Table Talk: Learn How to Teach & Test English Conversation
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- How to plan a conversation class.
- How to choose topics for a conversation class.
- How to test students speaking ability.
- What makes a great speaking class.
- How to improve students conversational competency and fluency.
- Why having a conversation class is different than having a speaking class?
- Reflect on how to cultivate a classroom culture of conversation.
- Examine several core conversation skills and identify how these may be used and taught in various disciplines and grade levels.
- An intermediate English language proficiency
English conversation in an academic setting more closely resembles an interview or an interrogation rather than a relaxed and free-flowing exchange of information, ideas, and opinions. The purpose of Table Talk! Is to teach you how to create an enjoyable space for students to talk with each other about the big and not-so-big questions of life.
Table Talk is conversation-based learning. This course is designed to help teachers create an atmosphere conducive to conversation by making the language spoken in class both comprehensible and engaging while building student confidence in answering questions. This will allow students to practice speaking English without the fear of being “on stage”.
This course will show you how to help students spend time formulating their conversations, self-reflect and self-assess, have realistic conversations with peers of differing skill levels, and in the end, feel confident in their abilities. This will encourage participation by making sure everyone get a turn to use their ability in a way they are comfortable to.
The motto of this course is, "When something can be learned without effort, great effort has gone into its teaching."
This course has done the hard work for you. Enjoy.
- Anyone who wants to improve their conversational English skills.
- Anyone who wants to increase their conversational fluency.
- Anyone who wants to teach a conversation class.
- Teachers who are struggle to provide students with good speaking activities.
English conversation in an academic setting more closely resembles an interview or an interrogation rather than a relaxed and free-flowing exchange of information, ideas, and opinions. The purpose of this course, "Table Talk!" is to create an enjoyable space for students to talk with each other about the big and not-so-big questions of life and practice the interactive skill of conversation. We want our students to be able to communicate with others in English. In order to make that happen, they will need to overcome anxiety, know the necessary language, and have a desire to apply it. We think the activities we use in our classroom and list here effectively assist students to achieve that trifecta.
Conversation-based learning, like my "Table Talk" course, is designed to uncover language rather than cover specific language items. Engage with people and what they are saying, rather then worry about where the activity is going in terms of language output. This in no way prevents you from refining the language that emerges. The discovery of language, the EUREKA epiphanies are always far "stickier" than any find that learners are lead to by their hand.
This course will show you have to give students the opportunity to explore the big questions, articulate their thoughts, and engage with the opinions of others and focus on maximizing classroom speaking time. At any point during the discussion, should students come up with a question on the spot, they are encouraged to ask it to everyone. This will allow students to practice speaking English using a mix of lighter questions and some that are more challenging. The beauty of this is that the students choose the questions and set the agenda. If a question is discussed for a long time, do not worry—let the conversation flow. You may find that as students talk, new questions come up naturally. It is important that each student feels able to contribute as much or as little as they wish.
Table Talk! is designed to help teachers create an atmosphere conducive to conversation by making the language spoken in class both comprehensible and engaging, and to build student confidence in answering questions. This will allow students to practice speaking English without the fear of being “on stage”. With “Table Talk!” students can spend time formulating their conversations, self-reflect and self-assess, have realistic conversations with peers of differing skill levels, and in the end, feel confident in their abilities. This will encourage participation by making sure everyone gets a turn to use their ability in a way with which they are comfortable. “When something can be learned without effort, great effort has gone into its teaching.” This course has done the hard work for you. Enjoy.
Many students, teachers, schools, test makers and curriculum writers tend to see learning as this, the individual accumulation of right answers, paying for points with correct answers and playing school. This is very much like the banking model of education described by in which we deposit facts and ideas into students' heads for later retrieval.
Students need more opportunities for more collaborating, understanding, building, using and communicating whole ideas, not just pile-up pieces of information like coins in a bank vault.
The best way to help students achieve this goal is through conversation-based learning. Students need loads of input and loads of output. Conversations provide this and make students builders of knowledge, not just consumers. In addition, Sharing the way we feel about life is a fundamental element of conversation – and is also one of the key ways we build relationships.
Conversation-based learning, like "Table Talk", is designed to uncover language rather than cover specific language items. Engage with people and what they are saying, rather than worry about where the activity is going in terms of language output.
