Published 25th April 2017

Teaching English as a Foreign Language involves many different aspects: teaching vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, listening and speaking. For most of us, we have lessons dedicated to each of these elements and then lessons which provide a combination of all of these.

One popular example of this is conversation classes. These are lessons in which students spend the time discussing a specific topic with their classmates and the teacher. These lessons are usually very popular with students – because they are basically having a conversation with their friends!

And while conversation classes can be a lot of fun, the big question remains: are they really effective in teaching the language?

Well, the truth is they can go either way.

Conversation classes which are simply opportunities for students to talk to each other without any or much involvement or input from the teacher are useful in building confidence and practising effective communication techniques, but that’s probably about it. This is useful for consolidation work and for building fluency, but if unstructured might not achieve the aims you hoped for.

In order for such a class to be useful, there needs to be input, clarification and error correction. In other words, the class needs to incorporate vocabulary building or grammar practice in some way. Make sure you have a list of vocabulary items related to the topic which will be new to the students, so that there can be some form of vocabulary building. Present these items at the beginning of the lesson or introduce them during the lesson so that the students can practise using them in their conversations. At the same time you could brainstorm language already familiar with the students so that there is an element of revision as well.

Then, the teacher needs to be available to help with communication. While the students should have free reign to say what they want to say, the teacher should be around should they need help in formulating the content of their ideas or opinions. This needs to be done quietly and discreetly – the students must know you are happy to answer questions but you should try not interrupt the flow of the conversation too much.

Finally, the students need to know that their language use is correct. The teacher should make use of error correction techniques during the conversation, as well as take some time to focus on general errors at the end of the lesson. Though you may feel this is intimidating or invasive, you will find that students enjoy error correction because it provides them the opportunity to notice their progress.

If these elements are not present, the lesson would simply replicate any conversation your students have outside the classroom with other learners.  On the other hand, if a conversation lesson is well-planned and prepared and the lesson is scaffolded throughout, there is no reason why a conversation lesson shouldn’t be an enjoyable, productive lesson.