This article is about the approach sometimes known as “free con” in which an English class or whole course consists of pure conversation between the teacher and student(s), usually without a syllabus or any materials. The related topic of small talk at the beginning of more structured lessons is dealt with in other articles on this site.
Although there are situations in which a class of pure unstructured conversation can be both ideal and handled perfectly, in my experience there are far more examples which match at least one of the following descriptions of bad free conversation lessons:
- Leads to little or no progress in grammar, vocabulary, functional language, reading speed, listening for gist, pronunciation, etc (e.g. the many examples of students who are still Intermediate after months or years of free conversation).
- Is quickly forgotten (straight after class, before the next class, before the same topic comes up again, etc).
- Isn’t copied down by the students.
- Is copied down by the students, but is never looked at again.
- Has no connection to the language students use outside class (their reading, their use of English at work, the language in English-language videos they watch, etc).
- Is very different to real speaking outside class (with sudden unconnected changes of topic, without questions in return, without natural conversational reactions from students, etc).
- Is used with unsuitable students (students who already have good fluency but need accuracy or range of language, students who need the basics before they build on it as they speak more freely, students whose confidence will be ruined by the challenge of talking about many topics in an unstructured way, students who spend a lot of class time with their dictionaries and don’t remember anything they looked up last time, students who might need free con but object to the idea, etc).
- Has unsuitable error correction (of errors which are unlikely to come up again, slips of the tongue, errors that students already knew they had made, etc).
- Has unsuitable language input (things which are much too idiomatic to be likely to be useful outside class, language which is too high level for the students, etc).
- Includes a limited range of grammar (from the teacher and/or student, such as rarely talking about the future).
- Contains a limited range of vocabulary (from the teacher and/or student, due to reasons such as always talking about the same job or hobbies without adding extra language with which to do so).
- Includes a limited range of functional language (from the teacher and/or student, such as rarely politely refusing to answer questions, or missing the chance to use common checking or clarifying phrases).
- Always has the same format or interaction (often just questions from the teacher answered by the student).
- Is always dominated by the same few topics (especially bad if vital topics are missed and/or if the language used to talk about those topics doesn’t improve).
- Has new, unconnected topics every lesson (so no review of new language learnt in previous lessons).
- Includes topics which are taboo in normal life, without any discussion of that fact or how to deal with that happening in real life.
- Is repetitive, routine and/or boring.
- Is stuck to as an approach even when some variations would be more effective and/or more welcome.
Two points which are worth special mention are the “suitable error correction” and “unsuitable language input”, which perhaps come about because the teacher is unsatisfied with the pure free conversation approach but hasn’t quite worked out how to change it. If you related to one or more of the danger signs above then you might be interested in the article Good free conversation classes.