How much do your students have to say?
Are they easy talkers, or do they need a little more coaxing? Is it hard to get them started or are they always ready to chatter up a storm? If you have a class with reluctant speakers, it could be you are simply asking the wrong questions. Starting your discussion with the right questions, questions designed to get your ESL students talking, can make the difference between fizzle and fabulous when it comes to in class conversation. If you need some ideas on how to get your students talking, here are eighteen questions to get you and your students started along with some ideas on how to come up with more of your own.
18 Conversation Questions Guaranteed to Get Them Talking
Questions of Culture
When you teach a class of internationals, asking about home cultures is always a great way to get your students talking. Depending on where your students are from, their cultures may be very different from one another as well as from your home culture. Plus, if they are studying overseas, odds are they encounter cultural conflicts on a regular basis. So encourage your students to talk about what life at home is like as well as their experience with living overseas. Try some of the following questions:
- How do people celebrate this holiday in your culture?
- Have you ever experienced culture shock? Tell us about it.
- What do you find most different between your home culture and your host culture?
- What advice would you give someone from your home country before going overseas?
For more questions about culture, think about the specifics about what you’re teaching, and tie cultural elements into that. For example, if you’re teaching about sports, ask students to share about popular or national sports in their home country.
Questions of Emotion
Have you noticed that most people prefer to give feedback on an experience when they are most disappointed with it? After only a brief search online, you can find site after site dedicated to complaints about business and products. These reviews are helpful to potential customers, of course, but often the writers benefit the most. They enjoy the opportunity to complain freely. To get your students talking, try asking questions about a bad or highly emotional experience they have had. Not only will they have plenty to share, you’ll also get a good read on their speaking skills since we tend to revert to our most basic speech when we get highly emotional, even in our first languages. Try some of the following questions when you want to get your students talking about emotional experiences.
- Tell your discussion group about some of the most awful customer service you have ever received.
- Have you ever been really angry? Tell your partner about what happened.
- What is something you are most frightened of? What would be the worst way you could encounter that fear?
- What is your greatest fear? Where do you think it originated?
- Has a friend ever treated you badly? Talk about what happened and how you handled the situation.
Anger and fear will stimulate the most conversation from the average person, so you can always use them as go to topics, but consider asking about positive experiences as well. Your students might not have the conversation fire they would with bad experiences, but the stories may be more enjoyable for your class.
Questions about Dreams and Wishes
We all have dreams for the future. Your students are no exception. Most likely, they have very tangible hopes for the years to come. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be studying English in your program. In fact, if your students are anything like mine, approximately ninety percent plan on using English for higher education or for business once they complete their language studies. Asking your students about these dreams is a great way to get them talking with each other. Try the following questions to get them started.
- What do you plan to do with English after your language studies?
- Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten years?
- What is the greatest thing you want to accomplish in your lifetime?
- Do you know what a bucket list is? What is on yours?
- Picture your life in fifty years. What advice would you give to your present self?
Talking about wishes ties in great so several grammar points including the conditional form and future tenses. Try asking questions to elicit certain grammatical structures from your students.
If you teach adult students, you might choose to use controversial issues to get them talking. When it comes to the hot button issues of the day, everyone’s got an opinion. So give your students a chance to share theirs by bringing up one of the topics they are sure to disagree about. Before you do, though, set some ground rules the most important of which is agreeing to disagree is ok and welcome. Also to discuss the topic calmly and respectfully. If someone disagrees with you they are not wrong, and you do not have to sway them to your opinion. Just share what you believe and why and let your classmates do the same. When you want to bring up a controversial issue, try questions such as the following.
- What do you believe about this topic? Why do you think your opinion is right?
- What would you say to someone who believes differently from you?
- How do you know your position is right? What standards do you use to choose your position?
- Prepare for a mock debate on this issue. With your team, prepare your arguments for your position and your rebuttals to someone of the opposite opinion.
Your classroom may be full of more controversial issues than you think. Pay attention to the times students disagree. Often there is a difference in cultural values, and you can use these topics as controversial questions your students will jump to answer.
Your students have a lot to say, and getting them to say it may just be a matter of asking the right questions.
If you ask your students to share things they feel strongly about – where they are from, what constitutes right, what they want most in life, and what they care about, you will never lack great conversation in your ESL class.
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