Keeping it going in “conversation” class

Over the years, I have worked with many types of language learners, from children to grandparents, from beginners to advanced learners from all parts of the world.  If I have learned anything from teaching, it is that students–paying or not–always always want feedback on their progress or level, be it from formal tests to informal evaluations.

Since I started working with future teachers from the U.S. and abroad, I have noticed a slight misunderstanding between teachers, students and institutions on what exactly constitutes a conversation class and for what (and who) it should serve.  Classes labeled “Conversation”, “Native Speaker” etc run the gamut of syllabied curricula with books and digital media with complicated documentation systems to lounging around  in a smoky bar and flirting in English.

First of all, any, ANY context in which English learners are paying, or at least taking precious time to advance in their English, involves learners wanting to advance in their English.  Just because a class is called “Conversation” does not necessarily mean that this is just laid back, prep-free, coffee-talk.  Depending on the student, they either want to be corrected, re-directed, or have some way to know their output is appropriate, whether it’s grammatical, phonological, lexical, and/or cultural, and it is your job to keep the focus on said objective and provide that feedback.

Since objectives and feedback are an integral part of conversation class as well, some minimal prep will obviously be involved as well.  It may be looking for ideas to bring out said grammatical, phonological, lexical and/or cultural content in an appropriate way, and many times said prep mostly happens in your head (usually at the most inconvenient times to jot anything down, such as in the shower or washing the dishes).  Specific types of questions to ask, or maybe a song lyric or a blog you read will pop into your mind, or maybe just a diagram or table (i.e. irregular past tense verbs) to bring as a “cheat sheet” to aid in the conversation.  Simply thinking of yourself as a possible learning tool may inspire you for new ideas.

Now conversation might be sounding more like class to you, and more prep work than you may have budgeted for when quoting the price (if it was your price).  But this “prep” (which is minimal compared to, say, a college writing course) doesn’t have to be time burdening, and in the end, helps you as much as your students remain focused on the session’s “curricular” goals.

Keeping it focused communicates to the student(s) that you are dedicated and aware of his/her/their needs, and worthwhile tools not only help maintain that focus but keep the objective transparent as well.  That transparency of objective will be also be seen by all, hopefully several times before the session is over.

Your ideas and tools can also be key to keeping the conversation going.  After all, in real life, a normal topic usually only lasts, what, about 10-15 lines?  About two minutes?  If there’s a real compatibility, the topics blend and turn naturally and a rhythm continues.  But that usually happens between like-minded (and languaged) friends or possibly family.  But even between those individuals there are lulls–those lulls are simply more comfortable.

I like pictures.  Small pictures, big pictures, pictures of people, things, specific activities, ambiguous activities or multiple activities.  I do many things with pictures.  Pictures can drive content (adventures, fashion, etc), new vocabulary (outdoor sports, clothing articles, etc), almost any verb tense, q/a, and structure (Where [aux] _____ [participle], etc.).  An added benefit of pictures is they can be found in any culture; they transcend the borders of language.

I also like either a small whiteboard or transparency paper to use for questions and answers about grammar, spelling, word order, and especially for students to work things out or draw pictures.  Questions always, always arise about “what is this thing?” and having a quick, easy, and erasable way to make a temporary mess has been a time-saver, budget-friendly way to save a tree, while meeting the needs of your more visual, visceral and artistic-minded learners.

The erasable material is also helpful for when mistakes arises.  Along the lines that it is never a good idea to “keep incorrect English around”, the temporary writing resource allows the student to ask if something is written this way, or the facilitator may write down what s/he hears students say, then provide the working tableau to correct it in that simpler, visual form.

Especially for visceral learners, a few small objects are also useful.  Legos and play-doh can form new letters or concepts, lending to a form of teacher/student-produced art that can also be shared and discussed.  A song on your iPod or phone, even pictures of friends or family on your phone… it doesn’t need to be high tech, expensive or over-researched.  A text with errors (NOT hard to find on message boards!) can provide a mini-lesson on spelling or grammar, and fodder for conversation as well.  (What would you do and where would you go with something like “i been thinking that obama mite not like oil”?)

Planning aspects such as specific questions to steer the conversation, which errors will you have the student fix and which will you gloss over (punctuation?  m-i-g-h-t? the present perfect progressive??)  You might segway into different sources of oil, different contraptions associated with it, Lady Obama’s fashions, or whatever line you think your learners will be most interested in.

Remember that you are the driver of this conversation hour, and your followers will be looking at you to take over that steering wheel, even if they are the alpha conversers.  You need to be able to take that wheel at the first lull or hiccup in the conversation to keep it going.  Option Bs and Cs such as extra pictures, questions, topics or hands-on items can aid big time.

I would NEVER recommend bringing a laptop, or worse, convening your session in front of a desktop.  It’s more time consuming and distracting than you realize, and you will spend precious talk time looking things up and basically playing on the computer instead of observing for learner errors to fix, which should be what drives most of your planning and objective-setting for your conversation hours.

However, if you and/or your students have internet access on their phones or in the class setting, one link to a photo, song or very short TED Talks video can likewise be taken down a variety of conversational paths.

Obviously, the idea behind a successful conversation hour is to keep the conversation moving in a variety of directions with several types of contextual materials that are more or less custom-fit for your type of learner(s). Wow! But don’t let the words “planning” or “class” overwhelm you.  Have fun with it.  Teaching English should be just as enjoyable for you as for the student, especially something as laid-back as a conversation class.

If you use your imagination and let your students’ needs be your muse, it will be appreciated, and more importantly help your credibility as their professional, and will aid in giving all their money’s (or minutes’) worth… all in the name of having fun with English.

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