Pro Tip: This in no way prevents you from refining the language that emerges. The discovery of language, the EUREKA epiphanies are always far "stickier" than any find that learners are lead to by their hand.
Interest should drive your teaching.
Rarely does interest drive teaching. On the other hand, interest always drives learning.
Think of your class as people first, and as language learners second. If you do this, the language they need as learners will follow. This lesson gets students talking about something that everyone already talks about.
“Conversation is the laboratory and workshop of the student.”
Think of language instruction the same way you would think about teaching and learning any other skill. If I went for a tennis, dancing, or cooking class and the teacher talked for half of the time, I'd be pretty disappointed.
I feel that language should be taught the same way we teach any other skill. Say, see, do. Listening to an expert comment on a tennis match will help me appreciate the skills necessary to succeed, but it won't help me improve my own skills. In order to get better, our students need PRACTICE.
Reduce instruction, increase production.
Conversations are the most efficient agent of improvement. Nothing else allows every student in class to speak 50% of the time. Role playing does not result in extended speaking and presentations monopolize speaking time. Both of these require instruction time and teacher orchestration. Conversations need instruction only once. They are real world, communicative, personally-relevant and long-lasting. Conversations are by far the biggest bang for the buck.
Try to think about planning a lesson like you would planning a road trip. Philosophy (destination) ~~~ Approach (vehicle) ~~~ Objectives (GPS/direction) ~~~ Activities (driving mechanics).
We don't just grab the keys, get in the car, and start driving. Why do we sometimes plan out classes that way?
You must know where you are going, which type of vehicle you will use, how you will get there turn-by-turn, and what you will do with the car once you are in it.
Give students a handout with unfinished sentences and tell them that the entire class will be required to finish one of the many sentence starters listed on the handout. Tell students that you will begin, and choose one of the sentence starters and finish it (For example, “I love to give good students students an A in this class.” Then choose another student, and choose a sentence starter for them. Juan, what will you never forget? Juan: I will never forget… As the teacher, you will need to help students to prompt the next student by creating a question from each prompt. At more basic levels, invite students to choose their own prompt. At advanced levels, have students do this exercise in pairs or groups.
We want our students to be able to communicate with others in English. In order to make that happen, they will need to overcome anxiety, know the necessary language, and have a desire to apply it. One of the best ways to get students involved in conversations is by asking them thoughtful and interesting questions. These questions will in turn lead to interesting answers.
Asking interesting questions is easier said than done. This video offers some ideas on how to do it well.
This is by far my favorite teaching hack and the thing that makes conversation in my classroom so much more enjoyable.
This tool is the best I have in my teaching toolbox. Here's how I introduce it.
Pay special attention to the different teacher talk I use for the whole class than teachers would normally use with smaller groups or individual students. Try to hone your second language sensitivity and make sure that what your saying is for all of your students not just the ones who tell you that they understand.
Success in life is not determined by how much you know. It's determined by how well you can express what you know. 3-Star speaking provides the motivation to express what you know well. It provides an instantaneous way for teachers to feedback to students and immediately improve their speaking ability. This system incentivizes preparation at home to maximize speaking time in class.
Part one of class is used as a warm up to stimulate content knowledge and get the conversation off the ground (20 minutes, class 1) The third pages is used for 3-Star writing (20 minutes, class 1) so students can get their ideas out of their heads and clearly articulated on paper. The fourth page is used for 3-Star Speaking (10 minutes review 30 minutes speaking, class 2). The last page is the "Speed Dating" handout to be used in the last class (5-minutes chats for 40 minutes, class 3).
Swimming ability comes from swimming. Tennis ability comes from playing tennis. Speaking ability comes from speaking. The solution is more practice. Speed dating provides the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of students.
The Bigger The Class The Better!
Speed dating means more partners = more variety = more interest = more repetition. More repetition means more improvement!
To be bold in conversation, you must provide something worth talking about. Speak in a way that makes others want to listen. Listen in a way that makes others want to speak. You're only alone if you decide you want to be.
I love speed dating for Q&A, discussions, and debates.
Since articulation lags behind experience, students need more opportunity to express and elaborate on their ideas.
In my experience, students never give their best answer the first time theyspeak. Students need to time and chance to experiment with the language, content, structure of what they are talking about.
In addition to strengthening their argument, speed dating improves all areas of oracy through repetition and practice.
