There are many reasons for wanting to change from pure “free conversation” classes such as boredom setting in, the teacher wanting to develop their other teaching skills or, most importantly, the student not doing as well as they could if they tried a different approach. However, there are also pressures pushing for the maintenance of a free conversation approach such as students who have a bad image of traditional classroom language teaching, teachers who are not given time or money to get ready for more preparation-intensive classes, and schools who sell the idea of rapid improvements from chatting in English.
There are therefore quite a lot of situations in which a variation on free con is the best solution, for example:
- Students who chose free conversation because they expected huge improvements in their fluency etc, and will be disappointed when the limited effects of pure free conversation become clear.
- Students who have asked for or seem to prefer free conversation but have pressure from elsewhere to improve other aspects of their English (from a company which is paying, an upcoming exam, a particular need for work, etc).
- Students who mainly lack fluency but are also not too hot on accuracy and/or range of language.
This article therefore gives some ideas of how to tweak the free con approach without upsetting the apple cart (with the many students who would benefit more from a completely different approach being a topic for another day).
Simple and effective variations on a basic “chat in English” approach to classes include:
- Mixing up free conversation classes and materials-based classes (perhaps explaining why you think they need the materials-based class each time, with reasons like difficulties they had in previous lessons and meeting their future needs).
- Having particular slots of the class for free conversation and for other approaches (starting with chat then saying when you need the rest of the class time for something and so getting down to business, getting something they need out of the way then spending the rest of the class conversing, etc)
- Free conversation with roles (the teacher taking on the role of someone the student will need to chat to in the future, the teacher and student pretending to meet for the first time, etc)
- Materials on the topic of small talk (questions that the teacher and student can ask each other or should avoid because they are taboo, a list of conversational reactions like “That’s too bad” to use or try to get from the other person, etc).
- Having free conversation in class and setting more boring but useful stuff for homework.
- Setting something to read, listen to or watch between classes (e.g. an article on something that was difficult to speak about in this class but is useful enough to be worth another try next week)
- Setting a topic to read about, listen to something about or watch something about before the next class (searching for their own choice of media on the topic).
- Moving from input on something they said (e.g. correcting an error that they made) into an extended language presentation and/ or improvised controlled practice.
- Asking students to prepare mini-presentations for the beginning of the next class (on something they need to talk about outside class, on some English media they had access to between classes, etc).
- Encouraging students to bring language and culture questions into the class (from things they viewed during the week, interactions they had at work, etc, perhaps with a suggested number like “Please bring in three questions about English”).
If you are looking for materials to add to your free English conversation classes, check out the lesson plans in the ESL Lesson Handouts Library You can filter Handouts by Level, Topic, Language Function, and Language Form.
A big caveat about all the suggestions above is to be careful about believing students who say they are willing to change, as there are some who just want to pay less than a therapist to have someone to chat to, with English improvement being just possible icing on the cake.