Hot Topics: Conversation Starters for ESL Classes

One of the simplest of all classroom activities — conversation circles — is also one of my favorites. Here’s why. It’s the ultimate no-cook dinner. No preparation is needed other than choosing a topic you think will grab your students’ interest. It’s real communication. When students converse, they’re using language to communicate meaning, which is the point of language. Rote exercises can seem stilted and artificial by comparison. You get to know your students better. Students can give their opinions, tell stories, and share parts of their lives, coming through more clearly as individuals. It’s flexible. A conversation expands to fill the time you have. If you run out of time, you can just stop. Students love it. Every class I’ve taught has been eager to converse. I haven’t taught Basic level, and conversation is obviously less feasible when students know almost no English. But students who can talk even a little bit almost always want the chance to do so.

The fact that conversation is an easy activity doesn’t mean that teachers do nothing. On the contrary, the teacher’s role is central. Free conversation isn’t really free; guided discussion might be a better term. As a participant in the circle, the teacher keeps the conversation in English, guides the discussion through well-timed comments and questions, and draws out quiet members of the group. I like to divide the class into two conversation groups, pulling the chairs into small circles, each group facilitated by a teacher.

You can use props to get conversation started. Newspaper or magazine photos, pictures printed from the Web, and book illustrations all work well. So does music. Mason Wiley, a Level 3 teacher, suggests playing a song and writing the lyrics on the board, then asking students to explain the meaning, line by line. The Beatles, Cat Stevens, and Jack Johnson are some of the songwriters he’s used.

At orientation yesterday, I asked PM volunteers for conversation topics they’ve tried and liked. The responses are below. Lots of great ideas that I’m looking forward to using this term!

Food vendors in Laos. Everyone loves to talk about  food. Photo: Alexander Steffler.

Favorite Foods

  • What’s your favorite food in your country? Describe how to make it. (For writing practice, students can write a recipe for their favorite food.)
  • What are your favorite foods here in the United States? Are there any foods here you don’t like?

— Allison Brieske, 3B

Holidays

  • What are the most important holidays in your country? How do people celebrate them?
  • Which holiday is your favorite? Why?
  • Do you celebrate any American holidays? Which one do you like best? Why?

— Deborah Birnbaum, 4B

Machu Picchu, the pre-Columbian Inca sacred site in Peru. Students are proud of famous landmarks in their countries, but describing them in English can be a challenge! Photo: Charlesjsharp.

Famous Landmarks in Your Country

  • Describe a famous landmark or attraction in your country.
  • If I’m going to your country on vacation, what should I be sure to see and do?

— Steve Skubel, 4A

Your Childhood Home

  • Describe the house you grew up in, giving as much detail as you can.
  • How was it different from the house or apartment where you live now?

— Christine Driscoll, 2B

A Chinese middle school classroom. Many Chinese students say that children and teens should focus only on their studies. Photo: Peter Griffin.

Children’s Lives

  • In your country, what role do children play in the family? Do they do household chores or help families earn money?
  • Should teenagers work at paying jobs, or focus entirely on school?
  • Do children in your country help make any family decisions?
  • How do you think children’s lives are different in the United States?

— Kelsey Gustafson, Advanced

 Household Chores

  • When you were growing up in your country, what chores did your parents do?
  • Did your mother and your father do different chores? Which chores were for men and which for women?
  • Do people still have to do those chores now? Why or why not?

— Dan Guilbeault, 3A

Wedding procession in Ulan-Ude, Republic of Buryatia, Russia. Photo: Délirante bestiole (la poésie des goupils).

Dating and Marriage Customs

  • Describe dating customs in your country. What’s appropriate? What’s not?
  • How is dating different in the United States?
  • How do people celebrate weddings in your country? Describe a wedding you attended — your own or someone else’s.

— Lindsay Neubauer, 4A

Dream Vacation

  • What’s the best vacation you ever took? Where did you go? What did you do?
  • If you had unlimited time and money for a dream vacation, where would you go?

— Larry Rausch, Advanced Writing

Villagers gather around a kiosk in Afto, Ethiopia, to charge their cellphones using solar power and fill up cans with UV clean water. Conservation and development don’t always have to be at odds. Photo: Green Prophet, http://www.greenprophet.com/.

 Development and Conservation

  • Which is more important, economic development or environmental conservation? Why?
  • Can you have both? How?

— Emily Naber, Conversation Class (now teaching Basic B)

And a few of my own favorites:

Missing Your Country

  • What do you miss most about your country? Is there anything you don’t miss?
  • What do you like most about living in the United States? What do you like least?

What do students miss most? Our Guatemalan students undoubtedly miss their country’s stunning natural beauty and “eternal spring.” The San Pedro, Tolimán, and Atitlán volcanos ring Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan highlands. Photo: Alexis Lê-Quôc.

Best Job/Worst Job

  • What’s the best job you ever had? Why was it good?
  • What’s the worst job you ever had? Why was it bad?

Nuclear Family vs. Extended Family

  • Is it better to live with a big extended family or with a small nuclear family?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of big households and small households?

Ask students about the most popular sport in their countries, and you’re likely to get one consistent response. Brazil and the Netherlands compete in the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match in South Africa, July 2010. APPhoto/Matt Dunham.

Hobbies and Sports

  • What do you like to do when you’re not working?
  • Do you play any sport?
  • What’s the most popular sport in your country? Is it popular here?

Beliefs about the United States

  • What ideas did you have about the United States before you moved here?
  • Where did you get those ideas?
  • Which ideas turned out to be true, and which turned out to be false?

National Stereotypes

  • What is a stereotype?
  • What stereotypes do other people have about your country? Are they mostly true, only partly true, or completely false?
  • What stereotypes do you have about other countries, including the United States? Do you think they are mostly true, only partly true, or completely false?
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One Response to Hot Topics: Conversation Starters for ESL Classes

  1. kaxnj says:

    Great site … teaching a Hot Topics class this winter break … thanks for the tips :)

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