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Making the most of conversation classes

Vanessa Mulcare

SGI CPD club, St George International School of English, Margaret Street, London

On Tuesday 22nd April, I went to a seminar at St George International, a language school in London, based just off of Oxford Street. I’d been to SGI a couple of years ago, to conduct an observation of a colleague and friend (thanks Jemma!) as part of my DELTA course, but I’d never been to one of these evenings before, which form part of their CPD (continuing or continuous professional development) club.

The blurb for this session read as follows:

Do you teach ‘conversation classes’? Is it sometimes hard to get students speaking in these classes? Or perhaps it’s just hard to keep the conversation going once they’ve started? And how to ensure that speaking time is really valuable?

In this workshop we’ll look at some simple activities that generate plenty of speaking practice and consider how to adapt them for different groups.

Although I’m not going to be actually teaching in the near future, due to changing jobs, the idea of ‘conversation classes’ interests me. I’ve never really taught extensively in the more EFL setting of private language schools, having only done an apprenticeship year in Spain and spent a summer busman’s holiday working in Bournemouth.

I’d say that in my teaching experience, ‘conversation is work in the ESOL classroom’. In fact, I often have trouble getting my ESOL students to shut up! Even if this CPD session was based on experience gained in the private language teaching environment, where conversation classes might be a trickier proposition, I was eager to get some tips about directing conversation. And I was also interested to consider how materials and teacher intervention might mediate this generation of conversation and then capitalise on it for language teaching/learning opportunities.

My first impressions of the evening was that it was set in quite a cosy (read very small) classroom on the lower ground floor of the building in which SGI is located. But I knew this – it’s central London; space is at a premium. There’s a friendly buzz, and I start talking to the people seated near me: Penny, who runs her own private classes, Joan and Neil (all former trainees at SGI). I’m recognised by a guy on the other side of the room from seminars at the British Council. There are nibbles and juice.

The session was presented by Vanessa Mulcare, a teacher at SGI who has been working there for about 2 years, having previously spent time in France. Vanessa starts by telling us about her initial feelings about running ‘conversation classes’. This is a bit weird for me, as I’ve never really worked in any place where the facets of English are broken down like this. ‘We have conversation classes, grammar classes, English for trapeze classes…’ It’s a bit odd to me, but I guess goes with the territory of the private language school: you have to offer things that people will be willing to part with their cash for.

I was enthusiastic but worried at the same time thinking about my first class. What do I do? What do we talk about?…

I think my thoughts would have echoed Vanessa’s, especially not having taught something branded as a ‘conversation class’. We were invited to share our experience of teaching these kinds of classes and a few common themes emerged:

  • How these classes pan out depends so much on the students. If they want to talk, great! If not, it can be like pulling out teeth…
  • Integrating new students into an established group can be problematic, especially if you have open classes with rolling enrolment
  • Keeping the topics current and engaging was highlighted as a key factor in having successful conversation classes

Vanessa talked us through her 9 principles or points that she works on before attempting any involved conversation work:

  1. Make sure the students are aware that the focus is on communicating and fluency rather than 100% accurate language:
    1. the marker of successful communication is whether your classmates understand you
  2. Lay the ground rules for conversation classes, including:
    1. listen to each other
    2. listen actively and show interest
    3. knowing how to advance your own opinion clearly and politely
  3. Topics for conversation are student-directed:
    1. collecting possible topics from students by using index cards is a good idea
    2. until you know the group well, it is advised to steer clear of controversial topics
  4. Small group and pair work is important in conversation classes to maximise talking time
    1. as a teacher you can provide a model for less confident students to follow
  5. Rotating conversation partners or group members is important
    1. this can stretch an activity out over the course of a lesson or series of lessons
    2. provides an opportunity for students to work woth others of different levels of ability
    3. they get to know their peers (reflective of a real life situation – speaking to other non-native speakers of English?)
    4. they’ll be exposed to more language and ideas
  6. Focusing on conversation strategies is key for conversation classes to run smoothly
  7. Similarly, teaching vocabulary is very important, especially if students have limited experience talking about particular topics in English
  8. Teaching both formal and informal conversation skills is useful
    1. can help students work on their register and style, deciding which to adopt in different situations
  9. When thinking about assessing students in conversation classes, it’s best to do so informally
    1. focus on participartion and understanding of conversations that take place
    2. as a teacher in this situation, try to sit in on conversations and take part, providing on the spot assistance and scaffolding
    3. a number of useful techniques and activities for assessing vocab used in conversations: hangman, quizzes, categories, taboo

We then looked at a number of different conversationally focused activities from different published sources that Vanessa had used in her classes and had to agree in groups on:

  • What level we felt the activity was most suitable for
  • Whether we liked it!
  • How adaptable we thought the activity was (in terms of language and skills focus)

This was interesting, as I’ve not used many, if any, activities from published ELT materials in a long time. So, it was interesting to hear colleagues give their take on the activities, how they’d use them (or how they have used similar activities), and their general thoughts about managing conversation classes.

I enjoyed the session, even if it’s not something I’ll be able to apply immediately in the job I about to start. However, I’d definitely take some pointers from Vanessa’s presentation when I do end up back in the classroom again.

The SGI CPD Club is a regular evening event held at St George International School of English, based on Margaret Street in London (nearest tube: Oxford Circus) and you can see details of the 2 or 3 more seminars they have lined up in May and June here although it should be noted that if you are interested in finding out about the seminars you should email Laura at lpatsko[at]stgeorges.co.uk