Teachers don’t like to prepare for conversation lessons, they think it is an easy lesson that can be improvised and that students will be happy anyway, since they had the chance to talk to a native English speaker. However, good conversation lessons not necessarily need long preparation time (or only the first time) and provide much more than a small-talk session with the teacher.
Let’s see some guidelines a teacher needs to follow in a conversation lesson:
- Choose the topic you want to talk about: You might ask 100 questions, but your aim should be to lead your students towards one lexical field/situation/grammar point. It helps to clarify the language needed and avoid pointless chatting.
- Decide what language you are going to teach: If the topic requires specific vocabulary, choose the 7-12 most important lexical items at your student’s level. These need to be pre-taught/elicited/clarified and then practiced. For example, if you want to talk about transport at pre-intermediate level (A2), you want to make sure your students know these words and expressions: get on the bus, get off the train, get in the car, get out of the taxi, take a bus, call a taxi, at the station/bus stop, etc. While the same topic at intermediate level (B1) needs the following items pre-taught: traffic jam, parking fine, cycle lane, taxi rank, highway, coach, zebra crossing, etc. At upper-intermediate level (B2) you want to clarify an even wider range of expressions: smog, air-pollution, road rage, hunk, yield, speeding, road accidents, etc. Based on these lexical items, you can invent an exercise that suits the students’ level: at pre-intermediate level it can be a simple ‘How do I get to the railway station?’ task with a map, at intermediate level you might discuss traffic conditions and problems in your students’ country or city and at upper-intermediate level you can discuss environmental problems and possible solutions for the future (you can even link this topic to future continuous and future perfect, if your students have already been introduced to these grammar points).
If you picked a situation, you might teach functional language, e.g. how to make suggestions (How/what about going to the cinema tonight? Shall we go to the cinema tonight? Why don’t we go to the cinema tonight?) or how to express agreement/disagreement (I couldn’t agree more. I totally disagree. I see your point, but …), etc. The elicited or pre-taught expressions could be put onto cards (one set per pair) and students should use them while discussing some questions preset by the teacher or chosen with the class.
Grammar can and needs to be taught in conversation lessons. In a doctor situation, the ‘doctor’ gives advice using ‘should/ought to’, in a school situation, you can discuss what a good teacher/student can(‘t)/must(n’t)/should(n’t) do. In a job interview present perfect simple and present perfect continuous tenses can be practised easily (How long have you been working as a teacher? How many levels have you taught so far?), etc.
This part needs to be presented to the students visually (written on the whiteboard, which requires very little preparation, or on a handout, that needs to be prepared once and can be recycled many times).
- Provide language input: People don’t just talk, they want to express/communicate something. So give your students a task: a role play, questions to discuss, a problem to solve, a decision to make, a text to read and comment or a track to listen to and interpret. This makes the whole conversation realistic, since these are mostly situations from real life. As for the latter points: you can always involve other skills (reading, listening, writing for homework) into your conversation class. They support your lesson, but they can never dominate the lesson, otherwise it won’t be a conversation lesson any more.
- Use different social forms: in order to give every student the possibility to speak, avoid frontal Teacher-Student interactions in the practice-phase. Put your student into pairs or small groups and make them speak contemporarily. Use some music if they seem shy at the beginning and also to get them used to speaking up when there is background noise (as it in real life very often happens).
- Monitor your students: The aims of monitoring them are two: 1) to make sure that they are doing what they were asked to do (in English), 2) to make sure that they use the target language (accurately) and collect good examples/typical mistakes in their utterances. If the students don’t use the target language (correctly), you must stop them and remind them of the structures to be used or to re-teach them if the students haven’t assimilated them at the first clarification. Then you can give them the same task and restart the practice activity.