Here's how it works in my classroom:
1. Talk Talk! provides focus, variety, and repetition, the engine for improving conversational English ability.
2. Have students sit in pairs (one student is the interviewer, the other is the interviewee) in straight rows if possible (If the seating is not orderly, switching partners can quickly turn into chaos.)
3. If you choose to put students into groups of three (pairs are encouraged, especially in the first few table talk rounds), have one student act as the M.C. and interview the other two students.
4. This activity is meant to be carried out like speed dating (One interesting topic, many partners, many opportunities for students to improve their answers).
5. Every five to ten minutes, students will switch partners. Remind them to say goodbye and hello; stress the importance of greetings and salutations. (Later, See you later, Bye for now, Gotta go, Nice to see you again, How do you do, I like your hair today...etc.)
6. In one class, students will switch four to six times. In an average lesson, students will switch ten to twelve times and never have the same partner again. That is three or four weeks without talking to the same person twice. Talk about variety! If you have to explain your favorite meal ten times, you will surely improve.
7. If students’ questions or answers are not understood, they have to try to communicate in different ways until they find one that works. Students will always be paired with a stronger conversationalist (who can help them improve) or a weaker conversationalist (who can provide an opportunity for them to focus on reinforcing what they already know), each providing a unique learning opportunity.
When you can mix family, friends, and work, you have a winning combination.
Sometimes our greatest resources are the ones right in front of us. Make sure you're using everything you've got.
Pro Tip on teaching procedures: Simplicity is key. It makes it easy to teach, easy to learn, and most importantly, easy to remember!
For teachers giving instructions in L1, make sure that you don't give your instructions in language that is more complex than you would in English. Try and match your L1 teacher to the English that you would like your students to use as you should be continuously introducing the procedural language and as quickly as possible swapping it out for English. In doing so, you will more quickly be creating the immersive environment students need.
There's a pretty heavy cognitive workload going on when students are hearing new instructions for the first time and when we revert back to L1 to give them, our teacher talk sometimes suffers - language becomes more complex, word choice poor, and our pauses to ensure comprehension shorter.
Try to keep this in mind and you will have far more success transitioning your students from L1 classroom instruction to English classroom instruction. Once you teach classroom language in English, you should avoid going back to give it in L1. The simpler the language is the easier it will be to acquire.
One of the most common questions I receive is, "How do you test for conversation competency and ability?"
The answer is a lot simpler than you might imagine. Here's how it works. I have had a lot of success with conversation transcription. Students record what they say, write it out verbatim, and correct the mistakes in their speech.
Simple, cost effective, personalized feedback.
What follows is a more detailed breakdown:
1) Three students have a 17-minute conversation.
2) It's recorded on their phones, and they transcribe just what they said (takes about 1.5 hours).
3) MS Word counts how many words they speak, and how many times they speak. Simple division gives their average words-per-utterance.
*How many words a student speaks is an accurate indicator of their ability.
*Their average words-per-utterance is an accurate indicator of their improvement.
The test is real-world communication. The conversation is recorded, and students transcribe it. Students get extensive personal feedback, and teachers get accurate grading data. Every teacher (native or non-native) can give and grade it, and every student can take and transcribe it.
Remember, it's not a conversation class unless you have a conversation test. What gets tested gets done.
Have you ever planned the perfect lesson or activity to only have it fall on seemingly deaf ears? If yes, then I think this video can help.
My advice is to keep activities and instructions simple.
If the language you use to explain an activity is more difficult than the language students will use, or if it takes longer to explain an activity than to do it - it is time to go back to the drawing board.
Don't let a good activity get lost in bad instruction.
“A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place.But a seed to be planted and to bear more seed. Toward the hope of greening the landscape of ideas”
Table Talk uses and approach to help build student confidence in answering questions, and recycle information using new and progressively more difficult forms of the same question. A good answer is worth a thousand questions!
Research indicates that using lower cognitive questions with greater frequency is the most effective questioning technique for primary level children, especially those who are struggling.
When you are assessing your students level, begin with the end in mind. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What do you want students to be able to speak about?
- What questions do you want them to be able to answer?
- What vocabulary do you want them to use?
