How effective are conversation lessons?

Last weekend has been a nice, long one here in Italy. Most schools were closed for 4 days so I had plenty of time to relax, study and improve my Emacs skills (Manuel, I’m looking at you 😉 ). I also had time to reflect on my work and on many other things going on in my life at the moment.

I don’t know how often you teach what we call “conversation lessons”, but at my school these are pretty common. Many adult students have negative experience with state school, grammar-based teaching, so once they pay for the lessons themselves the most common comment is: “I want to learn to speak. I don’t need any grammar, I already studied it at school for many years. Is it possible to have conversation-only lessons?”

So I end up teaching a lot of these 1:1 conversation classes to accommodate the student’s requests, and I do my best to facilitate conversation, scaffold and generally help the learners build fluency (and sometimes accuracy). But just as often I ask myself: are these really useful? Is it actually possible to teach conversation? If so, how do you do it effectively?

I don’t have any answer for these questions yet. What I tend to do at the moment are Dogme-style lessons, where I use an appropriate written or spoken text to set the topic (or I use activities like Something I), and develop the conversation from there, using scaffolding and delayed feedback techniques to help the learner. However, I often get the feeling that the student leaves the lesson without having achieved much more than speaking a little English for an hour or so – something she could easily have done with an English-speaking friend.

I am not sure whether this is just my impression – maybe I expect too much – or a reality. What is your experience and opinion on speaking-only lessons? How do you teach them? Do you find them effective? Do you have any interesting book/article to suggest on this issue?

I would be really glad to hear from you, so please feel free to comment with your experience and impressions in the comment field below.

Thanks and happy teaching! 🙂

26 thoughts on “How effective are conversation lessons?”

  1. Hi Giulia, I happen to teach a lot of 1:1 conversation classes this year and I understand your doubts. In terms of “achieving something”, I think it’s always harder to measure with so-called conversation classes which often resemble a casual talk about…exactly, sometimes it’s even hard to pinpoint the topic here. I tend to look at it this way: if there is at least one language doubt we cleared in class (be it pronunciation, grammar issue, choosing the best word to use in the context) it wasn’t just a chat my student could’ve had with anybody. Or is it me not expecting enough?

    1. Thanks for your comment Gosia! It is definitely true that a conversation lessons with a teacher is not the same as a chat with a friend, maybe I oversimplified the point on my post. But exactly because it is difficult to pinpoint the progress, sometimes I feel frustrated — and I worry the learners might feel the same way. have you ever had such feedback from your students?

      1. A student, who explicitly asked for conversation classes, told me after several weeks that she was expecting “something more than just talking”. That was a bit of a catch-22 for me. We spoke about it and decided to try two things. The first was working a lot more with the language that comes up in class (looking at how certain words collocate, word families,fixed expressions). The second was something new for me as far as conversation classes go: giving homework. She would listen to a podcast of her choice and bring in some lexis she found interesting/unclear to class for us to work with (she would share the listening file with me before class). She’s been quite happy with the set up as it gave her something more palpable to work with and something to take away from the class. What do you think about that?

        1. Uhm, that could be a great compromise. In this way, your student is exposed to English for longer time (lesson + podcast) and has an active role in the lessons rather than just sitting and answering the teacher’s questions.
          In the past we tried to ask the students of conversation lessons to supply a list of topics or language points they wanted to discuss in class before the lesson, but most students didn’t, as they kind of expect the teacher to do this job for them.

        2. I’ve been there with groups not contributing and leaving it all to you: it’s your job to teach, entertain, and make sure they progress.
          1:1s are a slightly different story as it’s easier to at least select some topics. I prepared a list of topics (that I also wouldn’t mind discussing) and asked my students to tick the ones they liked. I left some space for their suggestions, got one 🙂 I also once heard “Yeah, you just think of something” (regarding what we might do in class next week). I honestly don’t know how to break this cycle with adult learners.

  2. judyldubois

    Your student is getting Comprehensible Input on topics that interest them. You will see results in the long run. In the TPRS world conversations are called PQA (personalized questions and answers) and are used in almost every lesson. Teachers are able to identify specific problems from the students’ output and use circling techniques to be sure that they get more input using the problematic structures. The progress isn’t visible in the very next lesson, but with more input the high frequency structures will all be covered. As we say, Teach for June.

    1. Hi Judy,
      thanks for your comment. So you suggest to focus on some problematic structure/language and use it / make the student use it until it is clearer? How so you do this without making conversation really unnatural?

