Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Prisoners of Free Conversation

I can recognized a free conversation lesson a mile away.

Usually it’s more of a monologue, in which the native English-speaking teacher rambles about everything from tropical fish to soccer. Occasional words of praise might be thrown in (“Wow, your English has really improved!”).  The student might speak up occasionally with a word or two.

Such conversations usually take place in coffee shops or other public venues. They last for about an hour. When they’re over, money is exchanged–somewhere between 2000 and 3000 yen.

On good days, free conversation lessons can feel like being paid to have an amiable chat with a friend. On bad days, they’re torture.

Anyone who’s spent time in Japan as an English teacher has most likely run across the free conversation lesson–in their language school, or in those private lessons that take place in coffee shops. Given that most Japanese students spend years learning how to read, write, and diagram a sentence in English but get very few opportunities for casual speaking and listening, many students will request “free conversation.” They’re weary of textbooks and structured learning and just want to talk.

The problem is that most teachers, in my experience, have no idea how to do a “free conversation” lesson properly unless the student is very advanced. And many students who say they want to take a free conversation lesson do actually want a great deal of structure and actual instruction, not just an hour of chatting. Which leads to plenty of complaining on both sides. Teachers complain that students won’t talk and students give up when they can’t follow the teacher’s rambling monologue.

So here, culled from 10+ years of experience teaching English in a variety of settings and levels, are my tips for doing free conversation lessons effectively. This isn’t rocket science, but it’s surprising how many teachers do the exact opposite of what’s outlined here. So if you’re one of those teachers who finds yourself teaching a lot of free conversation and hating it / thinking it’s ineffective, give these tips a try.

Tips for Effective Free Conversation Classes (for group and one-on-one lessons)

1. Free conversation should never be “free conversation.” Even when dealing with highly advanced students, there should always be a structure to the lesson. For less advanced students, the class should be divided into short segments (mini-conversations) with plenty of opportunity to ask questions and go over key vocabulary and phrases. For more advanced students, you should prepare questions and other materials (newspaper articles, photos, etc.) beforehand. The conversations may veer off in other directions, but you should have a planned theme and structure in mind.

Write up a lesson plan. Seriously. It doesn’t have to take you more than a few minutes, but you should at least make a list of points to cover and questions to ask if the conversation stalls. Don’t just show up with nothing prepared.

2. If you hear your own voice a lot, you’re doing it wrong. Free conversation lessons frequently devolve into “Listening to the Teacher Talk About Stuff” lessons. Avoid the trap of dominating the conversation or spending too much time on lengthy explanations of grammar and vocabulary.

3. Call on students by name—don’t wait for them to speak. Saying “Anyone?” or simply posing a question and waiting for someone to answer it will get you long silences. Even in classes where the students and teacher know each other well, students can be reluctant to speak first. Additionally, one or two students are likely to dominate the conversation.

4. Ask good questions. Avoid open-ended questions like “What do you think?” Also avoid yes-no questions that don’t offer much opportunity for expansion.

Good question: Tell me about your favorite food.
Not-so-good question: What is your favorite food?

Good question: What kind of exercise do you recommend and why?
Not-so-good question: What do you think about exercise?

5. Use props. These can be as simple as a photograph, a flyer, a menu, a book, or a hat—you don’t have to spend money on props. Having a tangible object to look at and touch can be a great way to get the conversation moving. Talking about favorite foods, for example, is more interesting when looking at a real restaurant menu or a cookbook. You don’t have to read all the material in the book / menu or even use it in the lesson, it’s just a good accessory.

6. At the same time, don’t overwhelm students with written material. If you want to use a menu or a newspaper article, consider using just a piece of it. If you give students an entire menu they may spend the whole class trying to read it, but if you only provide them with a cut-out section of it, it will be easier to focus the lesson.

7. Keep your conversation topics specific and focused. Particularly for less advanced students, a topic like “Movies” is WAY too big and varied for a free conversation lesson. Try “Talking About Movie Genres” or “Describing the Plot of a Movie” instead. And don’t rush through the material. Novice teachers have a tendency to pile way too many teaching points into a single lesson, leaving students confused and overwhelmed. Repeat and review, repeat and review. It may not be as exciting for you, the teacher, but your students will get a lot more out of the lesson.




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Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life is the best place for your personal blog or business site.

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