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 Short Conversations for TEFL students!

By Yoda Schmidt


This article explains how I use short conversations such as Sorry About That and In the Mood to give students, especially beginners and false beginners,  some useful expressions for surviving day to day in an English environment, as well as help them practice their intonation and pronunciation. Here is a complete listing of conversation handouts that are available on this website.


Above is a link of short conversations that I've created around useful expressions. How you teach them is up to you, but here is how I've used them: They are purposely made short as they are meant to be memorized by students because they are chalk full of useful expressions.


What!? More memorization! Well, a little. I am not a fan of memorization as a teaching technique, so I am only advocating it for a limited purpose here. These conversations are not a mere list of vocabulary items, but instead they are composed of chunks that students will find themselves needing time and time again. They are the same kind of chunks that I learned when I studied Korean. They helped give me survival skills for everyday situations.


Language is a motor skill as well as a cognitive skill and it helps to have a repertoire of these chunks to draw upon so that the conversation does not proceed at a snail's pace. As well, through repetition and memorization, the students will hone their intonation and pronunciation. By the time they are finished, they should be able to go through each conversation error free and in a speedy fashion.


But on the other hand, students will not advance their communicative competency very much on these alone. They will not be able to talk about complex issues in depth, or express opinions and arguments. These conversations are about survival, or functioning in an English world. In other words, they are about ordering a hamburger and not about criticizing government policy. And as such, these conversations are meant for beginners or false beginners. They are a stepping-stone to greater things at a later date.


Having said that, I'll briefly summarize how I use them. Before handing out the conversations, I begin with a short monologue on the topic or some kind of teacher talk that is related to the topic. I try to get some conversation going, but being beginners with limited English language skills, the students often give me strained conversation with me asking questions and them giving one-word answers.


Next, I hand the conversations out and have the students repeat after me until they are used to the pronunciation and intonation. The first time we go through the conversation, I go over any target phrases and check the student's understanding. After they have practiced with me, I get them to close their books and I make each group member recite the conversation in turn. If they make a slight error, they have to try it again from the top until they get it right. If I have only a small group, I listen and stop them when they make a mistake. But for a larger class, I break them up into groups of two or three. 


If I break them up into groups of two, then one person will recite the conversation, while the other person looks at the sheet and stops them when they make a mistake. If they make a mistake, they have to start from the beginning. In groups of three, one group member will check the conversation while the other two practice it. This technique is known as the human tape recorder.


After they have memorized the short conversation to my satisfaction (i.e. flawlessly), we do the activity or questions under the conversation on the handout. This whole process takes about 10-20 minutes. Then, we continue on with the real meat of the day's class, which hopefully is connected to the conversation in some way (though not always). At the end of class and at the beginning of the next class, the students will have to recite it again. And everyday, there is a new conversation waiting for them.


A word of warning however, for older students --especially adults with drinking problems-- memorizing a conversation can be frustrating, even when it's short. I let them off the hook if they can't handle it, but almost no one else gets off.

The students do get used to the discipline of doing this everyday and they like it because they can see their improvement daily (since they have a new useful chunk under their belt). I think the memorization aspect helps because I actually see them using these chunks in class when they can. In the past, I have laboured at putting useful expressions organized into daily themes on the board, but have been disappointed with the results in that students rarely used the expressions in spontaneous situations. With these chunks digested as wholes, however, I find the students do use them in class and that is the reason why I am advocating these conversations now: they produce results.