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Teaching Strategies for ESL: Tips for Teaching Discussion Classes

written by: Jessica Ocheltree • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 4/17/2013

One class that ESL teachers sometimes struggle with is the discussion lesson. Sure, students are speaking English, but are they learning? This article will introduce some strategies for leading effective discussion classes.

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    Teaching Discussion to ESL Students

    Tips for Teaching ESL Discussion Classes My discussion classes are among my favorite lessons to teach. They are usually lively and fun and it is a real joy to see my students able to communicate effectively in English. However, discussion students are also the most likely to report that they aren't sure if they are improving or not. Unlike low-level classes, improvement can be very hard to measure at the advanced level. Moreover, in a fast-paced discussion, students are more likely to fall back on vocabulary and structures they have already mastered rather than trying out something new.

    As the teacher, your students will be looking to you to provide the structure and correction that will make a lesson educational, but at the same time, they don't want you stepping in all the time either. This article will give you some strategies for teaching English as a second language discussions including how to manage your classroom so your students will have fun and still get the most out of discussion activities.

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    Using Pairs and Small Groups

    It's important to think about ways to maximize student-speaking time. One of the easiest ways to do that is to break the class into pairs or small groups. Even if your class is only four students, just by splitting them into two pairs, you've doubled each student's speaking time.

    If you have a larger class, you can start thinking more in depth about the most beneficial pairing. Shy students can be placed with someone who is more talkative and will draw them out. Two very talkative students often do well together since they won't allow the other to dominate. Of course, you know your students best. Try to be conscious of which pairs or groups work well together and keep it in mind for the future.

    Depending on where you are working, you may want to be conscious of cultural biases as well. For example, in some Asian countries, a high school girl may be quiet and differential when paired with an older man, but more talkative if paired with someone her own age.

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    Participating in the Discussion

    Unless you have a class of one student, don't participate. There are many reasons why staying out of the discussion is advisable. It maximizes student-speaking time, for one thing. In addition, students are forced to rely on their own ability to follow and control the flow of the conversation. Finally, and most importantly, it leaves you free to monitor and provide correction without having to step out of the role of a participant.

    Students may have some difficulty adjusting to this if they aren't used to it. You can delegate the role of facilitator to one student, if you think that is necessary. Alternately, you can just ask students to pretend you aren't there.

    Since students should rely on their own skills, don't prompt or make suggestions when they are a little stuck. Let them try and think of an alternate way to say what they are trying to express and only step in if there is a complete communication breakdown.

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    Discussion Questions vs. Tasks vs. Consensus Building

    Many discussion classes start from the point of a "What do you think?" kind of question. They may be talking about anything from social issues to popular culture, but students are essentially just offering their opinion on the topic. These classes can be fun, but there are also times when the discussion will peter out because the students all feel the same way or are not that interested in the topic itself. There are some other ways to structure your discussion class, however.

    One way is by giving students a task that they must complete with a partner or small group. For example, the task might be to prepare a presentation on a local attraction they can recommend to visitors. Among themselves, students will have to debate which place to choose, what points to highlight and how to present.

    Another way is by forcing students to a consensus. Ask them a question that is likely to have multiple answers, such as "Who is the greatest athlete of all time?" Then instruct students that they must come to a consensus as a group before sharing their answers with the class. You'll find out how persuasive your students can be!

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    Providing Correction

    It is sometimes difficult to jump in with correction when a discussion is going really well. It disrupts the flow of the conversation and turns everyone's attention to the teacher.

    You can avoid this problem by keeping a running list of corrections and suggestions and going over them with the class as a whole. This has the added benefit of ensuring that everyone in the class hears what you have to say, not just the person who made the error, and it also makes sure students are not embarrassed by having their mistake pointed out. Try keeping the list on the board as you monitor the discussions and briefly going over it before asking students to switch partners or when the task is completely finished.

    Elicit answers from other students about how to correct mistakes or other ways of saying something, whenever possible. Here are some examples:

    • Correction: I heard someone say, "I have done that last year." [Underline, have done.] What should this be? [Class responds, "did."] Yes, that's right, because a specific time is given. [Underline, last year.]
    • Suggestion: I heard someone say, "It made me sad." Sad is OK to use, but what are some other words we could use? [Students might suggest depressed, miserable, unhappy, etc. Write them on the board and add a few more if you can think of them.]

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    It's helpful to make corrections and suggestions, but the chances that students will retain them are low unless they have a chance to use them immediately. Particularly if it is written on the board, they are sure to try the newly acquired information if they are given a chance.

    You can add some repetition as you are going over the corrections and suggestions by asking the class to repeat after you chorally, but this is not as effective as giving students the opportunity to produce the new language on their own.

    The best way to insure students have that chance is to structure lessons in such a way as to provide a little repetition. For example, allow time in your lesson plans for students to switch partners and try the discussion again. With a new partner, it won't feel repetitive, but students will have a chance to use what they just learned. You can also try including a class exercise at the end of class, such as a presentation or even just sharing what they and their partner talked about. Even a brief recap gives them the chance to correct their mistakes and improve on their English expression.

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    Finally, remember that review is an integral part of retention. If students don't study and use what they have learned in class, they will forget it. As a teacher, you can insure that they are doing review studying after class by including a review section in the following lesson. For example, if the previous lesson used the above example of talking about the best sportsperson of all time, you could start out the class by asking a student who their favorite soccer player is and why. They should be able to produce some of the new language if they have studied. It may only take a few minutes, but the benefits in motivating your students to study will be significant.

    So give these strategies for a try in your discussion classroom, and see if you don't notice a marked improvement in your students' abilities!