Teach Conversational English
When other teachers, even other ESL teachers, hear I’m teaching an ESL conversation class, they often say it sounds “relaxing,” or “fun” or “easy.” Most teachers will smile at this, of course, recognizing that any teaching, while it may be fun, is almost never “relaxing” or “easy.”
And while the conversation class may certainly be less rigorous than, for example, an advanced writing class, it has its own set of problems. In a writing class, I know what the students need, and the title “Advanced ESL Composition” alone suggests the curriculum: course readings and several student essays on related topics over the course of the semester, in drafts increasing polished and focused on structure, grammar, and punctuation. A conversation class, however, is less defined. What exactly is a conversation class? What is the curriculum? Sometimes there’s not even a course text available. Despite this initial lack of clarity, however, there are general principles of best practice that a conversation class can be built around.
Focus on communication and fluency, not correctness
I’m always surprised when in the first days of class students turned to me or ask their classmates if they are holding the conversation “correctly,” if it is “right.” Rarely even in our native languages do we concern ourselves if the conversation is proceeding “correctly”; the point is if our meaning is coming through. This is what should be emphasized to students: it’s not a matter of “right” but whether or not your classmates understand you and can respond to you!
Lay the groundwork
Before entering in academic conversations, students have to agree on some basic “rules for engagement”: listening to each other courteously; listening actively by clarifying meaning and asking for examples; advancing one’s own opinions clearly and politely while considering the audience, etc. Most students will really know these rules already from their first languages—there are probably some cultural universals in politeness—and can usually help in brainstorming five or so rules to be displayed prominently in the class. More than five will likely be too many to focus on and be useful.
Student directed: student choice of topics
There are few things more uncomfortable than being in a conversation on a topic you either intensely dislike or have nothing to say on. Most native speakers will excuse themselves from such conversations as soon as possible. Teachers should be wary of assigning controversial topics such as the legality of abortion or same sex marriage without gauging the climate of the class and having an idea of how receptive students will be to such topics. Some classes are perfectly capable of holding a mature conversation on these topics, others not depending on their language and cross-cultural and interpersonal skills. Teachers should ask themselves the following: Are my students capable of listening to their peers on the topic without erupting in anger? Can they advance their own opinions without undue embarrassment? One way around this concern is allowing students to come up with their own topics to use over the course of the term. Have them work in groups, write agreed-upon topics on index cards, and collect them. They do not have to be “academic” topics like the validity of global warming but almost anything students are interested in and can discuss for an extended time, such as favorite music. One class session or part of one in brainstorming topics will likely yield enough topics for the term, and the instructor can just draw an index card to use during discussion time.