The sky is blue. The white clouds float past high overhead. The birds chirp enticingly calling, “Come outside. Come outside.” The teacher in you says to be responsible, but the forever student inside wants to give in to your students’ cries to take class outside.
The good news is this: you can enjoy the beautiful weather summer has to offer while still teaching your class useful and important English skills.
Teaching Small Talk: How to Proceed
Introducing Small Talk
One of the easiest activities to take outside is conversation. It’s easy enough to simply take your class outside to do conversation activities you have already planned for your current unit, but why not use an out of classroom experience to give your students a more authentic experience with native speakers? Small talk is the perfect opportunity for your students to practice their English in a nonthreatening and low commitment setting with native speakers.
Before setting your students loose among the public, explain to them the concept of small talk. Small talk is chatter between people that do not know each other who are either trying to get to know each other or trying to keep up polite conversation. In English, there are some acceptable topics for small talk. One of the most common is the weather. You can teach your students colloquial phrases like “Is it hot enough for you?” and “April showers bring May flowers.” You can also use the opportunity to review weather vocabulary or introduce it if you are teaching beginning students. Going out into the public and making small talk is an opportunity to show your students that weather vocabulary is not just something to mark off a checklist but a thing that it is useful in day-to-day living.
Professional sports may be another subject area you want to explore when giving your students tools for small talk. “How about them Yankees?” or similar phrases can be useful for international students who are trying to carry on a conversation with native speakers. Different times of the year will be appropriate for different sports. With summer approaching, baseball is a hit. Depending on how much class time you invest in this subject, you may even want to take your students to a game (minor league games are great and inexpensive).
Warn Your Students
Make sure your students understand that there are many topics not suitable for small talk. They should know that it is inappropriate to discuss politics with strangers as well as topics of finance and appearance. These subjects will not always be taboo in a student’s native culture, so it is always best to give some direction as to what not to say.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Now is your opportunity to give your students some practice before actually hitting the streets. You can pregenerate a list of possible scenarios your students may find themselves in where small talk could be required. These places may include standing in line at a restaurant, at a sporting event, or when waiting to purchase something. Keep it simple. There is no real need to create scenarios with great detail because your students will be acting as strangers to one another and have no more complex a goal than making simple conversation. Pair students together and let the whole class practice at once, then take some of your bravest volunteers to act out the scenario in front of the class. Other students can give feedback on what they did well and where they need to work for improvement.
Make the Most of Where You Are
Finally, take your students out into the public to practice their newly acquired small talk skills. Your specific location will determine what places you can bring your students. Some potential places might be a coffee shop, a grocery store or a cafeteria. A local park or public area, a ticket booth, a beach or a shop are also possibilities. A public library or courthouse may also be places you could take your students. Your best opportunities will come in places where there are a number of people waiting for something with nothing else to do at the time.
Let your students know that the setting may also open up new topics for small talk including the food at a particular restaurant, a movie you may be in line to purchase tickets for or a sporting event. All these are suitable topics when they relate to the setting the small talk is happening in. It would not really be appropriate to discuss food at a particular restaurant while waiting in line for a movie ticket, though.
The next time the birds beckon and the sun entices - remember this: as ESL teachers, we do not have to feel guilty about taking our classes outside.
The good summer weather can provide the perfect opportunity to work on small talk, an area of conversation that is often neglected. The more opportunities you give your students to have authentic conversation with native speakers, the more progress they will make and the easier their transition will be to full immersion in English. So go outside, meet some people, and try to make the most of the good weather ahead.
Susan likes to enjoy every day to its fullest whether she is freelance writing, teaching homeschoolers, or developing her special talent of instigation. When she is not imagining sand castles or catching others off balance, she cooks, sings, reads and takes walks in the sunshine. She earned an M.A. from the University of Delaware in Linguistics and an M.A. from Trinity School for Ministry in Youth Ministry. She currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her wonderful husband and her three cheepy cockatiels.
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