English Verb Tenses and Aspects

Teaching (not just making) small talk

Alex CaseTEFL Contributor
ESL Lesson Handouts - Teaching not just making small talk
Photo by Theo Decker

I’ve had so many students who have been studying English for years but can’t reply properly to or even understand common small talk questions like “How’s it going?”, “How has your week been?” and “Do you have any plans for the weekend?” This means that their previous teachers and materials have missed many opportunities to teach them the vital communication topic of small talk, and also to use small talk to make other target language more communicative and memorable.

What to teach about small talk in your English class

To be able to take part in small talk (inside and outside class), students need to be able to both understand common questions like “How was your journey?” and to be able to answer them, including in the most common ways. The best starting point is teaching “How…?” questions like “How was your day?”, including standard basic positive, neutral and negative answers like “Wonderful”, “Great”, “Good”, “Okay”, “So-so”, “Not so good” and “Awful”. That can then be followed by other common questions like “Did you have any problems getting here?”, perhaps including something on good and taboo questions.

Students should then be ready to also ask such questions, at which point they will need to learn how to sustain conversations with reactions (“Really?”, “Did you?”), follow-up questions (“Then what happened?”), etc. A particularly good tip for students is to use the “volleyball technique” of making each turn consist of a basic answer to the question (“Not so great”), some extra info (“We were planning a picnic but it rained”), then a related (but not identical) question back (“Did you do anything special?”).

When students have got those basics, they might be ready for something on different questions for different situations such as small talk when meeting for the first time and again, perhaps including formality differences.

Presenting and practicing small talk

Especially in small classes, the obvious start to presenting good small talk is to ask students some questions, continuing until you reach a question they can’t answer (well). You can then elicit questions and good answers onto the board, and replay a better version of the same conversation, this time with the student(s) also asking questions.

As small talk in the classroom can be quite different from what students will need in the rest of their lives, the next step should be roleplaying more realistic situations for them such as at the beginning of business meetings.

For a whole lesson on small talk, the most useful start is giving students a list of good and bad questions. They pick and ask the best of them, discuss the others, then try to remember the most useful questions. Answers can be dealt with by listening to a question followed by suitable and unsuitable responses and choosing the best reply. You can deal with common confusions by students hearing or reading pairs like “How’s it going?”/ “How are you doing?” and “Not bad”/ “So-so” and deciding if their meanings are “the same” or “different”, perhaps racing to hold up cards with those words on.

Other suitable game-like activities include flipping a coin to decide who will answer the next question, and choosing the small talk topics with cards or a board game.

Linking small talk to other language

The other approach to small talk is to use common small questions like “What are you working on at the moment?” and “Do you live round here?” to tie in with target language forms such as Present Continuous and describing places, as a smooth lead-in to the topic or as practice.

You can Apply Filters, such as Language Forms (Continuous forms, Modal and auxiliary verbs, Passive voice, etc…) to find for the most suitable Handout to teach in your English class. Find one in the ESL Lesson Handouts Library now.

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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