, here’s a few ways to foster dialogue in the classroom and get them talking:
- Don’t formalize the conversation – Keep it light and friendly. Choose a topic of discussion that is natural, such as “What are your plans for the weekend?”, “What do you like to do for exercise?”, or “Can you tell me about your family?”
- Give each student a chance to speak – Choose a predictable order for addressing each student when it’s their turn to speak. This way, they will know what to expect and feel more prepared.
- A little patience goes a long way – Give students time to process their thoughts. Some students may freeze up and not want to speak, or not feel sure of what to say. With these students, silence is okay because it encourages them to just “think” in English. It might help to provide prompts such as words or gestures; just don’t try to put words in their mouth.
- Challenge students – For students who feel a little more confident, they may not need a prompt. With these students, feel free to ask a follow up question, or even two, if they are enjoying the opportunity to speak.
- Provide plenty of encouragement – Help the students feel valued in their efforts. Praise the little accomplishments and urge them to keep trying.
- It’s okay to use other languages – Let them know it’s okay to use words from their own language too, if it helps. Research shows that a dual-immersion approach can help increase output of the new language in the introductory stage (Martin-Beltrán, 2010).
Considering all the time we spend preparing activities and well-thought-out lesson plans, it’s a welcome change to just relax and have a conversation with your students. You might be amazed to find that they are able to communicate better than you’d thought, and they might surprise themselves too. This is the kind of experience in an ESL classroom that ignites the conscious mind of the learner – and the sooner they use it, the faster they’ll gain confidence to use it more!
Lytle, S. R. & Kuhl, P. K. (2018) Social Interaction and Language Acquisition: Toward a Neurobiological View. In The Handbook of Psycholinguistics, First Edition. Edited by Eva M. Fernández and Helen Smith Cairns. 615-634. John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from http://ilabs.washington.edu/sites/default/files/2018_lytle_kuhl_socialinteractionandlanguage_neurobiologicalview_.pdf
Martin-Beltrán, M. (2010). The Two-Way Language Bridge: Co-Constructing Bilingual Language Learning Opportunities. The Modern Language Journal, 94(2), 254–277. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40856130