Good Conversation Exercises

Conversation is a key part of my class; however not just any conversation will do — the conversation must relate to the topic.  Unfortunately, I can’t always find a ready made conversation exercise for a given topic, so I’ve been trying to develop a systematic way to derive conversation exercises from lessons or to re-purpose exercises into conversational ones.

On the surface this seems easy, and it is — if one simply wants a trivial exercise.  However, good conversational activities require some work as they should…

  1. Relate to the topic (e.g.: no random chit-chat).
  2. Allow each student plenty of speaking time (e.g.: no class discussions).
  3. Provide results I can check (this keeps students from phoning it in).
  4. Be authentic (e.g.: no script reading).
  5. Require a deep understanding of the material (e.g.: no definition recitals).

The ideal conversation exercise should create an environment in which concepts are provided to students so that they need the right language to communicate them. Two approaches that have worked well for me are…

Info gaps. They’re great for authentic language and are available for many topics (see here) . Further, they are easy to generate; there’s even an info gap generator here. However, creating an info gap that exercises a non-trivial knowledge of the material may be difficult.

Class surveys. Each student asks the other students different questions about the topic and records the results. Questions can be anything, provided they solicit authentic language, so personal questions are best.  Some examples of questions are…

  • When was the last time you did __________________?
  • What do you think about __________________?
  • What is ____________________ like in your culture?

For instance, if the topic is body language (and the class size is 8 students) then each student can be given one of the following questions:

  1. When was the last time you bowed?  Why?
  2. When was the last time you winked at someone?  Why?
  3. When was the last time you shrugged?  Why?
  4. When was the last time you shook hands?  Why?
  5. When was the last time you backed away from someone?  Why
  6. When was the last time you hugged someone?  Why?
  7. When was the last time you nudged someone?  Why?
  8. When was the last time you whispered to someone?  Why?

Since each student has a different question, this means answers can’t be copied and every student must answer 14 different questions (7 “when” questions and 7 “why” questions).  Further, since the questions are personal, they get students to relate to the material which may increase retention and provide opportunities for spontaneous conversation (which I generally encourage).

Once the results are gathered, they can be checked for accuracy or used as a segue into discussing certain language forms (such as comparison/contrast, ways of expressing opinions, words related to time, etc…).  They can even show where students are weak and hence help me plan future lessons.

Still, I think I can do better so help me out!

Questions

  1. What makes for a good conversation exercise?
  2. What are some good conversation exercises?
  3. Do you use info gaps?
  4. Can you generate info gaps that require authentic language and a deep focus on the topic?
  5. Do you have suggestions for creating good conversation exercises from a given lesson?
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