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How to Teach Conversation Techniques in ESL

by Maria Magher, studioD

Many English as a Second Language learners can read and write well before they can speak confidently. Teaching conversational skills can improve confidence as they learn how to communicate in an informal setting using basic vocabulary and sentence structures. Students can then build on those conversational skills to learn more formal or advanced vocabulary and sentence structures. Group work and role playing are critical to teaching conversational skills, as they give students an opportunity to practice what they have learned.

Teach a content lesson before students are given the chance to practice. Focus on key vocabulary in the lesson, or review simple grammar rules, such as verb tenses or subject-verb agreement. The information can be used in practice conversation or can reinforce previous concepts that were learned in class.

Separate students into pairs or small groups. Students are more productive when they work in pair or small groups since they feel less self-conscious about their skills and they have more opportunities to speak, says Dr. Stacia Levy of "Busy Teacher."

Set parameters for the conversation. Discussions can focus on agreement or disagreement over a defined issue, sharing ideas about current events or brainstorming solutions to an issue, according to "The Internet TESL Journal." Providing goals for a conversation can help students know what vocabulary or grammar skills to practice and can ensure they stay productive.

Assign role-playing activities. For example, one student can be a lost tourist, and the other can be the police officer providing directions. Students can role play an employer and job applicant, a banker and customer, two guests at a party, or a mother and child. By assigning roles to your students, they can practice specific vocabulary or phrases in realistic situations.

Practice simulations. When students feel more confident speaking in front of the class, a simulation can help them practice their skills in much the same way as role playing. Simulations include more elaborate settings, such as a TV host or a singer, and they can include props. They are similar to mini-plays, and students can take turns in lead and supporting "roles."

Ask students to be reporters or to interview one another. Students who act as the reporter or interviewer use their conversational skills to get information, and students who act as the subjects use their skills to make up answers to the questions. Students can pretend to be famous people or historical figures, or they can answer questions about themselves, as if they are the celebrities themselves.

Allow students to play games together. Even informal games like cards or board games can give students the chance to talk together. Make it a rule that students have to speak in English, and let them practice their English to play the game or to enjoy casual conversation while they are playing.


  • Don't stress correctness during conversational activities. Students should be encouraged to speak and to develop confidence. Correction of vocabulary and grammar can take place during formal lesson plans.

About the Author

Maria Magher has been working as a professional writer since 2001. She has worked as an ESL teacher, a freshman composition teacher and an education reporter, writing for regional newspapers and online publications. She has written about parenting for Pampers and other websites. She has a Master's degree in English and creative writing.

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