An opportunity to develop fluency in the English language is often the goal of English as a second language (ESL) conversation activities. In fluency activities, students focus more on getting their message across than on correct grammatical structures. Feedback, likewise, is centred on the meaning, though a teacher should feel free to provide some global feedback on the grammar students produced during a conversation as a part of the wrap-up.
The best topics for conversation in an ESL class will vary depending on class composition. Well-chosen topics tap into students' interests and take into consideration the language learning level of the class, though there are also times when students should be expected to stretch outside of their comfort zone in order to move their language skills to the next level. Create a more student-centred class by asking students to help choose suitable topics or generate discussion questions on a topic provided.
Personal topics are often easy to talk about. For lower level classes, however, you may need to pre-teach some basic vocabulary, perhaps in conjunction with a reading related to the selected topic. Students may already possess most of the vocabulary they need to have conversations about their childhood, family, work or school. Other personal topics include goals, shopping, travel, cooking and hobbies. Whether in class or elsewhere, people also find it easy to talk about their likes and dislikes in music, movies, food, sports and pets.
Students with intermediate level language skills and beyond will benefit from the linguistic and cognitive challenge of discussing more complex topics. Furthermore, if students have academic English goals, they need to develop discussion skills in order to hold their own in college level coursework. Consider topics such as politics, science, health care, technology, the environment, learning styles, alternative energy sources, crime, natural disasters, education, charity, insurance, intellectual property rights and current events. Many of these topics have controversial elements that would lend themselves to a class debate, which is one way to lend structure to the discussion.
Role-plays add variety to a conversation class and encourage students to develop empathy. Stepping into another student's shoes for a half an hour or more can provide a fresh perspective on a previously discussed topic. The most structured role plays provide students with the beginning of the conversation, while less structured options include assigning roles and allowing students to generate the conversation or simply providing a topic and asking students to make decisions about who is in the conversation and what direction it will take. If students are new to role-plays, start by providing lots of guidance and gradually give them more decision-making power as they become familiar with the format and your expectations.
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