How to get students talking—with minimal input
Ever held a conversation class where students expected you to do the talking? Or tried to get conversation moving past one or two dominant speakers? Or worse yet, felt helpless as your entire class sat, silently, while the clock slowly ticked? As teachers, how can we remove ourselves from the conversation, ensure that everyone speaks and that they do so for an hour or more? Here is a method to employ with higher level students that requires minimum teacher preparation. The idea? To have students research interesting, strange, or obscure topics then lead conversation in small groups—without notes.
Introduce the idea to students
Remind students that most of the speaking they do are conversations not presentations. For younger students, this could be meeting friends for coffee. For college-age or working adults, the situation becomes work lunches or mixers at an event. Tell your students they will not be sitting in a big circle, nor presenting in front of their peers. They’ll be in small groups, and all groups will be talking at the same time.
Prepare the topics
For every unit taught, come up with three or four loosely related topics. The first time you prepare this activity, keep topics logical and connected to the students. Then, with practice, allow topics to become less general, more obscure, and even a touch controversial.
For example, for college-aged students doing a unit on psychology, I selected:
Tony LaMadrid (UCLA Schizophrenia Medication Experiment)
Harry Harlow and the Pit (or Well) of Despair
The Little Albert Experiment.
For a unit on family with adult learners, the topics were:
The Mitford sisters
Fred Phelps and the Phelps family
The Duggar family
Number each topic and distribute them, randomly, to students. Give the students three or four days to research their topic in English, reminding them that they won’t be able to bring in notes or devices on the day. (If students panic at this, ask if they have to check their notes when speaking with new people at a business conference or friends at lunch. They’ll usually say no.)
Each student will be in charge of their 20-minute small group discussion on the day. Their task? To give a brief and general description of their topic (around five minutes), then take and/or ask questions to engage the other students in conversation.
(Tip: Make this easier by pre-teaching open-ended questions and using “wh-“ questions over yes/no questions.)
Students should let the conversation flow naturally. In the beginning these conversations may seem very stilted, however, after few weeks students look forward to them and really enjoy it when they get interesting topics.
Setting up the activity
Ask students with topic one to come to the front of class. Split the class into groups, ensuring there is only one “topic one” student in each. Put a timer on for 20 minutes. At this point, the other speakers can not bring up their topics. Students will find this hard at first, but it forces them to listen and pay attention to the original speaker.
(Tip to engage students: give each student three elastic bands. Each time they speak, they can put a band on the table. At the end of 20 minutes group with all their bands on the table get full marks.)
When the timer goes off, everyone gets up and moves to the front of the class.
Repeat the process for topic two, creating new groups each time. This helps keep the conversations fresh. Put the timer on again for another 20 minutes. Now, they can only talk about topic two.
Notes for teachers
Move from group to group to help with questions or to get a conversation moving if there is trouble. Listen also for common grammar mistakes or pronunciation problems. Don’t interrupt the conversation, but take notes for future lessons or for the end of class.
Give thought as to which students are put in each group. Consider keeping quieter students together to forces them to speak more. Without drawing attention to it, separate friends as well as students with the same mother tongue.
If you wish to grade this activity, a good rule of thumb is 50% for leading, and 50% for their participation.
If done in this manner, four topics of 20 minutes each, students will be engaged in listening and speaking for 80 minutes. Moreover, this will be conversational English, not presentational. Even better, in preparation, they will have researched and read in English as well!