How to Run Conversation Class in a Foreign Language

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How to Manage Large Groups for Conversation

Obviously, there can’t be one conversation with thirty people in a room. I had the good fortune for a while in my career to teach very small groups – ten or less. With such small class sizes, I was able to learn and use many techniques that some professors only dream of – for the simple reason of class management, particularly when dealing with high school students or even (alas) some undergraduates.

Of course, you can’t have one conversation with ten people in a room either, but there was a system of dividing the class into groups that rotated each week so that no two people would be together more than one week at a time during the semester. That is less important, but it can be an advantage, depending on the chemistry, or lack thereof.

I now have 30 students in my advanced conversation and composition class. They are mostly juniors in a four-year university. Almost all have been abroad for a semester or so and, based on my experience, would all score at least intermediate mid on an OPI exam administered under the auspices of ACTFL.

I have no textbook. That’s right: NO textbook. Why? In order for conversation to be meaningful, the topics need to be student driven. The linguistic goals, however, are set by me. The linguistic goals are to enable them to eliminate patterned errors, increase vocabulary and spontaneity, improve pronunciation and engage in – conversation. The written work is more a diagnostic instrument for me, because I can identify the sorts of grammar points that the group needs to review – and they certainly emerge predictably: ser/estar, preterite/imperfect, agreement rules, usage and so forth. In ACTFL or OPI terms, the concrete linguistic goals are to be able to reach the advanced level, where speakers have eliminated patterned errors and pronunciation problems, can speak in paragraph-length chunks of discourse and narrate, describe and compare in all time frames.

The assignments, if one can call them that, are to get them engage in conversation, but I add the linguistic goal as enumerated above. Early in the term, they describe and compare things (or people, places, etc.) in the present tense. Next in order of difficulty, I ask them to pretend that they are narrating an event or action as it happens – in the present tense. It can be anything with a sequence of actions.

Then we switch to the past – describing, narrating and comparing.

I circulate among the groups to listen – be a fly on the wall as much as possible. This eliminates a teacher-centered mode of teaching – a must for conversation. Sometimes I take post-its to jot notes on and leave on their desks. Other times I harvest a few grammar points to present toward the end of class.

When they have spent 30 minutes or so in small group conversations, I gather them together again and ask (all in Spanish) what was easy, what was difficult, what vocabulary or structures they found themselves in need of. I tabulate that on the board and if I have not harvested enough to discuss as I circulate, I use their immediate observations to create a quick review.

Not being tied to a textbook for topics enlivens the class. I have recently received several e-mails from students in the class begging me to repeat that format every day.

They have to do one composition a week, of about a half a page, typed (using accent marks correctly). That is due every Friday on a topic of their choice which was dealt with during the week in conversation. As mentioned above, these compositions give me the chance to see their errors and comment in writing on what they need to review.

I hope all language teachers out there will try this. We need to push oral proficiency a lot more – by practicing it, not by doing workbooks and projects or answering fill-in-the-blank exercises in class.


  • Author’s more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.