Teaching Conversational Skills - Tips and Strategies

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Teaching conversational skills can be challenging as not only English skills are required. English students who excel in conversation tend to be those with self-motivated, outgoing personalities. However, students who feel they lack this skill are often shy when it comes to conversation. In other words, personality traits that dominate in everyday life tend to appear in the classroom as well. As English teachers, it's our job to help students improve their conversational skills, but often 'teaching' is not really the answer.

The Challenge

Generally speaking, most English learners feel that they need more conversation practice. In fact, over the years I've noticed that the number one requested skill by students is conversational ability. Grammar, writing and other skills are all very important, but, for most students, conversation is the most important. Unfortunately, teaching conversational skills is much more challenging that teaching grammar as the focus is not on accuracy, but on production.

When employing role-plays, debates, topic discussions, etc., I have noticed that some students are often timid in expressing their viewpoints. This seems due to a number of reasons:

  • Students don't have an opinion on the subject
  • Students have an opinion, but are worried about what the other students might say or think
  • Students have an opinion, but don't feel they can say exactly what they mean
  • Students begin giving their opinion, but want to state it in the same eloquent manner that they are capable of in their native language
  • Other, more actively participating students, feel confident in their opinions and express them eloquently making the less confident students more timid

Pragmatically, conversation lessons and exercises should first focus on building skills by eliminating some of the barriers that might be in the way of production.

Here are some suggestions to help 'free up' students in conversation.

  • Point out that it's not necessary to always speak the truth in class. In fact, not worrying about exactly what happened can help free up students.
  • Create lesson plans that focus on functional skills such as asking for permission, disagreeing, etc. rather than open ended lessons that students might find vague.
  • Set micro-tasks such as the use of specific verbs, idioms, etc. within overall speaking tasks. 
  • Use tasks such as information gathering or problem solving activities that encourage students to communicate in English in order to complete the tasks.

Here is a closer look at some of these ideas:

Focus on Function 

It's important to help students become familiar with language functions rather than focusing on a grammar based approach when developing lessons to help with conversational skills. Start off simple with functions such as: Asking permission, stating an opinion, ordering food in a restaurant, etc. 

Explore grammar issues by asking what linguistic formulas should be used to achieve the desired results. For example, if you are comparing two side of an argument which forms might be helpful (comparative, superlative, 'would rather', etc).

Use formulas to encourage correct usage such as:

  • How / What about + Verb + Ing for making suggestions -> How about taking a trip to San Diego?
  • Would you mind + Verb + Ing for making requests -> Would you mind giving me a hand?
  • Would you rather + Verb + or + Verb for asking for preferences -> Would you rather take the train or drive?

Expand this approach slowly by asking students to create short role plays using cue cards. Once students become comfortable with target structures and representing differing points of view, classes can move onto more elaborated exercises such as debates and group decision making activities. 

Assign Points of View

Ask students to take on a specific viewpoint. Sometimes, it's a good idea to ask students to try to state opinions that they don't necessarily share. Having been assigned roles, opinions and points of view that they do not necessarily share, students are freed from having to express their own opinions.

Therefore, they can focus on expressing themselves well in English. In this way, students tend to concentrate more on production skills, and less on factual content. They also are less likely to insist on literal translations from their mother tongue.

This approach bears fruit especially when debating opposing points of view. By representing opposing points of view, students' imagination are activated by trying to focus on all the various points that an opposing stand on any given issue may take. As students inherently do not agree with the view they represent, they are freed from having to invest emotionally in the statements they make. More importantly, from a pragmatic point of view, students tend to focus more on correct function and structure when they do not become too emotionally involved in what they are saying.

Of course, this is not to say that students should not express their own opinions. After all, when students go out into the "real" world they will want to say what they mean. However, taking out the personal investment factor can help students first become more confident in using English. Once this confidence is gained, students - especially timid students - will be more self-assured when expressing their own points of view.

Focus on Tasks

Focusing on tasks is quite similar to focusing on function. In this case, students are given specific tasks they must complete in order to do well. Here are some suggestions on tasks that can help students practice their conversational skills:

  • Create student surveys to gather information
  • Team work activities such as treasure hunts
  • Board games - especially games that require 
  • Build something - group activities such as a science project or presentations allow everyone to join in the fun

Quick Review

Decide whether the following statements are true or false.

  1. It's a good idea to have students report their experiences truthfully and in great detail.
  2. General conversational activities are best for more advanced students while beginner should focus on functions.
  3. Assigning point of view helps students focus on linguistic accuracy rather than stating exactly what they believe.
  4. Problem solving teamwork tasks should be avoided as they are not realistic.
  5. Outgoing students tend to be better at conversational skills.

Answers

  1. False - Students shouldn't have to worry about telling the exact truth because they might not have the vocabulary.
  2. True - Advanced students have the linguistic skills to deal with broader issues.
  3. True - Assigning a point of view can help free up students to focus on form rather than on content. 
  4. False - Problem solving requires teamwork and conversational ability.
  5. True - Motivated outgoing students tend to allow themselves to make mistakes and thus speak more freely.