Many teachers, parents, and language learning programs attempt to teach speaking without first developing sufficient readiness skills. This is a mistake. You have to get to know your students ability level and craft your conversations appropriately. Then when students are ready, they will begin to take over the conversation themselves, just think back to any conversation you have had with a kindergartener. Who controlled that conversation? In order to best assess your students abilities, I suggest using Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA). PQ's are level-appropriate questions that are personalized to specific learners that elicit an engaging conversation that will provide context and repetition.
- T: Is Bryan Teacher strong?
- C: Yes
- T: Yes, Bryan is strong. Bryan is a man, right?
- C: Yes
- T: So, Bryan is a strong man! Is his wife Michelle a strong man?
- C: NO!
- T: No, Michelle is not a strong man! Michelle is a strong WOMAN! What about The Rock? Is he a strong man?
- C: Yes.
- T: Oh yeah! The Rock is a strong man! Are Bryan Teacher and The Rock friends?
- C: No.
- T: Of course, we are GREAT friends!
- C: No way!
The goal is to keep the conversation comprehensible, engaging, and compelling so that the learner is focused on the story instead of trying to learn or memorize the vocabulary.
This technique leverages a child's natural aptitude and method for acquiring a new language and allows you to lay the foundation for basic fluency, incremental growth, and eventual proficiency.
Remember, a truly great teacher should aim to get the most from the least, and the best from the best.
Lots of new teachers, to be honest, are terrible at teacher talk. At the beginning, you might speak too fast or too complicated, or too slow and simple.
Being guilty of all types of terrible teacher talk myself, I know how hard it can be to practice good teacher talk. It is an essential language teaching strategy that many teachers over time learn intuitively. This is an easy concept to understand but a difficult skill to learn and practice consistently.
I hope the tips and explanations in this video help you reduce your teachertalk time and speak more effectively. Good teacher talk makes complex linguistic elements easy to understand.
Learning takes place when the new is embedded in the familiar. Conversational interaction naturally links the known to the new.
This is why it is so important to narrate experiences and articulate, in detail, what is happening and how you are feeling to your children (at home or in the classroom).
In doing so, you create instructional conversations that embed learning opportunities into everyday talk.
Isn't it strange that we talk least about things we think about most?
I always try to use the few minutes between classes to talk about the things my students actually care about, it not only builds stronger relationships, but it allows me to help students communicate and elaborate on things they truly care about.
I learned a long time ago that the best way to get students talking was to talk about what they are thinking about.
Conversation-based learning only works if you can get students talking, sharing, exchanging vocab/grammar/sentence structure. The easiest way to do that is by keeping topics relevant to students' live and talk about what is already on their minds.
I meet them where they are at with the content and in exchange, they meet me where I am with function.
What should you talk about in your conversation classes? How do you choose a topic, to begin with? Why choose one topic over the other?
Learn the answer to these questions and a few of my own favorite topics!
One of the most important steps in teaching students to speak a language well is understanding proficiency. Great language teachers comprehend proficiency levels and teach their students at these levels, where they are not where they think they ought to be.
How to select stimulus to share in class:
We come across all sorts of 'things' that we want to share with other people in the course of the day, from stories in the news to things we see in the street.
We often have a good idea of who we're going to share these things with: 'I must tell X about that' or 'I've got to show that to Y. If you think of your class, in the same way, you will start noticing things that may interest them - and you can encourage them to do the same.
Figure out what your students want to talk about and then TALK ABOUT IT!
A few tips:
1) Stick with topics that can be processed quickly. Thinking is good, but you don't want students to get bogged down in thought.
2) Have a language road map, but don't think of it as Gospel. If students take the language in a different direction than you anticipated, that's fine. Keep an open mind and see how they respond.
3) Try and avoid topics that students have limited background knowledge in. You want students speaking, not trying to figure out what words to use.
4) If you choose a reading, try to pick something that will be of high-interest to the students, as the language generated by a text is often more important than the language in it.
5) Explain why you have chosen the topic. The story of how you picked a topic may be as interesting to students as the topic itself.
"On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one's psyche; the mode of one's expression, however often remains the same."
This expert from Joseph Brodsky’s On Grief and Reason forced me to examine the type of work that I assign my students. I had to ask myself, “How does asking students to talk about topics and lessons they do not have the second language skills to speak about (but do have the understanding and academic skills in their first language) affect their desire, output, motivation?” Brodsky feels that things not spelled out, not properly articulated results in neurosis.
What happens when articulation lags behind experience? What does this do to their affective filter? Straightforward, informal social topics can be spoken about in more general terms, with the speaker feeling content to articulate themselves more functionally.
