ESL Discussions

Creating good ESL discussions in your class is a skill like any other. Sometimes discussions fail before they've really started. The reason is usually because the discussion task is not clear, too hard for the students, or doesn't exist at all.

My earliest attempts at teaching English conversation were like this. In my past ignorance, I thought that asking a few questions would lead to a discussion. After a few attempts I realised that this seldom works, unless you have some confident and talkative students. Even then, there is the risk that only the most talkative students benefit. The quieter, or shyer, students can easily end up just listening. While this is not bad in itself, it is not the purpose of a conversation class.

The lesson I learnt is that a suitable task is needed. Sometimes good ESL discussions just take off. In this case just go with it if you wish, but be aware that in such situations it is normally just a few, more talkative students, who benefit.

Here are some ideas for encouraging ESL discussions in the classroom.

ESL Discussions - Activities

Persuade your partner that your favorite color, animal or film is better, more important etc. This works well as a warmer. After the students have tried persuading their partner, they can report back to the class on their efforts.

Interpreting pictures Find pictures which show a situation which is dramatic and is open to different interpretations. Photocopy the picture (which can be found on the internet and printed, or in magazines) and give a copy to each pair of students. They must decide on the circumstances leading up to the picture and just after it.

Character studies For ESL discussions this activity works best with pictures of people you know, or know something about. Photocopy 3 or 4 pictures of people from magazines or the internet. It's best to use people who show some character, not models in fashion magazines. Give each group or pair a different picture.

The students can be asked to make notes on personal details of the person in the picture. Age, occupation, interests, problems in their life, ambitions, family background, education and so on. Picture can then be exchanged with other groups. It's interesting for the groups to compare their notes, and to see if their ideas match reality - although this is not the object of the activity.

Predicting Future Results

What would happen if demand for water in the world was double the supply? If prostitution was made legal? If alcohol was made illegal? If smoking was banned totally? If a single language was spoken by everyone in the world? If everyone was always honest? If all food was free? If aliens arrived on Earth? Students can be put in small groups or pairs to discuss these issues and then report back to the class on their ideas. If there is enough interest, the discussion can continue at a whole class level.

Explanations This is similar to the previous ESL activity. Give students a situation and ask them to imagine the causes.

Odd One Out An old TESOL activity. Give the students a list and ask them to choose the odd one out and say why. Students can also be asked to make their own lists. This works well whether teaching English to children or teaching adults, and can be adapted for all levels. A list may be:

  • apple, pear, guava, orange, banana
  • horse, car, elephant, airplane, cow
  • Brazil, China, USA, Egypt, India
  • music, reading, football, surfing, playing computer games
  • cheese, steak, vegetable curry, nachos, burger & fries

Of course, there are many 'right' answers to which one is different and why.

Putting words into Categories Placing things in categories is a common human activity and can be adapted quite easily into an ESL activity. Give the students a list of objects, animals, interests, sports, famous people, cities, subjects, types of media, languages, foods, personality types.....and then ask them to put them into categories: essential, very useful, useful, not useful; positive, negative; healthy, unhealthy; inborn, learned; or allow the students to come up with their own categories. The students should do this in pairs or small groups and say why they think each word should be put in a particular category.

Picture Differences have long been used in ESL discussions. Find a black and white line drawing. Photocopy it and make some minor changes using paper whitener to erase, or a black felt tip pen to add. Photocopy the original and altered picture. Then give each student a copy of either the original or altered picture, and in pairs they must find the differences. It's best to tell the students how many differences there are and to teach any language needed to complete the task - if necessary. Such language might include "There is a ___ in the top left corner." After the students have spent a certain amount of time on the activity they can compare pictures with their partners.

Balloon debate One of the older ESL discussions activities. Draw a balloon over water, or just tell the class that they are in a hot air balloon that is in trouble and will crash into the sea before they reach the desert island, unless someone jumps into the sea to lighten the load, and save the others. Each student chooses a job - imaginary. They must then prepare notes as to why they are important for the community of survivors on the island.

After the students have had time to make notes, each one should present their case for remaining on the balloon. After everyone had spoken, the group(s) must discuss the usefulness of each person. Then a vote is made to decide who must jump. The person chosen is then 'out' of the balloon. Unfortunately, the balloon is still too heavy and someone else must jump. More discussion is needed, followed by another vote. This ESL discussion activity can be continued in the same way, or can be stopped after a certain number of people have 'jumped.' Those who have jumped, are, of course, still able to take part in the discussion to decide on the next one who needs to jump.

