Oftentimes, students are quiet simply because they have not been properly prompted to speak.
Some may have the gift of gab in their native language, others are typically shy. Whatever the case may be, it is the ESL teacher’s role to provide students with ample opportunities for speaking. Here are 10 conversation starters that will never fail you. Seriously. They work great as ice-breakers or time fillers, and may be used to practice a variety of verb tenses.
Try These 10 Conversation Starters With Your Next Class
Where are you from?
The ideal conversation starter for a multicultural classroom, this simple question is great for groups of all levels and may be expanded to include more complex questions for higher levels. Start by asking a student where he/she is from, and then encourage the others to ask more specific questions about what you can do there, what the typical food is, what language they speak there, etc…
Name 3 things you have in your home/room
Students take turns naming things they have at home or in their bedroom. Encourage them to name things that may be unusual, perhaps a strange musical instrument or equipment for a sport not everyone plays. Students may also expand on their answers and explain why there is, for example, an antique typewriter in their home (it belonged to a grandparent). Make it challenging and tell each student that they can’t repeat an item already mentioned by a previous student.
Tell us about the last film you saw at the movies
Ask the student to name the film, and if possible give a short summary of the plot (without spoiling the ending!) Students then ask him/her questions about the film, like who’s in it, how long it is, if it’s a good film, if they liked/recommend it, etc…Expand to a discussion of the types of films they enjoy the most and their favorite movies.
Which 3 things would you take to a deserted island?
Students name three things they would take with them to a deserted island and why. You can make it more challenging by specifying that each of the three things have to be one animal, one technological device and one non-technological device. Say what they would do with each.
What is your dream vacation destination?
Students say where they would like to go, anywhere in the world and why. What would they do there? What sites/places would they see? Encourage students to ask questions. or ask students to supply information they may have about the destination. Has anyone else been there? Share!
Tell us about your first job
A good conversation starter for adult ESL learners, students talk about their first job. Where did they work? What did they do? What were their responsibilities? How long did they work there? Why did they leave this position? Students discuss if it’s a common job, if there are lots of people who do this or if it’s an unusual thing to do.
What was the last thing you bought?
Students talk about the last item they bought. Why did they buy it? Where? Was it a gift or for personal use? Expand to discuss where students usually go shopping. Do they ever buy things online? What would they buy and what wouldn’t they buy online? Do they prefer large department stores or small shops?
If you had to eliminate one of these things from your life, which would it be? Your computer, your cell phone, or your TV?
Which would they choose and why? How would their lives be different without this particular item? Why did they choose to keep the other two? What are the advantages and disadvantages of keeping each item?
What is one thing you’ve never done (and you’d like to do)?
Get the ball rolling by telling your students about something you’ve never done: “I’ve never hiked to Machu Picchu, but I want to.” Students take turns talking about things they’ve never done before, but they’d like to do. They must start by saying, “I’ve never…” Find out if there is anyone who has already done that. “Pablo says he’s hiked to Machu Picchu. Tell us what that was like, Pablo.”
If you had 3 wishes to make, what would you wish for?
This is the classic conversation starter for students who have been learning the unreal conditional. Ask each student to name their three wishes and say why they’d wish for that. How would their lives be different if these wishes came true? Here, you may also ask students to not repeat previous students’ wishes.
There are lots of other great conversation starters. When choosing one, try to make it something that sparks interest in your class.
You may also tailor each question to your class. You may ask a group of teens who is, in their opinion, the greatest pop star today, whereas you might ask a group of adults who was the greatest pop star of the 80s or 90s.
Want more great conversation starters you can use in any ESL class? Check out these 300 fun 5-minute activities (BusyTeacher’s best-selling e-book!), guaranteed to make even your quietest student speak up!