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How to Teach English Conversation Class

How to Teach English: Tips for Teaching Private or Group Conversational EFL/ESL Classes

Be Prepared: even for a purely conversational class, at minimum bring a pen and paper (to write down mistakes) and some conversation topics. While sometimes a conversation will flow organically from 'What's new?' into something interesting, it's good to have a list of about four or five interesting questions for when there is a lull in the conversation. Having a dictionary can also be helpful.

Don't Talk Too Much: although some students are happy listening to their teacher's wonderful English, they can do this at home with a DVD. In class, keep your talk time down and aim to have the student(s) do 70% of the speaking. Ask open-ended questions instead of Yes/No questions. Use a "Tell me more" approach. In group settings, have students talk together, while you play the role of a moderator. Guide the conversation without becoming the focus of it.

Balance Your Correction: use a combination of correcting students as they speak and writing down their errors on paper. Too much correction when the student is speaking can be discouraging and disrupt the flow of conversation. If the student is making many errors, note the major mistakes on paper while listening. Review the mistakes at the end of the conversation.

Don't Be Afraid to Say You Don't Know: if you can't answer a tough grammar question, tell the students you'll look into it and get back to them. Students will appreciate your effort and honesty. You will also benefit as a teacher by learning about what you can't already explain confidently.

Review: the problem with no-textbook conversation classes is the lack of structure. Topics change each week and students quickly forget what was previously covered. To alleviate this problem, review the most important mistakes/vocab/pronunciation issues from the previous lesson at the beginning of the next class. If you're already noting down the student's mistakes in class, have him/her keep these notes and bring them next class so you can review them. After a certain number of classes, make a quiz on all past key language items. (You can also ask the student to make sentences with the new vocabulary items in the notes as homework.)

Care: students enjoy class more if they feel you are interested in what they say. English class can have therapeutic value because it gives students the opportunity to speak with someone who actually listens. While being attentive as a teacher, be supportive and understanding as a human being.

ESL conversation class notes

example of rough notes from English conversation class

Happy teaching.

– Matthew Barton / EnglishCurrent.com

Related Article: Using General Conversation to Teach Different Levels

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56 Comments on this News Lesson

  1. Robinson
    (Posted May 11, 2012 at 19:46 | Permalink | Reply)

    Hello, good tips; thank you for this article. I am an American in Brazil teaching private English.
    Greatly appreciated, cheers.

  2. dr.y
    (Posted June 7, 2012 at 22:48 | Permalink | Reply)

    thank you so much for these tips.

  3. Kelly
    (Posted June 16, 2012 at 11:50 | Permalink | Reply)

    Thanks for these tips. I am teaching a chinese girl who is sick of “study” with books and just wants conversation. This approach is perfect for me

  4. Michael
    (Posted June 19, 2012 at 22:12 | Permalink | Reply)

    Thanks for taking the trouble to share these useful tips.

  5. tony
    (Posted June 22, 2012 at 18:44 | Permalink | Reply)

    hi,
    well my name is tony and this is my e mail address umair_uddin25@hotmail.com
    i will be teaching english to some kids from this month, i know how to teach kids but the problem is that i need some materials to teach kids like some pictures or some power point presentation can you e mail me some pictures to teach kids …
    please i will be very helpful for me send me some material to teach some basic english
    my e mail is umair_uddin25@hotmail.com

    • (Posted June 23, 2012 at 12:43 | Permalink | Reply)

      tony: I recommend teaching them colors. First, download some flash cards on the Internet. (e.g. from http://www.benscoloringpages.com/coloringpages/flashcardlargecolors.php)

      Then teach the colors. Then put the flashcards around the classroom and have the students run around, touching them. (e.g. you say “Touch… PURPLE!”) and they have to do it in 5 seconds. if they don’t, they lost a point. or play Simon Says with them.

