Teaching Conversation Skills to ESL Adults

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Teaching conversation skills to English as a Second Language (ESL) adults is different than teaching these skills to young learners. This lesson offers teachers strategies specifically designed to engage and inform adult ESL students.

Adults and ESL

When preparing to teach conversation skills to English as a Second Language (ESL) adults, you need to remember that adult learners are more goal-oriented than younger learners. They typically have specific motivations for acquiring English skills, such as professional development, societal integration, or simply self-improvement. The more you can address adult learners' goals in instruction, the more successful you will be in helping them learn to converse in English.

Let's take a closer look at strategies you can use to teach conversation skills to ESL adults.

Selecting Appropriate Conversation Material and Topics

One of the first considerations when teaching adult ESL students is how to select appropriate teaching materials and topics. Adults typically have different conversations than children, so talking about basic likes and dislikes can quickly become tiresome. Instead, choose conversation topics that are both engaging and relevant. Some examples include:

  • Work/business situations and job interviews
  • At the bank/license bureau/grocery store
  • Talking to law enforcement

The key is to choose topics that your learners can relate to and engage with. One of the quickest ways to lose adult learners is to offer inconsequential or irrelevant situational English instruction. Talking about animals and colors is great for kids, but these topics will not hold an adult's attention for long.

Using Role-Plays

It's also important to give your students the freedom to role-play and improvise realistic adult conversations. Try to create an environment in which students feel both comfortable making errors and free to offer suggestions and advice to each other. Choose timely and engaging subjects that will interest adult learners, but also remember to sometimes keep it light and fun. You can even begin a class by soliciting conversation topics and language issues student encountered the previous week.

While it is helpful to structure conversational practice by providing a topic and framework, be careful not to overly regulate student interactions. One of the best ways to learn to speak English is to do just that, speak it. If students are constantly worried about perfect grammar and pronunciation, they are less likely to take risks, which can impede the learning process. Instead, wait until the end of a class or lesson to point out persistent errors and provide constructive feedback and suggestions for improvement.

Providing Small Group and One-on-One Interaction

Adults can benefit from small group engagement for a variety of reasons. With peers, adult learners can sympathize about language struggles they face in real-world situations. The ability to share and commiserate about fluency can create a bond between learners that may go a long way toward creating an environment that fosters encouragement and growth.

If possible, set aside a few minutes to speak to each student individually. Having a judgment-free conversation with a native speaker (you) is a rare opportunity for many adult ESL learners. During these conversations, tailor your questions to fit the level of the learner. Some ESL teachers make the mistake of repeating misunderstood or incomprehensible questions verbatim, as if repetition unlocks the meaning. Instead, try rephrasing a question using simpler vocabulary and/or structure. Look at the following example of essentially the same question asked two different ways.

  1. Can you describe some of the language related struggles you've recently experienced at work?
  2. Is speaking English at work difficult sometimes?

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