ESL Lesson Handouts - Small talk in one-to-one classes
Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Asking “How’s it going?”, “Have you been busy?”, and so on, is such a natural start to one-to-one classes that few teachers need to have small talk recommended. However, many fail to think about potential problems with chatting in private classes such as not making it part of students’ learning.

Problems with small talk in one-to-one classes

Issues with small talk in one-to-one classes include:

  • Students answering questions they expect without listening to what is being asked (perhaps because they’ve prepared something to say or always get the same questions).
  • Students misunderstanding the questions.
  • Students using the same short and/ or simple answers.
  • The same language every lesson.
  • Interactions always being the teacher asking and student answering.
  • Questions, answers, and topics being different from those needed outside class.
  • Students not understanding the value of classroom small talk.
  • Small talk extending beyond what is useful.
  • Regular small talk getting boring.
  • Students who are so bad at small talk that a bit of practice every lesson isn’t enough.
  • No link to the rest of the lesson and/ or course.
  • Cultural differences such as different taboo topics.

Solutions to problems with small talk

Possible solutions to the issues above could be to:

  • Allow or even encourage students to prepare what they could say in response to small talk questions, but then ask different questions each week and correct them if they don’t answer those questions.
  • Use a mix of familiar and new questions such as past, present tense, and future forms, reusing ones that students didn’t answer correctly in previous lessons.
  • Ask students to try to remember the questions you asked, analyze the language in them, ask them back to you, and rank them by how useful they are in their own lives, etc.
  • Ask questions which are often confused such as both “How has your week been?” and “How was your weekend?”, then clear up any confusion.
  • Move from the the typical small talk in class to roleplaying small talk in students’ own lives. How about small talk before a business meeting starts or running into a friend at the supermarket?
  • Write up one or more of the questions you asked, brainstorm several good answers, and elicit any differences between them.
  • Write up one of the student’s small talk answers then work together to improve it by making it longer, adding a question back, etc.
  • Ask small talk questions that include or elicit the target Language Function or Language Form of that or past lessons, such as “Do you have any plans for the weekend?” to elicit “ be going to”.

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  • Bring in a worksheet with a list of questions students could ask you (perhaps including complications such as some taboo questions or questions only for meeting the first time).
  • Make a mental note of how much small talk you want, e.g. five minutes of a 40-minute class.
  • Teach phrases like “Well, it’s been great to chat, but we have to finish by 11, so let’s get started, if you don’t mind” for students to use or hear examples of as you end the small talk.
  • Prepare a small talk game such as flipping a coin after each question to see who should answer (heads = the other person, tails = the person who made the question).
  • Do a whole one-off class on small talk questions, answers, and reactions, which will be (naturally or deliberately) revised in the small talk of every lesson from then on.

When it comes to cultural differences, students already know how to do small talk in their own culture, so the classroom is a good chance for them to practice doing it another way such as responding to questions which are taboo for them but common elsewhere. Like the other tips here, that will ensure they learn something new as well as getting warmed up for the lesson ahead.

Alex CaseTEFL Contributor
Alex has 25 years' experience as a teacher, teacher trainer, manager, writer and editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, Italy, Korea, the UK and now Japan. He is the author of the "Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities" series of e-books on business and exam skills.

Disclaimer  We aim to provide useful ESL and EFL teaching resources and educational ideas. Our articles are written by educators with extension TEFL experience. They contain only general information about teaching English as a foreign language and are meant purely for informational purposes.

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