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The first step in aiding a student in developing their English conversation skills is to assess their current level of ability. The teacher must hold a few conversations with the student, or observe two students conversing, focusing on the one to be assessed. The teacher must listen to observe the transitions the student makes while speaking to aid in fluency, their body language and whether or not they get lost in conversation. Can they explain their way around a word they do not know? Do they respond appropriately to what their partner is saying? Do they lose their partner in the conversation? Do they stick to basic subjects like the weather, or can they express themselves regarding sophisticated or controversial topics as well?
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Students can most easily be placed in three categories: basic, intermediate and advanced. The basic level English conversation student often stumbles on their words and phrases, takes too long to answer (typically because they are translating in their head first), shows awkward body language, and drops out of the conversation when they run into a question or vocabulary term they do not recognize. They have not yet learned how to guide conversation around these obstacles or muscle through them, nor have they learned how to maintain a conversation partner. Some basic level students may not fluently get through survival English conversations such as asking directions or asking for help.
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Intermediate level students of English conversation stumble on their words from time to time, but this is because they are stringing out longer sentences or thoughts. They can express their opinions but without major philosophical justifications. They cannot argue them well, or argue them without demonstrating political correctness in order not to offend. They pause, but not for extremely long times and show only some evidence of translating thoughts first. They do not drop out of conversations, but still have difficulty transitioning from one topic to the next.
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Advanced speakers, although not without grammatical errors or pronunciation mistakes, are able to transition from small talk to deeper conversation and are not afraid to speak before taking the time to think out what they will say. They do not pause too often and demonstrate confidence. They are able to guide conversations around what they do not know and ask politely for an explanation when they do not understand something instead of dropping out of the conversation. When they want to use a word they do not know, they explain what it is instead of substituting a word in the native language or just saying they do not know the word in English. They can carry on long conversations including ones about touchy subjects and use phrases that keep their partners from being offended, keeping them comfortable, and willing to begin new conversations.
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Students should be instructed in commonly used phrases and transitions which will keep their conversations fluent, regardless of the topic. A list of these phrases can be found at www.eslgold.com/speaking/phrases.html. Make a list of ice breakers for students to refer to as well so they know how to start a basic conversation with a stranger.
How are you?
How are you doing?
Fine. How about you?
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Use games to make conversation fun. For basic learners, have students use menus to practice ordering food and other commonly used conversations to practice their survival English.
Intermediate students can read the newspaper and then express themselves on current events, asking classmates what they think about an issue.
Advanced students can do this as well but should be asked to justify their opinions and possibly even debate them. Class debates are a great way of practicing expression in a safe environment.
Students of all levels can play the following game. The teacher should write down a lengthy list of subjects of their choice, cut them into strips and place them in a bag. Students should choose a topic strip from the bag, and with a partner hold a conversation. The pair with the longest held fluent conversation should be the winners. Students can also practice pulling others into their conversations. The group who ends up including the most people in their conversation gets the applause.
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What helps a learner of English conversation more than anything is to get the chance to practice both in and out of the classroom. Students should be given time to converse regularly within guidelines set by the teacher, such as not allowing the native language to be used to explain, or that topics must be ones of teacher choice, and held for a certain length of time. Homework assignments for conversation should include holding conversations with community folk such as the cashier at the grocery store or a fellow bus-rider. Students should record one of these conversations once a week and bring it to class to demonstrate what they have learned and for the class to evaluate how they did and what can be improved. Phone conversations should also be included in practice as they limit the student to oral expression and prevents them from depending on pointing and body language for help.
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Practice Outside the Classroom
Outside the classroom is where these students tend to falter and be too afraid to speak. So, give them some safe options such as creating an English Conversation Club, which includes both English language learners as well as native speakers who are interested in learning about other cultures. These native speakers will be very motivated to talk with your students and be very accepting of their needs. They can also try chatting for practice (keeping in mind that spelling is not the focus of conversation, but self-expression). World English’s website provides online opportunities to chat with other learners. The service is free. Students can go to the website to see the dates and times of upcoming online chats with other learners and know they are in a safe learning environment at www.world-english.org/onlineschool_free.htm.
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Opportunities to practice conversation are all around. Given the proper tools, students will take advantage of them and even learn to enjoy them.