Hello! Is there anybody out there?
Ask any adult student why he or she is studying English, and you’ll be told. “I want to be able to talk to foreigners.” “I want to converse in English.” “I want to be able to communicate with our foreign customers on the phone.” “I want to learn how to hold a conversation in English.”
Free conversation is the Holy Grail of language learners. With conversation skills they’ll hold the key to international communication, be able to conduct business in English, be able to fraternize with Westerners, perhaps even form a romantic liason with one. So teach me how to talk! Who cares if my reading and grammar skills don’t amount to much? I can do without that kind of stuff. I just want to be able to talk in English.
Well, as you or I know, without grammar, any conversation you enter into is going to sound like a dog’s breakfast. And without reading, you aren’t going to expand your vocabulary. And with a crap vocabulary you aren’t going to be able to…. I won’t go on. You know it; I know it, but our dear students don’t.
If your school is offering Free Conversation classes, those will be the ones most in demand. Those are the classes that will be bursting with eager, hopeful students waiting for you to impart oral fluency to them in a matter of six weeks or so. Yeah right. Their grammar is still at the pre-intermediate level, they know a total of 40 words in English between them, and their listening skills are abysmal. But don’t worry about that, just go in there and make them fluent.
It’s a near-impossible task of course, but it’s what you’re getting paid to do, so if you want those pay checks to keep coming, go in there and make the best of it. And how to do that?
First off, the class may be named ‘Free Conversation Class’, but there’s no such thing as free conversation for students at lower levels. Memorized conversations, yes. Guided conversation, yes. Free conversation, sorry, but no. So what you’ve got to do is a bunch of repetition drills, substitution drills, and memorization drills, all of them under the guise of ‘free conversation’. Here’s some ideas:
Forget about naming a topic (let’s say ‘eating out’) then saying “Right, discuss that”. It’s a surefire cue for a deafening silence. Instead, write on the whiteboard ‘Last night I went to _______ restaurant. I had ________ . It cost $___. It was ________.’ Drill the sentences a few times; “Last night I went to Beachside Restaurant. I had chicken. It cost $6. It was delicious.” Then get them saying the sentences using their own input to fill the gaps. Have some of the stronger students do it individually, then assign it as pair work. Once that’s done, you could get each pair to change partners, and do it over. Or you could change the pair work exercise into a milling session, where one student tries to say the routine to as many others as possible. You could also change a few words in the sentence patterns. “Last week me and my family went to X Restaurant. We had X. It was horrible.” (Anything negative).
Next, a change of topic, but retaining the same sentence patterns. “Two weeks ago me and my boyfriend went to the beach. We swam for three hours. It was lovely.” (Yes, yes, I know it should be ‘my boyfriend and I’, but I don’t speak like that, and unless you’re a professor of grammar, neither do you probably.) Make sure that the partner listening to the utterance responds in some way. A non-responsive listener leaves any conversation dead in the water. “Really, uh huh, oh yeah, did you?”
Once they’ve practiced the shit out of these patterns, you could try extending them. “Uh huh. I’ve never been to X Restaurant. Where is it? How far is it from your house? Will you go there again?”
Next, a memorization drill. Write a short conversation on the board.
B: Hi. This is Jack.
A: Hi Jack. How are you?
B: Good. What are you doing right now?
A: I’m watching TV.
B: Oh yeah. What are you watching?
A: Who Wants to be a Millionaire on HBO channel.
B: Is it good?
A: Yes, very good.
Drill the conversation until they’ve committed it to memory. I do this by the erase and repeat method. They say a line. You erase the lettering of the first four words apart from the initial letter of each word. They repeat. You erase some more letters. They repeat. And so on until they’ve got the whole conversation off pat. Then they practice it in pairs. (You can insist that while speaking they must look their partner in the eye.) Then you get some selected couples to say it in front of the class.
All pretty predictable and hum-drum, huh? No-one has been asked to contribute a new idea or an opinion. Their input is limited to substituting nouns and verbs in set sentences. But if you’ve presented it at a fast pace, your students might just think “Hey, we’re having conversations!”
Now if your students are ever going to conduct actual free conversations any time in the future, you’ll need to upgrade their listening skills. The most effective way I know of doing this is by rapid dictation. As the name implies, you speak rapidly, at the same rate of speech you’d use with a friend or family member. But with rapid dictation, you repeat the sentence over and over. How many times will vary depending on the class. Keep gabbling out the sentence until 90% of your students have got it 90% right. While you’re dictating, wander around the room looking at their papers. Make marks on their papers indicating where mistakes occur, but not the nature of those mistakes. It’s not a race, so don’t congratulate or hug the first student to get it right, just turn his or her paper face down and continue with your repetitions. Once the sentence has been satisfactorily dealt with, get the students to repeat it a few times, introduce an appropriate response, and have them practice it in pairs. Rapid dictation is good value. You’ll see marked improvements in the students’ listening skills if you do it regularly. I do eight to ten sentences of it almost every single lesson. And here’s another plus with rapid dictation: the students seem to enjoy it.
Apart from the dictation session (where talking is forbidden) you must keep one thing uppermost in your mind: student talking time must occupy 90-95% of the session. Anything less than that, you may get students thinking “Hang on, this ain’t free conversation! This is just yet another English lesson.” And that’s one thought you definitely don’t want crossing their minds.