Students of English as a second language (ESL) may be accustomed to reading and writing in English, yet nervous to actually speak it. Finding the right questions to spark class discussions and draw embarrassed students out of their shells can be a challenge for teachers. Whatever their countries of origin, though, ESL students are all going through similar cultural transitions that can give classes a jumping-off point for conversation.
Especially at the beginning of the term, personal questions are a simple way to get students talking. They know the answers to questions about their favourite things, their jobs, their families and their histories, so all they have to worry about in conversation is the language. It is often easier for students to become accustomed to their class and to speaking out loud in English when they do not have to analyse readings, news reports or cultural trends at the same time.
An ESL class is likely to include students from several different countries. Each of them is not only trying to learn English, but also trying to adjust to American society. Cultural rules usually go unspoken, and people often do not know what their own rules are until someone else breaks them. Questions about the students' cultures of origin can help them cope with culture shock--through discussion, they learn about American rules, the rules their classmates were taught and their own cultural expectations. The essay "American Values and Assumptions," by Gary Althen, is a useful companion resource to these conversations.
Once students have begun to recognise cultural values and rules, they are in a position to apply this understanding to international relations. Students can read news reports of the same events from American newspapers and from their own countries' newspapers, and then discuss the cultural slant in each version. Questions such as, "Does your country benefit from this agreement?", "Which groups in America are helped by this and which are hurt by this?" and "What cultural biases do the newspapers reveal?" are ways to guide the conversation.
In classes that are not sufficiently advanced to discuss such complex topics, students can benefit from talking about daily life. Questions like "What have you done since the last class?" and "Where are your favourite places in the city?" help students drill vocabulary relevant to their own lives. Questions comparing American holidays to the holidays the students grew up observing can start a conversation that allows students to learn about the way other cultures celebrate and the things they view as important.