Teaching Conversational English to ESL Students

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.

The ability to have a fluid conversation in English is the primary goal of many ESL (English as a Second Language) students. This lesson provides a framework you can use to increase the conversational abilities of learners of varying English levels.

Conversational English

One of the biggest hurdles for ESL students is the fear of making mistakes, particularly in front of their peers. Because of this, it's important to create an atmosphere that not only accepts errors but also encourages students to make them. If students could speak English perfectly they wouldn't need ESL training. Making mistakes is essential to the learning process and should be a part of any well-run ESL class.

One of the most effective ways to facilitate conversational English is to create a general framework that will allow students to explore the language and retain new knowledge. The framework is based around five main points.

  1. Vocabulary
  2. Pronunciation
  3. Intonation
  4. Grammar
  5. Listening


Having a solid vocabulary is a necessary component of any English conversation. However, when students are just beginning to learn English it's important to not place too much emphasis on simply memorizing words. Proper usage is more important than having a large vocabulary. Because of this, any vocabulary training should include a significant amount of usage examples in addition to dictionary definitions. Words that have multiple meanings but the same pronunciation like, 'may' or 'fly' should be examined in all of the appropriate contexts.

Conversational vocabulary should be geared towards common items and everyday situations. You can adjust the difficulty depending on the level of your students.


In addition to knowing the definition of a word, learning how to pronounce the word correctly is essential. A mispronounced word can create just as much confusion as an incorrectly used word. If your students come from a variety of language backgrounds, try to ensure that they adhere as closely as possible to your 'standard' pronunciation and encourage them to speak often. One way to practice this idea is to write words on index cards and have individual students pronounce the words, making corrections to mispronounced words as needed.

It's also important to practice vocabulary words that are spelled the same put pronounced differently, as in 'desert' (dry, arid land or leaving someone) or 'windy' (strong wind or a curvy road).


Putting the correct intonation on a word doesn't have to be as difficult as it sounds. The best way to demonstrate how intonation works is to demonstrate it yourself or find good audio clips online to share with the class. One way to explain intonation is to simply use punctuation and a simple situation. Think of how many ways a word like 'really' can be intoned in order to change the intended meaning.

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