Conversation Classes

There’s a post on WanderingELT which looks at what seems to be a fairly common conundrum in English Language Teaching. Basically, a learner comes to a language school traumitized by the experience of learning English through a Structural Syllabus in the state sector. In the words of Giulia Brazzale, such learners have had enough of grammar and they want “to learn to speak.”minions-363019_640

So, these learners sign up for Conversational Classes, or one-to-one lessons with a conversational focus. From the perspective of the teacher, like Giulia, this raises a number of questions:

  1. Why do learners end up in this situation?
  2. Are conversation classes the solution?
  3. Can good teaching happen solely through the conversation?

This post will take a look at these questions one by one and it will try to offer some answers. Keep reading to find out what they are.

Why does this happen?

The frustration of Giulia’s students is quite understandable: they have spent years learning a language from the bottom up, covering grammatical structures, all the different tenses and a mountain of lexis, yet they can’t hold a fluid conversation.

This is what happens when language, particularly Language Learning, is treated as a school subject. You take the content or the knowledge-based elements and focus entirely on that. While linguistic knowledge is important and essential, it is only one part of the two part dichotomy that is language learning: Language Systems and Language Skills.

Language Systems are the linguistic systems that language is based on, such as phonology, discourse and grammar. Without them, while you may be communicative with lexis alone, you generally will struggle to be an effective communicator. Language Skills, on the other hand, are the ability to put into effective and communicative use the knowledge from the language systems.

Without this essential practice of putting knowledge into use, learners cannot simply whisk up fluent and consecutive streams of speech acts. They need plenty of practise in doing this. It’s a bit like if you studied all the vocabulary of Russian for two years straight, and then were asked to have a conversation with a Russian: without having previously practised again and again, you wouldn’t be able to have that conversation.

You can read more about this dichotomy in this post but in short, if the scales aren’t balanced and tipped more towards the language systems, then it stands to logical reasoning that a learner wouldn’t have had the necessary practice to use the language fluently. This is most probably what is happening in the case of Giulia’s students.

What’s the best course of action?

The learners in question think the answer lies in asking for conversation lessons. While there is some logical reasoning to this, after all they have probably been deprived of essential speaking practice, it should be seen more as a cry for help.

What these learners need is for the balance to tipped the other way for a period of time: they need lots of language skills lessons. Whilst this does include Speaking, it also includes the three other skills: Reading, Writing and Listening. However, the teacher has to make sure they truly focus on the Sub-Skills involved in these Macro Skills. For example:

  • Don’t read a text in class for vocabulary and grammatical constructions
  • Do read for gist and detail as well as practise scanning, skimming, summarising and retelling
  • Don’t listen out solely for specific words
  • Do practise listening for detail, ask the learner for their opinion, and listen for specific sounds
  • Don’t make writing a purely academic affair
  • Do practise writing in class, but make it short and communicative (like e-mails and social media) and respond to some language but mainly to the content of the learner’s writing
  • Don’t make speaking about speaking in full sentences and using the most recent vocabulary/grammar
  • Do make speaking realistic: encourage false-starts, back-channelling devices, and encourage conversational style language

Depending on how traumatised the learner is, you might have to start purely with conversational lessons, and then slowly segue the other skills in. Above all, whatever you, make the tasks about communicating and using language – not studying it!

How do they learn anything?

Giulia pointed out that by the end of a conversation lesson, it seemed as though the learner had only received what they could have received in a local pub with a native speaker. In Giulia’s eyes, this consists of:

  • Lots of speaking practice
  • Some correction
  • A few new words

However, there’s a few things to keep in mind here. First of all, Speaking Practice is exactly what they need. The more time given to the learner to produce language, they more they’re exercising the skill of putting language knowledge into communicative use. While saying something as simple as Oh I’m not really keen on strawberries might seem unchallenging to the teacher, this might be the only chance the learner has had to say that sentence in a long time. Remember, there’s an element of automation to language usage: you can only make language come out automatically if you practise it.

Secondly, Feedback or Error Correction is exactly what the learner is paying for. They already know how to speak communicatively – most learners at this stage are probably able to express most ideas – but what they need is:

  1. To have their fossilized mistakes pointed out to them
  2. To be shown where L1 is influencing their word/grammar choices in English
  3. To be given phrases, phrases and lexical chunks which are more reflective of how language is really used

That is exactly what a conversation lesson can give them. They speak, you correct their language, you give them opportunities to give you alternatives, you provide them with some useful or better chunks of language, you give them words they need but don’t know, and they walk away:

  • Having practised using the language
  • With corrected and improved language
  • Some new vocabulary and phrases

What’s more, they leave with an experience they can’t get with any old native down the pub.


3 thoughts on “Conversation Classes

  1. Hey Giulia and Anthony! I really enjoyed reading all this discussion and it reminded me of one of the things that studying Spanish full time again made me realise last year. I felt I actually ‘learnt’ the most in the optional conversation classes after our core classes. As a teacher of course you have a head start. You already KNOW the value of reusing language, and finding opportunities to do so. But it really hit home for me the importance of flexing my language muscles in a freer environment, in order to proceduralise the huge amount of input I’d been receiving in morning lessons. It’s made me rethink my own teaching a lot. One important thing teaching (something that seems obv to teachers but maybe not learners) is teaching learner strategies like resuing language in other environs such as conversation class, and making conversation clubs/classes work for them by continuing to actively notice and notetake new language from their peers, something I think we all too often assume Ls do.


  2. Thank you, Anthony, for this very useful analysis. 1-1 classes so easily slip to free-con, don’t they? My tip is coaching students by giving them homework: something to read (graded readers!), something to write,something to listen to/watch, and reflect upon in it class. Also, keeping track of emerging lexis via Quizlet classes has been very successful. Two questions: 1, any tips how to design a syllabus for, say, one semester? 2, do you use any before/after tools to show students how they progressed? I mean, if students recorded themselves at the start and at the end of the course, or tested their vocabulary size… Thanks!


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