How to Make Conversation Classes More Meaningful for Your Students

By Tory Thorkelson

Just like that book about how Kindergarten teaches you everything important about life, much of what I do and how I do it in the speaking and other classes I teach originates from my 8 years teaching Freshmen conversation classes at the university level in Korea. In this article, I would like to discuss a few of these lessons and techniques that may be of use to others wrestling with the ever present ‘conversational’ English classes.

Textbooks are just as tool.

Many new teachers follow the textbook religiously (through ignorance or because they feel forced to do so by the administration or because their students paid for them). While you need to teach the material in the textbook, this does not mean that you cannot supplement, modify or even replace lessons and material that does not work for your students for whatever reason. As your experience and classes evolve, you will feel more confident and comfortable about doing this and that is a good thing for both you and your students in the longer term.

A good syllabus is a lifesaver.

The syllabus allows you to map out clearly for yourself and your students what they can expect from a given course but it also serves as a way to let them know your expectations in terms of assignments, extra reading, grading system and the all-important class rules. If you take valuable class time to go over it in some detail, require them to read it (try a pop quiz the following class about key items/information) and them strongly suggest that they keep it handy in a folder or class file, they have a much smaller chance of saying that they ‘did not know what was expected of them’ later on in the class.

Grading should match both the syllabus and scope of the course.

A conversation class means that oral interviews and maybe presentations are a given to demonstrate oral communication skills. However, do you use picture stories? Role plays? Mini debates on a topic from the book? A conversation between a pair of students about a random topic from the book is a good basic approach, and saves the instructor from losing their voice after doing 100+ oral interviews over a short period. Remember to create or adapt a good checklist or rubric, and share it with the students beforehand if possible so that there is less confusion about what you are scoring and how it will be done.

Games and communicative activities.

If the point is to get the students speaking as much as possible, then games, information gaps, and running dictations offer good options for getting students actively involved. Keep the atmosphere fun and try to tone down the competition in favor of a whole-class learning experience. See this link for a book of activities two of my colleagues and I created a number of years ago based on our most successful conversation class ideas (https://stores.streetlib.com/en/tory-s-thorkelson/one-size-fits-all).

Pair/Group work

One of the most common complaints my students make about almost every class is that they want to speak to and get to know more of their classmates. My response is “So, why do you sit with the same people every day?”. To help avoid this problem, mix them up often using random numbers, colors, animals, favorite foods or whatever other categories you can think of. A service like https://www. random.org/ might help with this. An occasional “Friends’ day” will allow them to sit with their favorite classmates, but it should not be an everyday thing.

Democracy in action.

I let my students pick their exam or quiz days through a class vote. Presentations and interviews are also chosen using numbers drawn at random. If they are unhappy with their day/time, they need to negotiate to exchange with another pair/group and let me know before the interview, presentation, etc. This avoids most of the problems with allowing free sign-ups for things they need to do and puts some of the responsibility for being there on time and prepared on their shoulders rather than mine.

Evaluations at midterms and finals.

While my university now has student evaluations online before midterms and at the end of term, the results are mostly numerical and the students are usually not eager to make comments, good or bad, for whatever reason. Therefore, I use my own anonymous feedback form covering just three questions:

  • What you liked.
  • What you did not like.
  • What you would add/change.

These serve as a quick measure of how the students are feeling about the course twice during the term, but allow me to tweak the course in the second half to better meet their needs. It also means that I have ways to justify course changes to my current classes based on what past students have said and – when we were required to submit reports at the end of term for the administration – I had something to base them on, other than the official evaluations that came out after the reports were due anyway.

While every educator has their own tips, tricks and ideas about teaching conversation or other classes, I hope you found some of the tips above useful for making your conversation and other classes more meaningful and entertaining for everyone involved.

Learning is a journey and it only has to be boring and predictable if you make it so.

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