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“Ah, good conversation – there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.”
–Edith Wharton (1862-1937), American novelist
How do we start conversations?
How do we start conversations in our English classes? Where can students create positive experiences speaking with classmates? Can we ask questions that encourage reflection and build connection? Will our English students be able to recycle questions from our English classes beyond the classroom?
Nobody seeks to grammar English; our students want to speak English. We need, therefore, to provide time and materials for students to speak more in our English classes. Students need to practice having actual conversations. The good news is that lists of questions work just fine. Some questions, however, remain better than other questions if we want students to share and reflect. Further, we also want to students to have positive speaking experiences that can spark authentic questions beyond the ESL classroom.
Conversation Always Evolving
Let’s also step back. Many people find holding conversations difficult today. It appears that many people, especially during the last 18 stressful months, have become more isolated. Conversation skills have often become rusty.
The art of conversation, once considered the sign of a civilized individual, seems less common today. Yet I treasure the moments of sharing experiences, collecting news, and exchanging ideas in actual conversations. I make a point of greeting my neighbors, and allowing casual greetings to become genuine conversations. I make time to explore the feelings and perceptions of friends and relatives. These natural conversations provide information, encouragement, and connection. We share laughs, smiles, and sighs. Life feels better when we connect.
Life today often seems very hectic. Who has time for long lunches and civilized conversations? Yet accepting this notion cheats us; it denies our responsibility for our choices. We can choose to watch television programs, play computer games, or listen to the radio rather than talk to relatives and friends. It’s a choice. Life remains full of choices – even during Covid.
The internet, a modern wonder, provides another way to find ideas, explore possibilities, and connect with friends, colleagues, and strangers. Many find surfing the internet easier, even better than having actual conversations. Sometimes international students also feel too shy to speak to the people next to them. Many Americans, it seems to me, have also forgotten how to hold good, deep conversations, or even a friendly chat on the phone. Some claim to be too busy; others too stressed. Loneliness has become widespread – before, during, and after the Covid crisis.
Yet conversations build connections, and we can choose to start conversations.
Starting Conversations in English
Of course, adult students, immigrant workers, and other people learning English as a second, third, or fourth language face even more barriers to a satisfying conversation in English. First, English remains a confusing, difficult, and strange language. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable when speaking in this new tongue.
ESL students often wonder:
- What questions do I ask?
- How can I keep a conversation going?
- What vocabulary words are needed?
- How do I show agreement, or disagreement, in a lively, yet polite way?
- Can I share my experiences in a clear manner?
- When will I have better, more interesting conversations in English?
Teaching Conversational English
English teachers must, therefore, explicitly teach these conversation skills. The asking, understanding, and responding to questions remains a complicated skill. How often do native speakers – even smart ESL teachers – feel misunderstood in English? Conversation also counts as a vital communication ability both inside and outside our ESL classrooms. So ESL students need to practice and practice again. English teachers should create the time and find the materials so students can learn by doing and create short conversations. (BTW, many English students choose to hire private English tutors because they have so few opportunities to speak and converse with classmates in their English classes. Tutors can provide attention to each client and English language learners can actually practice having authentic conversations in English.)
Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics addresses these issues for both native and non-native English speakers. The focus is on learning by doing, and making good mistakes. (Good mistakes, by the way, are natural mistakes that help us learn so we can make different and better “good mistakes” next time.) Each of the 45 chapters includes 30 or more questions, 10 or more targeted vocabulary words, a few proverbs, and 10 or more quotations. Although designed for advanced students, intermediate ESL students will find plenty of material to use and can benefit from exposure to the new words, phrases, and questions.
Questions Guide Conversation
Each chapter focuses on a promising conversation topic. The questions allow the reader to practice exchanging experiences and ideas in a natural style. Teachers and students can add questions, skip questions, and move on to related topics. Each chapter begins with easier, more familiar questions and slowly shifts to more abstract, open questions. So the Chapter 21 (Playing and Watching Sports) asks “What is the most popular sport in your native country” in the first section. It’s short and simple. Yet that same chapter also asks “Do you think sports builds character? How?” Those questions are followed by another abstract question: “Or do you sports reveal character?”. A clever Russian student added another, more philosophical question: How do you win the game of life?
Both native English speakers and English language learners will find the questions allow one to share experiences, exchange insights, and reflect on life. The questions are conversation starters, and not rigid scripts to follow. Students have conversations worth having, learn about classmates, and develop a larger, richer vocabulary in English conversations. Further, the engaging material allows ESL students to recycle material and use the questions outside of English language classrooms. Students learn by doing. These meaningful classroom conversations help students connect, reduce loneliness, and feel more comfortable in English class.
Students also discover that they can create compelling conversations in English!
How do you encourage students to talk about their lives and experiences? Have you checked out our sample chapters from our different Compelling Conversations books yet? These free lessons show our approach to sparking conversations – in and out of the English classroom. Can your students benefit from these speaking activities?
Here is one of my favorite chapters “Being Yourself“. Enjoy!