12 conversation strategies worth teaching

One thing my CELTA course skimmed over was how to develop learners’ conversation strategies.

There seems to be a good amount of focus on conversation strategies in recent coursebooks. However, at times I find these can be problematic. Models of effective convo strategies/techniques can be naff sometimes. Where there are no models, and instead there are tip boxes for maybe using a convo strategy during a task, these can lack detail. They require the teacher to elaborate quite a bit. While the teacher notes can help, you might find (as I do on occasions) that there’s a bit of a mismatch. I.e. the language that is anticipated to come up during the task isn’t actually needed/is needed but is already known/needs to be built on.

So, are there better ways of introducing conversation strategies to learners than through coursebook activities? Pfff, yeah! I mean, the need for convo strategies often emerges naturally during the course of lessons. The key thing as a new CELTA graduate is to get your ear in…

There may be loads of opportunities to upgrade learners’ conversation skills, you’ve just got to know what to listen for. So, for recent CELTA grads, here’s a brief list of things that learners might not be doing during classroom conversation, but would be really useful skills for them to acquire…

1 Backchannelling

Easily top of the list. Here’s a very brief explanation of backchanneling from ELT Notebook. Basically, reactions to a speaker to show engagement – ‘yeah’, ‘really?’, ‘oh’, etc. While you’re at it, you might want to highlight to learners that it’s important to react sometimes not only to show your listening, but to show you care! Like this tumbleweed moment in my class from last week:

Me: Sorry I missed the class yesterday. I had to stay at home because my kid was sick.

Students: …

Me: Sick. Like, pretty ill actually.

Students: …

Me: I had to take him to hospital…………..

Students: …

Me: Anyway, today’s lesson is called, funnily enough, ‘Listening with interest’

*Haha* Just one of those moments.

2 Follow-up questions

Seem to go hand-in-hand with backchannelling.

Me: My kid was sick.

Student: Oh no. How is he now?

Me: Yeah, a bit better thanks.

Encourage learners to think of a natural Wh-question to follow-up on what the speaker says.

 3 Extending your speaking turn

Again, connected to the above a bit. I tend to cover this a lot in IELTS training, but in our general classes I often use the prompt QAAA when learners are discussing a topic.

Student A: Question

Student B: Answer, Add, Ask

Depending on the topic, that ‘Add’ bit often involves justifying a point of view…

4 Fillers

‘you know’, ‘I mean’, ‘Um’…

Raising awareness of these really is an ongoing thing as you need lots and lots of examples. I do try to use them too in class… Well, what I mean is, I don’t always grade my language in such a way that I avoid them. That gives learners more examples of authentic use (if classroom language is considered authentic), and helps to develop other listening strategies like identifying essential/non-essential info.

 5 Discourse markers in general

Written a bit about them here, which I guess I still agree with. Ah man, sequencing/convo flow! That’s one thing my learners struggle with because they so naturally revert to their L1.

(I get why, not a criticism at all. Still, if I had a baht for every time I’ve heard ‘leew khor’ from my Thai learners… hehe).


6 Acknowledging others’ ideas/opinions

I guess this is part of backchanneling. Important stuff. Listen out for those moments, like in debates, which are like…

Student A: I think…

Student B: Well, for me…

Student C: In my opinion…

(i.e. no one seems to be listening to each other!)

You could start simple, suggesting responses like ‘Hmmm’, ‘Maybe’ (that passes judgement though so depends on context), and build to things like ‘That’s a good/fair point’, ‘I see your point’ etc.

7 Active listening – summarising

‘Okay, so [Student A] you think that [blah], and [Student B] you said that [blah]. Someone also mentioned…’ etc. The thing is, I mean, with adult learners you’re not really teaching the skill of summarising, as they would do it if the context required it. You’re just giving the process language or upgrading their ability to do this naturally in English.

8 Hedging language

The hedging needed by my learners tends to be

Hedging like when you’re speculating: It might be the case that…

Making generalisations (and highlighting that these are subjective): tend to, seem to

It’s really worth drawing attention to the latter (I think) -listen out for opportunities to do so!

9 Repairing breakdowns

‘Sorry, I’m confused…’, ‘Sorry, what was that?’, ‘I…er… I’m a bit lost! What were you saying?’ Things like that. Key thing to listen for is if learners just use ‘What?’. I mean, it can be effective, but also a bit curt at times, so a few other phrases might help.

10 Clarifying

‘Do you mean…?’, ‘So, are you saying that…?’ etc. Sometimes you’ve got to listen pretty carefully for moments when these phrases are needed…

Actually, pronunciation is a big part of this one too. Listen out for opportunities to teach learners useful stress/intonation patterns.

A: I’d ban mobile phones in schools. They are a massive distraction.

B: You mean you’d ban all mobile phones in schools? Like, even teacher’s phones?!

A: Oh, sorry. No, I meant students’ phones.

11 Vague language

I have great editors at One Stop English. Really. I include lots of vague language in my listening texts for the Everyday Life series, and the editors are like ‘yeah, why not? It’s natural enough, and it’s useful’. Again, vague language can be a good chance to develop listening skills (essential/non-essential). I recommend taking Ken Paterson’s course on Spoken Grammar as he does a good job of introducing vague language, sharing tips on how to teach it and, you know, stuff like that.

So that’s a starting point for things to listen out for. If, as a new CELTA grad, you’re struggling with confidence in addressing learners emerging needs (conversation-wise), my advice would be this: Start by making a conversational/speaking skill the main aim of your lesson – kind of the opposite to what I said before! Choose something that you can only plan loosely, as the content is unpredictable. Example:

… Telling anecdotes

This is an important convo skill, and involves lots of interesting features, like historic present tense, engaging listener with phrases like ‘right?’, ‘so, you know, blah blah’. They’ll need a lot of strategies here (backchanneling, keeping audience interest and engagement, reacting, effective pausing) so there is loads for you as a teacher to experiment with. Get students to repeat their anecdotes (around whatever topic) multiple times, and upgrade between each repetition with a conversation strategy. Hey, not too many though! Don’t get carried away.

That’s it. Hope something was useful 😊

(I wrote this post with a friend in mind. Congrats to Nick, who has just finished his CELTA here in Bangkok.)

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Categories: CELTA tips, General, lists

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