Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Conversation or Interrogation?

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

My husband, a wonderful man but not an English teacher, thinks that teaching private conversation lessons must be a breeze. In his mind, it’s just basically making conversation for an hour. He knows that I am a chatty person by nature, so how hard can that be?

Well, it IS hard! It IS really, really hard! Even on a good day when the teacher is feeling great and the student has eaten and slept well and they have all sorts of common interests, it can be one of the most demanding hours in the week of an English teacher. And that hour can seem like forever, as the teacher juggles the dual burdens of keeping the conversation flowing and focusing on accuracy at the same time. Sure, I can chat with just about anyone at a party, but when someone pays me for my time and expertise, I feel as though I need to step it up a notch.

Filling my Private Conversation Lesson Files

When I spent at least part of my day as a private English conversation teacher, I always felt as though I had two main responsibilities.

First, in order to help my student develop his/her fluency, I needed to provide an organized and interesting lesson for each hour we were together. This inevitably involves preparation. In my experience, it isn’t enough to read the newspaper on the way to the lesson and expect the conversation to flow naturally. In fact, I have always found that the most interesting conversations I have had with students were the result of a great deal of forethought and some reliable materials.

I had a file folder for each student, and in it I put a set of conversation questions on a particular topic that either the student had expressed an interest in or that would be useful in the student’s work or social context. I also included a set of back up questions to use in case the topic I had chosen bombed or we went through Plan A too quickly. There is nothing worse than having 10 minutes left in a lesson at the end of a long day and wondering what on earth to talk about.

Some of my favourite books for conversation questions are Talk your Head Off, by Rish-West, Speaking Extra, by Gammidge, and Quizzes, Questionnaires and Puzzles, by Craven. I also love Conversation Questions for the ESL/EFL Classroom, but I usually pick and choose the questions I find most interesting and appropriate from their lists. Questions should be interesting; I never include artificial questions that I would not discuss with my own friends. Also, the topics should vary from lesson to lesson. Even ‘What would you do if …’ questions get stale after several lessons.

In addition to filling the folder with conversation questions, I also make a list of vocabulary and idiomatic language associated with the topic of the day that might be useful or interesting for my student. I love the Word By Word Picture Dictionary, by Molinsky and Bliss, for concrete vocabulary items. English Phrasal Verbs in Use, by McCarthy and O’Dell, are great resources providing phrasal verbs divided by topic. I’ve also Googled ‘ESL vocabulary for [insert topic here]’ to find potential vocabulary associated with more abstract topics. The vocabulary lists come in handy during the conversation and students like to take them home for review, too. They are also a nice way for conversation students to gauge their progress, as speaking is a difficult skill to assess.

Paying Attention to the What AND the How

In addition to providing a well-thought-out lesson, when I was a private conversation teacher, I also felt responsible for attending to each student’s highly individualized pronunciation and grammar needs, in order to increase the student’s spoken accuracy. So, after a few ‘How was your week’-type questions, I tended to quickly move into my conversation topic. A brief review of the vocabulary was usually followed by what would look like an interrogation if the conversation was ever transcribed. I usually asked my first question and followed up with other related questions until I could see nowhere for the conversation to go further and then I would move on to the next conversation.

For instance, if I asked my student to tell me about his/her best friend when he/she was in grade school, I would go ‘off script’ to ask other follow up questions to keep my student talking. I might have asked how they had met or if they still kept in touch. My goal was always to milk each question for as much as I could. However, I would always make a sincere effort not to give too much of my own answers to the question. I can very quickly and easily take over a conversation from a student, but in a private lesson, the challenge is to let the student talk as much as possible. After all, if he/she wanted to just listen, he/she could buy a radio.

Moreover, if I was talking too much, I knew I wasn’t able to pay attention to the student’s errors. Several years ago, I blogged about different methods for correcting students errors in ‘What’s the Best Way to Correct?’ I am a believer in writing down student errors, both pronunciation and grammar, and spending a few minutes at the end of the lesson correcting them with the student. If I noticed the same errors popping up again and again, I would follow up by offering the student some written grammar exercises. Make no mistake, listening to the student, keeping the conversation alive AND keeping a record of errors is difficult. However, this is what the student is paying me for and this is the service I provide.

So, yes, teaching private conversation lessons is hard, in my opinion. Our students may not be naturally talkative or may be tired or find English difficult, and we may wind up feeling as though we are pulling every word out of them. (This is why I never offered private conversation lessons for more than an hour; it was just too exhausting for both me and the student.) However, good planning and a thoughtful focus on both fluency and accuracy development can lead to a pleasant lesson and a satisfied customer.


Comment from Alessandra
November 15, 2013 at 1:30 am

Hello Tamara,
I’ve just come across this website and found that your article puts into words what I’ve just learnt at the beginning of my teaching career! I’m new to teaching and at the moment teach “conversation classes”. I really enjoy the classes but from the first day found that, in one class, despite having a First Cert the student’s English standard is lower as due to a lack of either revising or using English ( or maybe teaching approach?) his grasp of pronunciation, grammar, use of verb tenses all needed to be addressed. So now apart from searching conversation topics, news articles, etc for the class I now prepare worksheets and a 5- 10 minute mini lessons for grammar points that need revising. Definitely more work than was envisaged initially but at the same time highly fulfilling when there’s progress in the student’s speaking and overall understanding of English.

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 15, 2013 at 2:03 am

Thanks for your comment! Yes, teaching private lessons well is often much more work than we initially think. I think your mini-lessons are a great idea!

Comment from English Conversation Classes
November 19, 2014 at 5:24 am

It’s very useful.Thank you!!!

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