      For the end of class, download a coloring sheet like this one: http://en.islcollective.com/worksheets/worksheet_page?id=2666 . Even if they can’t read, you read them the colors and the students listen and color the sheet accordingly.
      If colors are too easy, you can do a similar class with shapes, or food

  6. Rasool
    (Posted July 5, 2012 at 13:00 | Permalink | Reply)

    Thank you SO very much ,,,
    I am already applying some of these TIPs in my classes, however I feel your article was rich enough to pull the trigger in my mind for applying some ECLECTIC strategies.

    Tabriz – Azerbaijan / Iran

  7. My name is miss akiacha from cameroon
    (Posted August 8, 2012 at 03:54 | Permalink | Reply)

    I am finding difficult problem to teach the secondary level students wethout them taking down not of conversation. so pls am asking and beging you to pls tell me how i can i manage my class of conversation with the studets weout them writing even the difficuit vob. help me out if only talking for one hr can help them understand. and they are very slow and weak in speaking.

  8. (Posted August 8, 2012 at 06:24 | Permalink | Reply)

    akaicha: have you tried music? try to get them to sing a song. such as “Hello, Goodbye” by the Beatles or “Sing” by the Carpenters

    If you want to get them speaking in class, use games. you can find some here: http://www.eslcafe.com/idea/index.cgi?Games

    Good luck,
    MB

  9. Susan
    (Posted October 1, 2012 at 00:00 | Permalink | Reply)

    Have enjoyed your website! And, yes, I made a donation… which I encourage others to do also!!

    An ideal way to review vocabulary etc, as mentioned above, would be to use the “Vocabulary Review Board Game for EFL/ESL Class” you devised. A great way to review “disconnected” items from several lessons.

    Thank you for all your efforts

  10. (Posted October 1, 2012 at 18:01 | Permalink | Reply)

    Dear Susan,
    Thank you very much for your generous donation! It has already been credited to my hosting account. I’m glad to hear that you find the site useful. Thanks to your support, I’ll continue to try to post new ideas on the site in the future.

    Happy teaching from Prague!
    Matthew Barton

  11. Anna
    (Posted October 2, 2012 at 15:36 | Permalink | Reply)

    Thank you for the tips…am beginning English conversation lessons to Italians next week!!!!

    • (Posted October 2, 2012 at 17:15 | Permalink | Reply)

      it shouldn’t be hard to get Italians talking =)

    • Meg
      (Posted March 13, 2014 at 00:48 | Permalink | Reply)

      I am presently teaching English conversation in China (at the University level) and am looking into other teaching opportunities around the world.  Does anybody have any suggestions for me? 

      • Anonymous
        (Posted April 7, 2015 at 05:21 | Permalink | Reply)

        Anyone interested to teach Chinese and English to a Kindergarden in Namibia

  12. Adriano
    (Posted November 17, 2012 at 01:25 | Permalink | Reply)

    Thanks for these tips. They are quite useful.
    I am a brazilian guy, teaching English in Barcelona.

  13. Tenzin gyalpo
    (Posted November 23, 2012 at 06:41 | Permalink | Reply)

    Hello I am tenzin I am starting to teach my daughter how to learn a good English speaking perfectly can u please help me to teach them ….

    • (Posted November 23, 2012 at 09:20 | Permalink | Reply)

      Hello. Teach her vocabulary using picture cards, the alphabet, and phonics. Good luck.

  14. Luna
    (Posted November 25, 2012 at 19:21 | Permalink | Reply)

    Hello Matthew. I think you are really great teacher and thank you so much for sharing the tips. Btw , I want to ask your opinion. I am not a native speaker of English. I will teach conversation to my private student soon. He is from korea and he is an adult. What is the best way to teach him? I have talked to him a bit. He understand English well. Do I need to teach him from the very beginning topic like greeting and introducting himself? Thanks in advance.

    • (Posted November 25, 2012 at 20:32 | Permalink | Reply)

      Hello Luna. Yes, you should still do introductions. You need to get to know each other. If it’s a conversation class, here are some ideas: Have him introduce himself. Then get him to ask you questions instead of just introducing yourself. Talk about his expectations for class. Ask him what topics he’s interested in, how he feels about textbooks, what his weaknesses are, etc. Develop a plan. Then, maybe do a role-play with him. Have him imagine that he got your phone number from a friend who recommended you as a teacher. Have him pretend to call you and ask about your experience, pricing, availability, etc. Also maybe bring 1-2 topics in case there’s more time. At the end, review his mistakes and maybe give him some homework (e.g. make sentences with new vocabulary). Those are just some ideas.

