ESL Conversation Activities

Even the most experienced teachers can find ESL conversation activities difficult to pull off. Although conversation lessons seem easy, they can involve quite a bit of planning. The most important thing to remember when choosing ESL speaking activities is relevance. Make sure that the class has the necessary language skills to talk about a particular subject, and that they find the topic interesting.

Here, we have gathered some ESL conversation activities that can get your class talking. Some prep is required, but these ideas can be used as starters or be extended, particularly with follow-up activities.

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ESL Conversation Ideas

  • We’re Having a Party! - Students pretend they are at a party and introduce at least one thing about themselves that most people do not know. This could be a great way to start or end a class. Get everyone up. Have them go around the room, introducing themselves to each other. Play some music in the background or you can even bring props (cups, plates, etc.). For more advanced students, give them "identity" cards that describe a "secret" persona that they have to adopt at the party.
Tip: Set a time limit to make sure students talk to as many people as possible. Announce when it is time for students to introduce themselves to someone else.
  • In the News - Choose a popular item from today’s headlines. Come prepared with clippings or any other props to quickly explain to those students who have not heard the news. Give students discussion questions after they have read the article. You could vary the questions to different groups (i.e. easier questions for lower level students if you have a mixed level class).
Tip: If this is a "big" news item, then follow up with the class by providing updated articles, video, radio recording, etc. Or, for more advanced classes, have them do the research.
  • A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words - Post a picture or a series of pictures (i.e. from magazines, newspapers, personal photos, etc.). For big classes, divide students into groups and send them to a designated wall to discuss the meaning behind the picture. To help start the conversation for lower level classes, you could post a series of questions for each picture. After designating a certain amount of time, have student groups report back to the class about the pictures.
Tip: One option would be to have the pictures be related in some way. Give the class an extra five minutes to come up with the connection.
  • Finish the Story - Choose a short story suitable for your class’ language level. However, delete/cut the ending of the story. In groups, students discuss how they think the story ends. You could, of course, provide them with some guided discussion questions. Each group reports back about their version of the story’s ending.
Tip: To extend this activity, you could have more than one story.
  • How’s It Going? - Although most class evaluations tend to happen near the end of the class. Often feedback for the teacher comes a bit too late. Why not get the students talking in class about how things are going. Break them into groups and provide them with a "class feedback" sheet. Or you could have certain groups tackle particular aspects of the class (i.e. the syllabus, class activities, homework, etc.).
Tip: If possible, have a fellow trusted teacher fill in while students are talking, as they might feel less inhibited if you are not in the room. Also, be prepared to make some changes, especially if you have agreed after discussions.

Conversation – Dos & Don’ts

Dos

  • Make sure you walk around the room and write down any mistakes you hear, particularly if it is a language item that has been taught and/or that students should know. If you have time at the end of the class write on the board or make a worksheet of class’ mistakes for the next class.
  • If concerned about shy students or overpowering students in a group, assign each student certain key points to discuss. Alternatively, you could establish a turn taking system (such as a 3 minute limit per person). Use a prop such as a bell or turn on and off some music.
  • Include students as much as possible when planning future conversation activities. There’s no rule that says that conversation topics have to come from ESL books/websites. If planning ahead on a certain language point or topic, why not have students list some possible topics for class discussion. You could have a class vote or choose yourself.

Don’ts

  • Do not introduce a conversation activity that requires language areas that most of the students have not learned (i.e. do not ask them to talk about their past if you have not introduced Past Simple tense).
  • Do not interrupt students mid conversation. Even though you may hear mistakes, let them speak freely. Just make note of mistakes to discuss later. You could alter the errors in such a way that do not identify particular students.
  • It may seem obvious, but avoid sensitive subjects about students’ culture, religion, race, etc. Although some of your student may seem open, you cannot guarantee that you won't possibly offend other students or make them feel uncomfortable.

Basically, when you plan well for conversation activities, it shows. Students will appreciate it. There is nothing worse for ESL students than expecting them to start talking without some prep/background.

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Resources for ESL Teachers

  • For an extensive list of ESL Conversation Topics visit iteslj.org
  • TEFL.net has a set of ESL conversation lesson plans
  • ESLflow.com has a number of speaking activities according to language level, as well as a related grammar lesson
  • ESL Cafe's Idea Cookbook has a list of ice breaker and speaking activities submitted by ESL teachers. There are some great original ideas here.