This article is about when and how to use and not use “free con”, with its usual meaning of a class or whole course of free form conversation between the teacher and the student(s). The related topic of small talk at the beginning of more structured English lessons is covered in other articles on this site.
While there are useful and effective ways to use free conversation in the English classroom, in my experience very few real-life examples cover all the criteria of good free conversation, which include:
- It is wanted.
- It is needed.
- Recycles and expands on previous topics (questions which the student couldn’t answer last week, updates on news stories that came up in the last lesson, reporting how a plan they had previously mentioned went, etc).
- Introduces interesting and useful new topics (stories which are likely to stay in the news for a while, a part of their life that they haven’t talked about yet but might come up in conversations outside class, etc).
- Has a mix of topics related to their work or studies and topics related to the rest of their lives (hobbies, interests, family, watching habits, etc).
- Includes a range of useful grammar (a mix of different times and tenses, some discussion of hypothetical situations, etc).
- Includes a range of useful vocabulary (various topics, both informal idioms and longer formal words, jargon related to their jobs, recent buzzwords that they might come across in arts and media, etc).
- Includes a range of functional language (checking and clarifying phrases, politely asking people to wait, giving and responding to recommendations, asking indirect questions, etc).
- Makes the language that comes up memorable by linking it to their lives outside the classroom, by showing its use in something they know like the name of a movie, with an amusing example of it in context, etc.
- Gives students something to take away that they will look at again, use, and memorize (a list of useful emailing phrases, vocabulary related to one of their hobbies, etc).
- Links to how students use English outside class (the kinds of news stories that they have recently read, their homework, how they use English in their work or travel, a self-study tip, etc).
- Has a similar format to real small talk (questions from both sides, conversational reactions to what people say like “Really?” and “Did you?”, intonation that makes the speaker sound interested, smooth linking between topics, etc).
- Persuades students to do more and more useful work to reach their English language learning goals outside class with suggestions for things they could watch or listen to, links to practice materials to improve on their weak points during the discussion, etc.
- Leads to clear progress (improved CEFR level, increased fluency, better understanding, a wider range of language production, clearer pronunciation, etc).
- Has a cultural component e.g. discussion of taboo topics.
- Is exactly the right percentage of the lesson.
“It is wanted” and “It is needed” are listed separately above because they often don’t go together, with students who prefer free conversation often being exactly the kind of students who need more input and correction to improve their English. Conversely, students who have good knowledge but lack fluency are often keener on textbooks than on free conversation. Perhaps the type of student who would benefit most from free conversation are students who get a lot of English input outside of class but never get a chance to speak it. Free conversation may help check that these students really understand that language, are able to sort out pronunciation of language that they have only read, and help produce the language in their heads.
Even with the best free conversation classes, there seems little reason to exclude other activities such as roleplays and more guided conversation if they will meet the criteria above better than yet another update on how their week went. There will be more on adapting free conversation in these kinds of ways in future articles.
For examples of more guided conversation, take a look at the Handouts in the ESL Lesson Handouts Library.