Debates are usually harder than other types of ESL discussions, but they have a place when the students are confident and have a fairly good grasp of English. I don't recommend debates as regular ESL discussion activities, but are useful if used sparingly.

Rating Activities Choose a list of related words: animals, famous people, food, subjects, types of exercise etc. Then choose a criteria by which the students will rank these words. For example: useful, beautiful, helpful to society, healthy, and so on. The students must then (in pairs or small groups) place the items in order. To do this they must discuss their choices - of course.

When the pairs have decided, you could combine pairs, and they must agree on a new list with their partners. This can pyramid until you have a class discussion. It's important that the students try to persuade their classmates, and not just agree because it's the easiest thing to do. Therefore, pre-teaching some relevant language, is very helpful.

Mini-role Plays

A classic of ESL discussions. Role plays can be made about almost any topic, to practice any grammar point, but here the emphasis should be on just having conversation. Roles could include neighbors discussing noise the night before in their apartment block, pet owners talking about their pets, a traveler talking to a reporter about his or her journey. The possibilities are endless.

Survival Games - NASA Game and variations are ESL discussions which involve choosing priorities. Originally the NASA game was originally created to practice group decision making, but it has been successfully adapted for ESL discussions.

The students are in an extreme environment, cut off from help, and must try to find their way to help. In the NASA game a group of astronauts have been separated from the main group on the moon and must find their way back. A list of items are given. For the NASA game this was:

  • solar-powered receiver-transmitter (5)
  • two 100 pound tanks of oxygen (1)
  • box of matches (15)
  • map of the stars from the moon (3)
  • life-raft (9)
  • magnetic compass (14)
  • first-aid kit (7)
  • a case of dried milk (12)
  • a portable heater (13)
  • parachute silk (8)
  • signal flares (10)
  • food concentrate (4)
  • two 45 calibre pistols (11)
  • 50 feet of nylon rope (6)
  • five gallons of water (2)

The numbers in the brackets were the order of importance given by NASA. To do this activity you may need to simplify the language of the list. For example: two 45 calibre pistols could be changed to two pistols. Or you will need to pre-teach any new vocabulary in the list.

Each student then puts the list in their personal order of priority. You don't need to wait for every student to complete this. In small groups the students put forward their choices and the group comes to a joint decision. Sometimes it may be necessary to take a majority vote. Once the groups have decided on their priorities, the groups can be combined into bigger groups or there can be a whole class discussion. It can be interesting to give the NASA suggestion to the problem at this time.

Apart from the Moon, other hostile environments may be at sea, in the desert, at the South Pole, inside a video game, or within a fantasy world. Anything is possible, depending on the age and interests of the class.

Desert Island is related to the above discussion activity, but much simpler. Students must choose 5 things they would take with them to a desert island and discuss why.

Train compartment You can make many ESL discussions similar to this. Each group of students imagines they are in a train compartment. They are traveling some distance. Give each student a sentence written on a slip of paper. They must engage in conversation and try to bring the discussion around to the topic on their piece of paper, then they must insert their sentence into the discussion. The students must guess what the other students' sentences were.

Final Points on ESL Discussions

Here are some points to bear in mind when running ESL discussions. Use audio or visual aids to stimulate interest in the topic to be discussed - where appropriate. Using a short text, questionnaire or statements to stimulate some interest can work. Pre-teach any new vocabulary. Practice it a little, if it's important for the following discussion. If it isn't that important, question why you are teaching it at all. Make the aims of the task very clear to the students. Concept check that they really understand this. Choose both tasks and topics which you think are interesting and meaningful to your students. Finally a follow-up discussion, while not always appropriate, can add to many ESL discussions.

I've used the above ESL discussion activities for many years now while teaching English conversation, and have freely adapted and changed them to suit the different classes I've taught. Many of these ESL speaking activities were introduced to me by other teachers, and some I have adapted from the many TESOL books I've read over the years. I adapted several of the activities described here, from Penny Ur's Discussions That Work. See Top 10 TESOL Books

Other related articles are ESL Speaking Activities ESL Conversation TopicsTeaching English Conversation and ESL Stories

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