In my previous posting I argued that open discussion doesn’t work in every learner’s favor. I also suggested ways to help students participate in classroom discussion. I’d like to explain my recommendations in more detail.
- Small, concrete tasks can help students focus. The request “Share your opinion on this issue” can be daunting to those who need time to organize and formulate their thoughts. Consider, for example, the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico. What if students had to compare the current oil spill to another familiar disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina? If given a Venn Diagram, students could talk about similarities and differences. Viewing the oil spill in this light, students may then be able to articulate their thoughts and form an opinion.
- Open discussion can have a framework: a rough time frame and some guidelines. Could the topic at least be broken down into subtopics? If you want to address the Who? What? Why? of an issue, it may help to inform students of the basic outline you wish to follow. “Let’s first make sure we all understand the issue. I’ll ask you to tell me who is involved and what happened. Then we’ll have time to share our opinions on the matter. At the end, we can discuss possible solutions to the problem.”
- Students need a balance between topics of their choosing and topics we select for them. Language learners talk when the topic is interesting and familiar. An unfamiliar topic can become more interesting if given some background information, some useful vocabulary, and questions that prompt a response. Also, it’s up to the teacher to make sure a conversation class doesn’t focus too heavily on one area and neglects others. As much as I don’t like discussing politics in any language, I know it was beneficial for me as a student of Russian to be exposed to that kind of discussion in the target language. However, I loved the opportunity to choose a news item myself (and you can be sure it had little to do with politics).