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I once compared teaching to Tahitian dancing. I admit it was an unusual analogy, but it worked for me. Today I offer another one in response to a teacher’s request. This EFL teacher is faced with quiet groups of students and finds it challenging to get them talking in the classroom. What’s the key to unlocking the potential for classroom discussion?
I’d argue that there is likely more than one key. Each of us teachers has a key ring, which represents our approach, our knowledge, and our methodology. The ring can hold a number of keys, just as a teacher can make use of a number of strategies. With experience, the keys become familiar and we can choose one quite easily and slip it into the right lock. But even for experienced teachers, it might take a couple tries to find the right key that fits a certain lock. In other words, one strategy may work well in one classroom situation, but it may not be the best choice with another group of students. Vary your attempts to engage students in convesation. Not all students will respond well to the same activities.
Here are a few keys to put on your key ring if they’re not already there:
- Use a warm-up activity, something light and fun. Anxious students will need an upbeat atmosphere without pressure to speak. Try, for example, The Breakfast Club, which initially requires only listening and then leads into small group work.
- Give students some control of the classroom. For instance, in Collecting Collocations, students are asked to generate content for a survey. The activity calls for small group and/ or pair work, which can facilitate conversation among shy speakers.
- Allow students to stay on “safe ground” as speakers. Of course, there will be times we must stretch our students’ abilities by asking them to speak on less familiar topics. How else will they develop a broad vocabulary? But if your students are being quiet, it might be a wise choice to let them speak about something familiar but not overly personal. Hobbies are a “safe” topic. Remember the activity Partners’ Pastimes?
- Similar to the previous suggestion is the idea of using imaginary situations. Dicussion questions that provoke some argument can still be “safe” if kept hypothetical. Click here to see a list of hypothetical questions on my Work ethics_handout. You could discuss these questions as a whole class or have students work in small groups (one question assigned to each group) to exchange ideas before sharing their thoughts with the class.