  15. Dan
    (Posted January 8, 2013 at 04:09 | Permalink | Reply)

    Hi,

    I am teaching basic conversation classes at a Thai high school. I am having problems getting my students to speak in class. The classrooms are very cramped, and have 50 students in each class. I feel my lessons are unproductive. Do you have any Ideas for teaching conversation to large classes?

    Many Thanks
    Dan

    • (Posted January 8, 2013 at 21:16 | Permalink | Reply)

      Hey. Wow, tough environment to teach in (50 students). I’d focus on pair work and other ‘interview’-like activities that make the students communicate with each other. Examples: “Find someone who…” activity (where students find someone who has done one of the items on the sheet, e.g. been to France), Liar game (http://www.englishcurrent.com/warm-ups/liars-game-activity-english/), etc. I’m not sure what kind of control you have of your curriculum, but if you can, get them doing large role-plays, e.g. half the class are salespeople or travel agents, and the other half are customers (e.g. http://www.englishcurrent.com/esl-materials-2/classroom-esl-activity-shopping-school/).

      Singing (real) songs can also be good for high school kids and doesn’t become less effective if the class size is large. Good luck.

  16. andy
    (Posted February 5, 2013 at 19:31 | Permalink | Reply)

    not bad stuff mate

  17. Leif
    (Posted March 18, 2013 at 04:28 | Permalink | Reply)

    Hi, Matthew. I’m Leif and I am going to teach a group of people who do not know English Language at all. Well, may I have some opinions on how to start the lesson and how to make the lesson more interesting so that the students may enjoy while learning. Please kindly contact me via Email leafchin89@gmail.com

    thank you so much..

    • (Posted March 19, 2013 at 09:47 | Permalink | Reply)

      Leif: if they can’t communicate at all, then I suggest you use a textbook. Once they have some mastery of English grammar and a decent vocabulary, they can move on to open conversation. I would suggest starting by role-playing a basic greeting between two people, e.g. ‘How are you/What’s your name/Where are you from?/Nice to meet you’ and then have them practice it. Then move onto a textbook. Good luck.

  18. mahmud
    (Posted April 3, 2013 at 20:00 | Permalink | Reply)

    Hi, this is the first time I have been given an opportunity to teach spoken English to some students who are not really students but employee of an office. they are little educated too.I am confused where to begin. Could you help?

  19. Dalton
    (Posted June 19, 2013 at 10:38 | Permalink | Reply)

    Thank you very much for these tips. I have just gone through them and I am certain they will help me a lot.I am from Africa, but I’m currently teaching in Thailand.

  20. Roya Ataee
    (Posted August 7, 2013 at 23:02 | Permalink | Reply)

    I am an English teacher in Iran who teaches group classes. I have so many introverted students who keep quiet during the speaking pair works. I use so many promps but they dont really work! please help me to overcome this problem,
    cheers,
    Roya Ataee!

  21. Roya Ataee
    (Posted August 7, 2013 at 23:14 | Permalink | Reply)

    I am a freshman teacher who seriously needs help in this respect!I have been teaching for 3 years and still need to know about strategies and maybe games needed to teach young aduld and adult students! I am teaching Top Notch series now and I found them very Useful. I would like you to send me some useful strategies to enhance the speaking skill of my poor students in Top notch 2. I will appreciate your effrots in advance! here’s my e-mail address: S.azure521@yahoo.com
    Roya Ataee from Qazvin, Iran…

    • (Posted August 20, 2013 at 17:31 | Permalink | Reply)

      Sorry, I do not have any experience with that book. To enhance speaking, maybe you could add a ‘warmup’ to the beginning of each class, in which students must interview a partner and get new information about their weekend and ask questions using recently covered grammar points, etc. Then get a few students to share their partners’ answers with the class.

