Using General Conversation to Teach Different English Levels (ESL)

How to Teach Different ESL Levels with a General Conversation Approach

Having a lesson of general conversation can be great for the student and teacher. For the student, it allows him or her to practice general communication. For the teacher, such a class requires little preparation. The general conversation approach, however, should be implemented differently for students of different levels.

Here is some advice about teaching general conversation to each English level:

A1 (Beginner)

Students lack the vocabulary and grammatical understanding to express themselves well. Teaching general conversation might allow them to learn some set expressions (e.g. “It's nice to meet you.”), but without a grammatical foundation, such an approach can be fairly ineffective for long-term language improvement. Students benefit from using a textbook and possibly even having a teacher who can speak their native language.

A2 (Pre-Intermediate)

At this level, students should learn to describe their routines and people, make requests and suggestions, give advice, make invitations, etc. General conversation can be helpful practice for this. Develop a routine at the beginning of class of discussing past events, future plans, and general news (also don't forget to review the key items from the previous class).

After 10-15 minutes or so, move on to a textbook. Students still need to master several basic language items (e.g. adverbs of frequency, superlatives). A well-structured textbook is needed for this.

B1 (Intermediate) & B2 (Upper-Intermediate) & C1 (Advanced)

Students at these levels should feel that they have somewhat of a grasp on English grammar and therefore would benefit from conversational practice. This is true.

A conversational approach is beneficial at these levels; however, the teacher needs to continually adjust the complexity of the topics and the conversation to continually provide new vocabulary and communicative tasks to the student.

Understanding the effectiveness of your lessons is the key to doing this.

Understanding Lesson Effectiveness

Determining how effective your classes are for the student depends on his/her goals. Let us assume the student wants the typical things: speaking practice, error correction, the introduction of new vocabulary and expressions, and probably to be somewhat entertained.

I take notes in my class while the student speaks. These notes mainly contain the student's errors and new vocabulary and expressions I introduce. After a one-hour conversation class, I can have one, two, or possibly three pages of notes.

One page (in length): The student does not make errors, or more likely, the conversation wasn't challenging enough to take the student out of his comfort zone. The next class, I'll be sure to introduce some more difficult topics or bring some material (e.g. an article or conversational lesson plan) specific to the student's level and interests that we can use to enrich the conversation.

Two pages: I was able to identify (and later explain) many of the student's errors. I also introduced some new expressions that I can review next class and possibly get the student to make sentences with for homework. Generally speaking, this suggests to me that the class was beneficial for the student.

Three pages (or more): This can mean a few things:

  • The student hasn't spoken English in a while, so he stumbles and makes many basic mistakes. This often happens when I have a new student. I'll have 4 pages of notes after a 1.5-hour class. Generally, however, as the student remembers how to use grammar and fixes his basic mistakes, I'll be down to about two pages after a few weeks. Having a lot of notes is fine for the first few classes.
  • I'm overloading the student with too much error correction or vocabulary introduction. Sometimes I'm too keen to teach everything and I find myself teaching a difficult expression (such as “the plan was hatched”) to a B1 level student who doesn't really need to learn it yet.
  • The topic or material used in the lesson was completely new to the student. For example, the student had never discussed artificial intelligence or corporate whistle-blowing. So we covered a lot of new vocabulary, hence the three pages. This can be a great thing, as long the topics aren't too obscure and the vocabulary will benefit the student in the long run.

Therefore, to make the general conversation approach effective, it should be challenging enough to take the student out of his comfort zone and into uncharted waters without overwhelming him (or her).  The difficulty of topics should evolve with the student.

And it should be noted that even if you are very creative in coming up with new topics, a purely conversational class, even when challenging, can have other limitations, such as...

  • You! Your lexicon is limited. You say “get along with sb” so your student never learns the British expression “get on with sb.”
  • Some words just never come up in a regular conversation. Without an article, I would never teach the word “conversely” because I always use the informal “on the other hand.”

These can be good reasons for using introducing material in class, particularly when you've had a student for a long time and he/she is quite familiar with your communication style, lexicon, and opinions on various topics.

In conclusion, with the exception of beginner students, the general conversation approach is useful for each level. However, the conversation topics must be adjusted to each level and become less general and more specific to satisfy the needs of the student as he or she advances to higher levels. Also, printed materials can be a great resource for enriching the class with language and ideas that you might not introduce to your student otherwise.

One Exception: The False Student

There are of course people who just want to meet and `chat' while they have coffee. They may be rich, lonely, or just lack ambition. For these students, I've always just made sure they were entertained and happy. If the student only wants general chitchat and not to have a more effective class, then there's no problem with that. In these situations, however, I usually feel more like a conversationalist (or therapist even) than a language teacher.

I hope that you've found this useful. All the best in your classes!

- Matthew Barton of intermediateupper-intermediate, & advanced lesson plans for conversation class

Related Article:  How to Teach English Conversation Class

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5 comments on “Using General Conversation to Teach Different English Levels (ESL)

  1. Tess Rodriguez (Posted on 6-27-2015 at 20:51) Reply

    Excellent article! Lots of PRACTICAL advise and relevant to the new style of teaching English.

  2. Mily Ghosh (Posted on 7-4-2015 at 07:51) Reply

    I found lots of clues to teach my students Spoken English. Thanks. Thanks you so much.

  3. Brittany (Posted on 4-19-2016 at 10:05) Reply

    You said it! I will be following your advice Matthew. Thank you!

  4. doreen (Posted on 10-26-2016 at 14:40) Reply

    wonderful article!

  5. Pilar (Posted on 11-11-2016 at 20:55) Reply

    Thanks a lot for passing your knowledge to all of us starting in this field.

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