Before I came to Spain I only had a vague knowledge of conversation classes and it was not a point that was really focussed on during my CELTA. However after arriving in Spain i soon realised how popular they were and all the problems that can come with this interesting concept of solely speaking for an entire lesson.
I’m not entirely sure where this idea of everyone must have a conversation class comes from , as improvement in all areas of language is valuable and as the skills are interlinked it seems in my opinion quite strange to focus and be obsessed only with one. I can’t see a conversation class being effective for anyone under B2 level (free to disagree). Below this level, speaking can be incorporated into any lesson and specific focus on pronunciation and fluency can also be done here. For higher levels a conversation has the benefit of focussing purely on speaking for the whole class time and within that you can focus on very specific student speaking problem1s or the more wider overall fluency and it gives students enough time to switch their minds into English mode and really test what they know and how they can express themselves.
Either way, in Spain (and most of Europe) you will be asked to do them so here are some pointers that might help you. Some are common sense and some might just make the difference between a successful class and unsuccessful one.
Tips and tricks
1.find errors and focus on them
If you are not sure where to begin, like any respectable teacher, go for the classic first lesson icebreakers. From here you can really get to grips with their strengths and weaknesses. A great activity I like to do is a mind map that features amongst other things, strengths and weaknesses they feel they have when speaking.
Once you’ve identified these you will have ample material to work with and can structure your convo lessons around them whether it is grammar issues whislt speaking or pronunciation. A taylored class always leaves a student satisfied and bulding up rapport is a no brainer.
2. Find interests and important discussion points. Why are they learning what do they need to speak for
This links in with the first point. To give a really good convo lesson you need to know your pupil. Find out as much information as possible through activities and general discussion so you are never short of topics. This obviously and beneficially leads into why they need to speak English. If it’s for business then finding out about what they do and who they need to speak to can make or break a convo class.
Adding real functional benefits is essential for every student especially those who will use it for business. I live in an area where the wine industry is massive. I now know more about wine than ever before because the students and the business classes i teach find a real practical use for this talking point.
If they don’t want to talk politics don’t do it. Give them something they will use and don’t skimp on adding vocab to their repetoire a big part of speaking is having the words to speak.
3. Look for authentic material to aid you.
There is that part on the CELTA where they get you to create a lesson based on authentic material. Well for speaking classes it works just as well. A short passage from a news story or a piece of information can lead off to a lot of conversation it also helps them with vocab and if there are photos then this can lead to conversation too and can be practical for students sitting a Cambridge exam.
it can also build confidence which is the cornerstone of speaking after all they are reading brief passages and dissecting them and it highlights to them just how capable they are.
4.clear structure for the class. What are you going to talk about and for how long dont let if go off on one.
This is the problem with most conversation classes. Firstly what are you going to talk about, some advice in the previous point, and how long are you going to talk for. This needs to be set out quite clearly and try to avoid tangents. There is no doubt that one question can lead to another and if the lesson is flowing then there is no need to stop but keep on task and make sure that the interesting topics keep coming.
5. Topics off the top of your head and improv. What they did that day. Weekend. Next weekend. Sounds simple but not.
The ability to improv off what students say helps to give the convo class a more natural feel. It sounds counter intuitive to the previous point of sticking to task but with all conversation classes they need to feel natural and you can shift from topic to topic without it being abrupt and breaking the flow. Some adult students are more business orientated but everyone needs to be able to discuss the basic functions of what they did on the weekend etc and this helps start the class and from there you can improvise more topics to keep the conversation natural and then whatever you happen to speak about later asking their opinion is simple and keeps in all natural (maybe this part is common sense).
6. Error correction and TTT (teacher talking time)
When to error correct is a hot topic in the teaching world. Teachers have different views on when exactly to do it and in a conversation class it is no different. Hot error correction can disrupt the flow of a conversation class but if there is a real communciation break down then it is of course neccessary. At the end of the class a more in-depth error correction works really well: pointing out some common mistakes and going through an error correction activity with them works wonders and can help improve their speaking for next time.
Ultimately a good conversation lesson should be driven with questions/talking points from you and speaking time dedicated to the student. This is tough in practice and keeping TTT down is vital in a conversation class as a teacher you should always be looking for ways to get the student engaged and talking, you need to draw the words out of them and guide them through the topics, be succinct and don’t worry about any long pauses, they will say something and if they are doing a conversation class with you then they probably want to say a lot.