      1. judyldubois

        It’s delicate and less is more. the student says, “I go Paris yesterday.” I nod and echo, as if to confirm that I’ve understood correctly, “Ah, you went to Paris. I didn’t go to Paris, I went to Versailles. How did you go?” “By train.” “Ah, you went by train. I went by car.” “Circling” is a skill that TPRS teachers learn to use to get in repetitions of targeted structures. As soon as it feels unnatural, we stop. There will be other opportunities later.

  3. Hi Giulia! That’s a really interesting point. I’m teaching English to Spanish students and I sometimes have the same impression. However, I always try to widen their vocabulary and introduce them interactive expressions which make them to master their speaking skills. For adults, I usually ask them about the topics they would like to deal with. Little by little you can see the progress and you realize that it works out.
    Nevertheless, I find another problem in speaking lessons, most of them keep using Spanish language anyway when they don’t know the word they want to say, instead of explain their idea using what they know.

    Btw, good blog, I follow you for sharing ideas!

    Have a nice day!

    1. Hi Mariló,
      thanks for the nice words! I experice the problem you mentioned with my students too. They tell me the word they want to say in Italian and they expect me to translate it for them. I guess this is my fault, as I get them used to this (I see it as a way to expanding their vocabulary, but it doesn’t always work).
      I guess you are right, maybe for such lessons the progress can be seen only in the long term. Still I think conversation lessons should be just one part of a more comprehensive course involving all four skills.

      1. Definetely Giulia! Conversation implies the integration of other skills and language components, all of them are complementary! However, in my country, Spain, few lessons are devoted to train conversation in high school. Therefore, students know lot of grammar, but they have no idea of how to put it into practice concerning conversation. That should be changed!!!

        1. Same here in Italy, lots of grammar at school and little or no speaking skills. That is why adult students want conversation-only lessons.

  4. Hi Giulia.

    I think conversation is definitely possible to teach; I just think it’s a bit more difficult than grammar. On the positive side, it is a lot easier to learn. I think a lot of it is showing different conversation strategies, like opening,, closing and diverting conversations and illustrating how speakers sabotage their conversations.

    I think that you and your blog readers might be interested in this post on my blog, which has a link to a worksheet I made on teaching backchannelling and active listening.



    1. Thanks Marc,
      I’ll definitely have a look at your worksheet and try it out with my students.
      There is a lot about teaching conversation skills that I don’t know, I’m sure your post will help me on this. Any other interesting reading you can suggest?

  5. Hi Giulia,

    I’ve recently come across a book by Scott Thornbury and Dianne Slade, ‘Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy’, that explores the nature and features of conversation as well as approaches to teaching.


  6. Fernanda da Luz

    I guess students have the feeling that they are prpducing more and they really enjoy that. Yet I do feel like there’s not a Real improvement… maybe we expect to much from them. Most adults don’t have time to study at home and they only speak/think/see English in class. I came up With the conclusion that many of them Just need to break an emotional Barrier (I don’t speak English or I can’t speak English) We help them to feel more confident when speaking but this doesn’t mean they are Speaking Better. It’s pretty hard measuring learning and it takes time. I have mixed feelings about conversation classes. There are classes that I feel bad because sts are not producing What I expect. However, there are moments when they surprise me With their production. I guess I’m still learning as well. That’s What teaching is all about, right? 🙂

  7. Two thoughts on this:

    One thing you could do is give your student a reading or a video clip to watch before the lesson to provide some sort of stimulus for the content of the lesson – make sure it’s challenging. The student takes note of any language s/he is unsure of and ask you during the lesson. Instant gratification for the student!

    Something I always do is keep track of the language which comes up during the lesson. So while the student is talking I am always making notes. This means the student can focus on speaking rather than on taking notes. We go through the language (error correction as well as good language, vocabulary building and pron) as we go along but then we spend 10 minutes at the end going through everything again. The student then takes the note(s) home for reference. Have a look at this for more info on what I’m talking about:

    Hope that’s helpful 🙂

    1. Thanks a lot Kirsten, I’ll definitely try what you suggest. But are you sure taking notes for your students is promoting learner independence?

      1. I think there’s a time and a place for learner independence and in a conversation class the focus should be on the learner formulating language and communicating.

        It also shows the learners that you are really listening to what they are saying and are responding to them on an individual basis.

        1. I partially agree, the focus should be in getting the students to use the language. But I still don’t think taking notes for them would work for me. Even just for a conversation class, I’d still prefer to show the student how to take affective notes. I generally scribble my notes on a piece of paper and then, when we discuss the points together, let her take notes instead. It takes up a little more time, but I believe it is always worth investing time on learner independence.

        2. By taking notes I mean taking note of errors or looking at improvements in language, so this is not something the students can actually do themselves. And if I have written it down I see no point in making them write it all down again themselves.

          This is not a novel idea – lots of teachers use this technique.

          But I suppose we will have to agree to disagree 🙂

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