Strategies for teaching English conversation – teaching tips and ideas

This article is taken from the EBC TEFL course Madrid syllabus.

This article, strategies for teaching English conversation, is part of EBC’s strategies for teaching English series.

This article concentrates on a problem that is fairly common among English language learners, a fear of speaking a foreign language.

Help! – My students don’t want to speak English

Strategies for teaching English conversation – THE PROBLEM

It is a fairly common that at least one person in your class does not want to speak English at all or is very loathe to speak it.

Strategies for teaching English conversation – COMMON REASONS

  • The student’s character.
  • Other students may dominate and/or intimidate.
  • Students are not used to talking freely for reasons of culture and background.
  • Students are afraid of making mistakes and therefore losing face in front of the class.
  • Students have been taught from an early age to always listen to the teacher rather than interact with the teacher.

A problem that sometimes happens when teaching company classes is the boss/employee problem. If the employee has a better level of English than the boss does, the employee may not want to speak much out of fear of embarrassing the boss.

Strategies for teaching English conversation – SOLUTIONS

NEVER try to bully or blackmail quiet students into talking. If you do, you’ll just make things worse. The student will not respond positively and the rest of the class may react negatively towards you as well.

The following strategies for teaching English conversation do work. Their use depends on the general character and disposition of your class. Feel free to experiment with these strategies for teaching English conversation until you find the ones that work best.

All of these strategies for teaching English conversation are about neutralising fear. They are designed to provide a level of comfort that encourages students to start talking or talk more freely. These strategies for teaching English conversation are also designed to give everyone a fair chance at speaking in a controlled manner. This effectively removes the domination and/or intimidation problem mentioned in the second bullet point.

When you use any of these strategies for teaching English conversation ALWAYS make sure that: you have properly prepared all the material you will use, it is appropriate for the class skill level and that you introduce, present and explain what is going to be done and what is expected.

Use pair-work

  • Pair work helps to get quiet students talking.
  • Reluctant students are under less pressure as they are not in the spotlight.
  • Guide them so that they can speak in a controlled way at first. For example: give them a short, simple sentence and then ask them to read it back.
  • Let students write down what they are going to say before they say it. This removes the risk element that a spontaneous response requires.
  • Once these basic skills are acquired you can start asking them simple questions about what they have read. Psychologically they are more likely to respond.

Acting things out and reading aloud

  • Acting out scripted dialogues encourages quiet students.
  • You must work with the students like a drama teacher or acting coach.
  • Explain pronunciation, intonation, emphasis and emotion before you start.
  • If you give effective guidance and get student co-operation, the result will sound good. This means that your students will get a great deal of satisfaction and increase their confidence.

Role-play

  • Quiet students, in general, speak more freely when they are playing a role.
  • They do not have to be themselves.
  • Role-play allows the students to take on a new identity and behave in uncharacteristic ways.
  • Role-play enables the students to connect to a different personality and therefore reduce personal risk.

Use recordings

  • If it’s possible, ask your students to record what they would like to say at home. This gives them the privacy they may need to record and re-record with fear until they are happy with the result.
  • Listen to the recordings they bring to class and TACTFULLY point out any inaccuracies you hear.
  • Each student is given the chance to listen, get feedback from you and repeat.
  • This is a positive, iterative process that encourages self-assessment and motivation.
  • IMPORTANT: Some students may feel inhibited about this. You’ll have to persuade your students to accept the task prior to asking them to do it.

Strategies for teaching English conversation – CONCLUSION

All of these strategies for teaching English conversation are about confidence building. Never forget that speaking has two basic formats:

  • Reading aloud
  • Spontaneous conversation

Reading aloud is a mechanical process. Someone takes information in through their eyes, their brain interprets what they see and their speaking mechanism (tongue, lips, larynx, etc.) creates the sounds to say the words. There is no thinking required regarding what to say because it is written down. Reading aloud is excellent practice because it trains the speaking mechanism to say things in English. It gives you the opportunity to help them with their pronunciation as well.

Spontaneous conversation is a complex process. It is not complex because of the thinking process as, regardless of what the students’ native language is, they can think. The problem is getting them to think, interpret and spontaneously create spoken responses in English. An additional problem is the conversation itself. By definition a conversation is an event held with 2 or more people so listening comes into play as well. Conversing in English is much more complex than reading aloud.

Use the above strategies wisely when teaching English conversation. Start reluctant speakers off with simple reading exercises in a controlled and non-intimidating environment. If you do, you’ll soon have helped build their confidence and they’ll start speaking more freely.

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