Setting Students Up for Successful Conversations

Don’t you love that feeling right after you finish a productive conversation with students? I’m excited and proud when I know students stepped up and managed to engage in a conversation on a new topic. I’m even happier to know that they’re aware of their solid performance and they took pleasure in the experience.

Is there a recipe to repeat that success? As we know, teaching is an art and a science, much like cooking. With experience, we cooks tend not to look at recipes and work from memory and let instinct guide us. But in the classroom, the key part of the so-called recipe is the list of ingredients; it’s worth using each time. It’s our checklist.

1. I make sure students have the information and vocabulary needed to talk about something. At the higher levels, we engage in discussions about health matters, new technology, and other current issues. Full participation is possible if students are ready to draw from their knowledge. I often have students read articles before class. In class, we address any new vocabulary, listen to a summary provided by a volunteer, and then move into discussion.

2. Questions prompt answers, but it’s important to choose questions that students are eager discuss, not quick yes-no questions or questions that are too complex to answer right away. I encourage students to pose their own questions. When prompting is needed from my end, I sometimes ask questions that don’t rely too heavily on expertise, but simply call for a personal reaction or an example from personal experience.

3. I enjoy one-on-one and small group conversations the most. This allows for the most speaking time, and the reduced spotlight doesn’t make students as self-conscious as they would be in a larger group. This format is equivalent to cooking in small batches. I can count on higher quality production. In a class with more students, I’d suggest pair work and small group work before requiring students to speak to the whole class, which can create stress for some.

4. Reflection and improvement is a final step I recommend to my students (kind of like what to do with the leftovers from a good meal). Using class notes and the class recording, students can evaluate their production and recognize how they can improve their performance. They’re invited to record a short summary of the topic and include their personal reaction. This second chance is the opportunity to reinforce new words and boost confidence.

If you’re interested in discussing the environment with students, I’d like to suggest using my latest YouTube video about climate change in combination with The Environment_handout. The PDF has two short exercises to confirm understanding of key vocabulary. There are several questions to get conversation started, perhaps in pairs or small groups. My video, which could be watched before class, has additional discussion questions.

Featured photo by Myriams-Fotos. Retrieved from

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