  22. Karla
    (Posted January 26, 2014 at 08:19 | Permalink | Reply)

    Thank you so much for the tips on posted. They ahve been a great help! I am deffietly saving your page under my favs. 

  23. uche
    (Posted February 6, 2014 at 10:04 | Permalink | Reply)

    Thank you so much for the tips . Im a Nigerian and I live in Barcelona. Have been having conversation classes with more advanced English learners and that wasnt any problem but I ran into one when I was to handle the less advanced. This sight has really given me the needed tips. Im very grateful and believe it will help me as well as my students it .Thanks for sharing your wonderful ideas.

  24. maryam
    (Posted February 10, 2014 at 11:38 | Permalink | Reply)

    thank u please help me to improve my reading skill.

  25. Rati
    (Posted August 4, 2014 at 12:18 | Permalink | Reply)

    hi

    i'm an indian medical student studying in ukraine…and i would start teaching a group of students english c0nversation as a part time job….i would like to know how should i start and how should i go about it??? what should be my plan of teaching and stuff like that..

    thank you

  26. Ouch
    (Posted November 8, 2014 at 12:31 | Permalink | Reply)

    Hello,
    At our intitute we have conversation clubs three times a week, but different students would come everytime (it’s not a formal grous as itself, but an open club for everyone to come). Since you’d never have the same students, you cannot ask them to bring their mistakes for the next session or so, then… could you give us an idea of an effective error correction technique without being too discouraging?
    Thanks for the help.

    • (Posted December 22, 2014 at 14:19 | Permalink | Reply)

      The group changes completely every week? If only a few members change, it’s still useful to elicit the new vocab/review mistakes at the beginning of class. They can learn even though they weren’t there.

      For error correction in class, try to have a balance between correcting them as they speak and after their conversation. Usually I write down errors during class and then put them on the board before class ends. Then we work together to correct them. Of course, you don’t need to identify which student made the error(s).

  27. Steve Hall
    (Posted December 21, 2014 at 21:26 | Permalink | Reply)

    I have just come across this and i feel really put at ease with your comments for English Conversation. I have been struggling, due to the children having mixed knowledge of English language.

    Thank you

    • (Posted December 22, 2014 at 14:15 | Permalink | Reply)

      That’s good to hear. But if you’re teaching children (e.g. people under 13), you might need more of a real lesson plan (instead of just a few conversation topics) to cover the class, depending how long it is.

  28. joy
    (Posted December 23, 2014 at 02:21 | Permalink | Reply)

    The topic is really interesting. I am from Nigeria based in Libya. Teaching some kids English language .could you please tell me how to teach them conversation. One is in grade two and the other grade three. My email address is joy4bright@yahoo.com. hope to hear from you soon. Thanks

    • (Posted December 27, 2014 at 23:29 | Permalink | Reply)

      When you teach young children, they need to learn vocabulary and then grammar before they can have a conversation class. If they are absolute beginners, try using a picture dictionary and teach them some basics (present simple, pronouns, etc).

  29. Sophearak yin
    (Posted January 12, 2015 at 21:34 | Permalink | Reply)

    I think that the topic is good for teacher. I’m from Cambodia. Now I’m teaching English language at Apex International school one more manager at AIS. how to teach children or adult well? if our student they was young. we should teach grammar or not teach. one more grammar and vocabulary.. which one more important?

    • (Posted January 12, 2015 at 23:01 | Permalink | Reply)

      If your students cannot read well, then it will be difficult to teach them grammar. Usually teachers for young children focus on vocabulary building activities (flashcards, picture dictionaries), pronunciation/stress/rhythm (songs, chants), set expressions (“Nice to meet you”) and basic grammar patterns (“It’s a cat. It’s not a dog.”)

  30. Rauf ali
    (Posted January 28, 2015 at 04:32 | Permalink | Reply)

    Thanks for this …. i m a teacher of institute of english….i want to increase my exprnce too much…..

