There are many interesting ESL conversation topics to choose from, and as long as some basic principles are followed, teaching English conversation is not difficult. There will be different challenges depending on your teaching situation.
In some parts of the world - Spain, Portugal & other countries - a common complaint in teachers' rooms is "How can I get Maria to stop talking for half a second?" In parts of the world with more traditional education systems - China, Taiwan, Japan & other countries - a common complaint in teachers' rooms is "How can I get Xiao Ming or Ritsuko to speak at all in the class?"
Obviously, neither of these situations is good in esl discussions. In the first case only a few dominant students speak. In the second case only the teacher speaks. Before I talk about how to use ESL conversation topics in the class, I'd like to mention a common mistake in teaching English conversation.
This was a mistake I made many years ago, before I learnt the value of using tasks in the classroom, of which ESL questions are one - if used correctly. The following is an example of how NOT to do it..."Hello. Today we are going to talk about embarrassing things you've done. Good. Mary, What is the most embarrassing thing you have ever done?"
"Come on Mary! Tell everybody, Have you ever been embarrassed?"
Continued embarrassed silence.
The teacher then complains in the teachers' room that the students want conversation, but when you give them conversation they don't want to speak.
In the above example, the teacher made two mistakes. First the choice of esl conversation topic was poor. Avoid embarrassing topics if you want anyone to speak. Avoid more limited topics too. Getting a conversation going on types of potatoes would be hard for the best teacher. Although when I lived in the countryside as a child I heard farmers have lively discussions on the different types of potatoes. Religion and politics are generally best avoided, although you must be the final judge of what's suitable. All ESL conversation topics are not born equal.
The second mistake may not be as clear. There was no task for the students to complete. The teacher tried to carry the conversation without the help of a task. It's true that sometimes, with the right students and the right discussion topics, this will work. However, it's very hit and miss. Given a task, even the shyest students can be taken out of themselves, and if the ESL task is structured correctly, the most talkative ones won't dominate as much as they might otherwise do. ESL conversation topics form one kind of ESL task.
Of course, anything you can discuss in class can be an ESL conversation topic. The way I'm using the term is for sets of ESL questions on a topic, which, when set up correctly can form a task for students to perform in pairs, small groups and eventually amongst the whole class.
ESL speaking activities can be created in other ways too. For example lists of vocabulary related to the ESL conversation topic can be ranked by students according to various criteria. An example is the easiest way of showing this...
If the ESL conversation topic was "accommodation," a list of suitable questions might be:
1. What was your first home like?
2. How many times have you moved in your life? How do you feel about moving?
3. Have you ever built a house? Would you like to build your own home?
4. Have you ever slept in the open? What was it like?
5. What is your perfect accommodation? Describe it and say why you like it.
6. Have you ever had a wonderful neighbour? How was he/she good?
7. What are good ways of resolving disputes with not so good neighbours?
8. Where do you prefer living, in the city, or in the countryside? Why?
9. How much space do you need to live in? Explain why?
10. Should the state provide accommodation for homeless people? Why/Why not?
11. What things make a house a home?
12. How important is having a garden to you? Explain why.
13. Which is the most important room for you in your house? Why?
14. Is it better to rent or to buy your own accommodation? Why?
15. Is buying houses and apartments for renting out a good investment? Explain.
16. Some of the super rich live in floating tax havens to avoid paying any tax. Would you consider doing this if you were a millionaire?
17. Would you like to spend a weekend in an igloo? Why/Why not?
18. Have you ever shared your accommodation with the natural world [insects & animals]? What did you do?
19. Would you prefer to live in an old house or a new house? Why?
20. What type of holiday accommodation do you like best? Why?
There are a number of ways of using these ESL conversation questions. The worst way - as already explained - is to stand at the front of the class and ask the questions to the group. Much better is to choose the questions which you think are most suitable for your class; or ask your students to choose the questions they would like to discuss. If you choose the questions, simply put the students into pairs or small groups, and they discuss the answers. If the students choose the esl questions they like, then it may be possible to pair up students of similar interests. After the students have discussed the topics, they can report their main ideas to the rest of the class for further comments, if wanted.
Another way of using an ESL conversation topic is to list some related vocabulary. In this case it might be:
• bungalow• flat/apartment• detached house• mansion• tent• igloo• tree house• semi-detached house• bedsit• hotel• castle• houseboat
The students are then asked to rate the vocabulary - after any unknown words have been explained - according to chosen criteria. The criteria will vary according to the topic. Here they may be: comfort, desirability, convenience etc. The students then rate the vocabulary in pairs or small groups. Once they have come to an agreement, the pairs can be combined into larger groups, until the whole class is discussing the appropriate rating.