ESL Conversation Topics and Activities

Written by joel barnard
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Initiating conversation in an ESL, or English as a second language, class can be difficult. Students may be embarrassed to speak in front of others or have trouble thinking of topics for conversation. By putting students into pairs or small groups and clearly defining the topic, you can alleviate both of these problems.

Now and Then

In this activity, students practice using present and past tenses. It is suitable for students at a lower to intermediate level. Write on the board the following categories: "Television," "Sport," "Food," "Holidays" and "Music." Divide the class into pairs. Each student in a pair takes it in turn to ask his partner at least ten questions about each topic as it relates to her life now and when she was a child. For example, questions could include, "What sport do you play?" and "What sport did you play when you were a child?"

What Would You Do?

Students practice using the second conditional in this activity. It is suitable for students at an intermediate level and higher. Ask the students to write down five things they would change about their countries if they were the leader--for example, "I'd cut taxes by 20 per cent" or "I'd ban smoking in the street." After five minutes or when everyone has finished, arrange the class into groups of three. Each student takes it in turn to read out his sentences. The other students respond by saying whether they think it would be a good idea or a bad idea and why. For example, one response might be, "I think banning smoking in the street would be a bad idea as it would take away people's personal freedom."

Modal Rules

In this activity, students practice using modal verbs, which include such words as "can," "must," "may," "might," will," "would" and "should." It is suitable for students at a lower intermediate level and higher. Divide the class into groups of three or four students and tell them they have been chosen to build a colony on Mars. Ask them to discuss, and decide on, ten rules for their new colony. For example, "We need to be careful of water, so I think the first rule should be 'You have to limit your daily shower to two minutes." After twenty minutes, stop the activity and ask each group to read its rules to the class.


"Lifeboat" gives students practice using assorted tenses and language forms. It is suitable for students at a lower intermediate level and higher. Divide the class into groups of four or five. Explain to the students that they are the only survivors from a shipwreck and are adrift in a lifeboat in the open sea. Unfortunately, they are getting very hungry and must decide which one of the group they will eat. Students take it in turns to explain why they shouldn't be the one eaten and why another member of the group is more suitable. For example, "I'm very skinny, so you wouldn't get much meat off me. Besides, I'm training to be a doctor so I will be saving lives in the future. Rodrigo looks far more tasty, don't you think?" Stop the activity after twenty minutes and ask the students to vote on who should be eaten.

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