As a conversation partner, your main role is to facilitate conversation
practice. Although you may occasionally find yourself explaining English
language points, you aren't expected to function as an ESL teacher. Your aim
should be to give your student ample speaking practice. Help your student build
confidence in expressing his or her own thoughts. A flowing communication of
ideas is more important than accurate English usage.
Your student's personality will affect the kind of preparation you need to do
before your session. It's often helpful to prepare a list of questions or
conversation ideas ahead of time if one is not provided for you, and you will obviously need more ideas for shy
students than for talkative ones. Think about ways to extend a topic if your
student appears to have little to say. You may want to ask your student what
kinds of topics would be of interest for future sessions.
Consider these tips to become an effective conversation partner.
- Speak at a Natural Pace
Slow down only when absolutely necessary. Your student will probably not
understand everything, which provides an opportunity for the student to
practice asking for clarification. If you are asked to repeat something,
repeat your exact words. Then you can offer a paraphrase if there is
- Check Comprehension
Many students will nod as you speak even though they don't understand what
you're saying. They may be hoping that you will eventually say something that
connects the bits and pieces they have managed to absorb, or they may be
signaling that they heard your voice. If your student nods a lot, gets a blank
look, or becomes silent, directly ask whether he or she understands. If not,
you may need to slow down or at least simplify your grammar and vocabulary.
- Elaborate Topics
Stay on one topic as long as you can. This helps a student learn to carry
a conversation rather than just answering a series of unrelated questions.
Encourage the student to ask you questions about the topic, too.
- Bring Objects to Stimulate Conversation
This is great for shy students. Try family or vacation photos, cookbooks
with pictures, board games, library books about your student's country or
other topics with lots of pictures, and short, current newspaper or magazine
- Avoid Correcting Homework
Students may bring their ESL homework and ask you to check the answers.
Not only does this take away time from developing conversation skills, it can
potentially force you into the role of a teacher explaining why an answer is
right or wrong. If you are willing to provide this service to your student,
try to do it before or after your allotted conversation partner time.
- Minimize Error Correction
Constant correction slows down conversation and hinders the development of
fluency. Correct only those errors that block communication.
- Vary the Scenery
Unless you must meet at a fixed location, occasionally vary your meeting
place. Try a park, library, home, coffee shop, nature walk, etc.
- Keep a Journal
Write down what you talked about or did so you can use it again or refine
it for future use
- Recognize Stages of Cultural Adjustment
Stages of initial happiness but confusion, hostile attitudes from
continued frustration and confusion, humor and tolerance as new cultural rules
are understood more, and feeling at home with an understanding of cultural
expectations are all common during cultural adjustment, and students may skip
or repeat some of these stages. Try to be aware of cultural adjustment issues
and help your student understand and adapt to American culture.
- Refer Problems to Qualified Program Personnel
As you develop trust, you may find your student confiding in you about
serious problems (medical, legal, landlord, family, etc.) which you may not be
qualified to handle. If you aren't trained as a counselor, resist the urge to
be one. Express compassion, but refer the student to a program leader or
assist with getting help from an appropriate professional office or public
Here are some conversation questions to help you get started. Most of them
are suitable for low intermediate and above. You can adapt the complexity of the
questions to your student's level.
You may be a leader of a conversation group or perhaps a classroom assistant
assigned to a few students for a classroom activity. Again, your role is more of
a facilitator than a teacher. The main goal is conversational English practice.
- Encourage Friendship
Help the group members get to know each other and become friends through
pair interviews, icebreaker games, or even social activities. Students will
speak more freely when they feel a connection to other group members.
- Include Everyone
If you have a very talkative student who tends to dominate the
conversation, find ways to limit speaking time and ask others for their
opinions. If you have a shy or silent student, make sure to specifically
include him or her. Be careful, though. The silence may be due to lower
language ability, so begin by asking easy yes/no or either/or questions rather
than open-ended opinion questions. It may also be helpful to sit right next to
more talkative students and across from quieter ones if you are in a circle.
- Monitor Native Language Use
Discourage native language use as much as possible. Students may ask each
other what an English vocabulary word means because they don't want to
interrupt the conversation to ask in English. Explain that it is polite and
acceptable to say, "Excuse me, what does ______ mean?" Students may also ask
each other how to say a native language word in English. This is less
problematic because the student's goal is to use English. If your group has
mixed languages, splitting up same-language friends will discourage native
language use, but they may also speak less English if they are seated between
classmates with whom they are less comfortable. You will need to tune in to
each student's personality when deciding whether or not to separate
- Clarify Expectations
Recognize that some students may come from cultures where education is
very formal and classes don't include discussion groups. They may be
uncomfortable with the casual American style and need help to adjust. Explain
your expectations about your seating arrangement, starting on time or chatting
first, who can speak and when, and in what circumstances students may speak
their native language.