  31. tiva
    (Posted February 13, 2015 at 09:09 | Permalink | Reply)

    hello… thank you for your tips… it helps me a lot,, I’m an English trainer in Indonesia.. I recently teach second grade of elementary school and sometimes find it difficult to keep up with them.. they’re so hyperactive that they cannot sit for awhile.. they will shout and run around the class and it makes me difficult to get them together and deliver the material… do you have any suggestion for me?? what kind of method or activity should be applied in my class??
    thank you in advance

    • (Posted February 21, 2015 at 10:26 | Permalink | Reply)

      Songs are great for young children. Try “London Bridges.” They’ll love it. “Bingo” is also a good song.

      For low levels, I focus on vocabulary building and short expressions. I usually print and laminate flashcards related to a theme (e.g. colors, food, seasons), and then have them play games with the flashcards, such as “Simon Says”. You can lay the cards out on the floor (if you have space), and then say “Simon says goto APPLE”. They should then go to the apple flashcard. But if you don’t say “Simon says”, they shouldn’t do it. This probably wouldn’t work if you have more than 20 students in your class.

  32. rowida
    (Posted February 28, 2015 at 06:43 | Permalink | Reply)

    It is Helpful. Thank u so much

  33. Anonymous
    (Posted March 11, 2015 at 01:21 | Permalink | Reply)

    Hello my name is Zubair and I am from Afghanistan. The tips how to teach are very useful, so kindly thanks for sharing! Recently, I have started teaching basic English hence I need to know some more strategies how to teach? I will be very grateful if you send information to my Email=
    Many thanks

    • (Posted March 11, 2015 at 12:02 | Permalink | Reply)

      What in particular do you want to know? Please explain.

  34. Anonymous
    (Posted March 12, 2015 at 05:08 | Permalink | Reply)

    I am a school teacher who teaches English language and literature, but I have been asked to tutor a young mother who want to learn English. She speaks only a little bit of English so I am not sure where to even start with her. I have a list of various conversational topics (thanks to you!) but I am not sure how to keep it interesting. I don’t want to just sit and ask questions from a list for the whole hour, every time. Learning conversation is the most important for her. Do you have any tips or advice? Thanks!

    • (Posted March 12, 2015 at 11:06 | Permalink | Reply)

      I suggest using a textbook for low-level students. She’ll need one so she can learn grammar/structure. Also, you can assign homework from the textbook. You could begin your class with 10-20 minutes of conversation/review, and then move on to the textbook and practice new verb tenses and vocabulary. Then assign reading + writing tasks as homework.

  35. omid
    (Posted March 27, 2015 at 07:36 | Permalink | Reply)

    Thanks for your helpings
    I’m a teacher in Turkey and I have a big problem with involved my students to speak english . You know thier writing,listening and vocabulary abilities are very diffrent with their speaking ability . I don’t know what can I do ? They scared of speak english , when I try to make them speak they will close the topic just with “I do’t know” or “I don’t remember” or “I don’t have any…” . Or in conversation clubs that will take 2 hours and is just for speaking I don’t know how can I be useful for them ? Do you have any suggestion

    • (Posted March 27, 2015 at 15:18 | Permalink | Reply)

      Hmm. Are they not getting involved because of anxiety or boredom? If the latter, then try to make class more interesting. Give them topics they already have an opinion on (or ones that they feel some passion about). Otherwise, students might be more talkative if you have them work together, e.g. survey each other, instead of talking with you. Also, I find that debating is a good way to get students to talk (assuming the topic is relevant to them). A good topic could be “Should teachers give students homework?” You could also try games (Find someone who, murder mysteries). Boys are usually motivated if they can ‘win’ something =)

      Good luck. If you need more help, search for “speaking reticence esl” on Google. You’ll find more information.
      MB

  36. Kama
    (Posted April 8, 2015 at 08:27 | Permalink | Reply)

    great and very useful. I will use some of them!!!! thanks

  37. asido
    (Posted April 20, 2015 at 20:24 | Permalink | Reply)

    Thank you for the ideas given. hopefully, you may add the syllabus for conversation so that it would support me/us then. Happy teaching

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