I believe that by selecting topics students feel comfortable with expressing themselves (the language level more closely approximates the depth of thought necessary to engage with the topic) in their second language, we give students a greater chance of experiencing success and engagement in our lesson. On the other hand, when topics move into areas where sentiment, nuance, depth of thought, and perception are required, but not able to be summoned due to a lack of language ability, we are likely to end up with a bruised psyche and a student who is shut down for at least the remainder of the class.
Exercise caution in the selection of your topics.
Teach Conversation Strategies
Too often conversations, even between native speakers, fall flat because the participants don't know conversation strategies.
To have a real conversation the partners will have to know different strategies for introducing topics, drawing each other into the conversation, asking for opinions, advancing their own, using examples, and so forth.
My favorite conversation strategy is follow-up questioning. Nothing keeps a conversation going like a simple follow-up prompt to something that was said. Wow, cool, tell me more, that sounds interesting, how about that, unbelievable...etc, are all ways to signal to your conversation partner that you are interested in what they are saying and want them to continue speaking and elaborate on what they have said thus far.
Teaching this simple technique is a small investment that pays back big dividends.
To get to the top of the mountain, everyone must start at the bottom.
Classroom conversation, discussion, and debate reminds me of climbing a mountain. Some people are more prepared to get to the apex than others. Our job as educators is to provide students with the equipment and training necessary so that everyone can reach the summit (that may be a small foothill for some and K2 for others).
What are your favorite "conversation mechanics"?
I don't just want to teach my students to have conversations in another language, I want to create interesting conversationalists because as the article says, "in the very moments where a conversation would enhance an encounter, we often fall short. We can’t think of a thing to say."
This is the entire idea behind my speed dating English class. The first round gets stock answers out of the way. In the second, students become more comfortable and start to break out of their dialogue patterns. By the third, they are ready to move into an actual conversation that might teach the something "real" about the other person.
A few things to remember!
1. A conversation has two parts: listening & speaking.
- To be a good conversationalist, you must learn how to listen and speak well. This means you must be able to both ask & answer questions well.
2. Don’t worry too much about perfect grammar.
- It is better to give four sentences with a few mistakes than one sentence with perfect grammar.
3. Elaboration: make it longer!
- Try to give 2-3 complete sentences for each question. Make your answers longer.
Rank order activities help build speaking fluency, practice or learn specific vocabulary, and practice or learn language functions such as expressing opinions, giving reasons, persuasion, and disagreement. A ranking activity challenges students to use language persuasively and gives them lots of practice at genuine communication. Give students a list of items. Ask students to rank the items individually. Group students in pairs or small groups. Students tell each other their rankings, discuss reasons for their choices, and try to come up with an agreement on a joint ranking.
This is an expansion from a great idea from an even great book of ideas. Here's how it works: Give students a handout with unfinished sentences and tell them that the entire class will be required to finish one of the many sentence starters listed on the handout. Tell students that you will begin, and choose one of the sentence starters and finish it. For example, "I love to give good students an A+ in this class. Then choose another student, and choose the sentence starter for them. Bryan, What will you never forget? Bryan: I will never forget how handsome my teacher is. As the teacher, you will need to help students to prompt the next student by creating a question from each prompt. At more basic levels, invite students to choose their own prompt. At advanced levels, have students do this exercise in pairs or groups.
The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.
It is never easy deciding how much is "too much" or "not enough". Language learners are like engines in that we need to find the right speed for them to run at. Too high and too fast and they redline and blow up. Too low or too slow and they idle out and stall.
Try and keep this in mind when you are deciding if your students are ready for Le Mans.
Table Talk is conversation-based learning. This book is designed to help teachers create an atmosphere conducive to conversation by making the language spoken in class both comprehensible and engaging and build student confidence in answering questions. This will allow students to practice speaking English without the fear of being “on stage”. With “Table Talk!” students can spend time formulating their conversations, self-reflect and self-assess, have realistic conversations with peers of differing skill levels, and in the end, feel confident in their abilities. This will encourage participation by making sure everyone get a turn to use their ability in a way they are comfortable to. When something can be learned without effort, great effort has gone into its teaching. This book has done the hard work for you. Enjoy.
The paperback version of this book is available on Amazon:
It is also available directly from the publisher here: