Discussions that work
why we need them and how to organize them. Expert opinion - Conan Smeeth
As with the communicative approach, discussions are often misinterpreted by educators. Many see them as simply talking with the students on a given topic or about whatever coming to mind. And although this might have merit of its own, a discussion must have a clear goal behind it. With that purpose in mind, the task will not be a simple way of passing away lesson time when all other activities have exhausted themselves. So what are the aims of discussions?
1. efficient fluency practice
As was mentioned before, conversation is never done for its own sake. Take an intermediate level student with a language learning plateau; will a mere discussion help them overcome that? The answer is a firm no. So efficiency is the key factor of every discussion.
2. achieving an objective, performing a FUNCTION - warn, threaten, praise, convince, inquire.
Almost every conversation we have entails performing a certain function. Convince the interlocutor or get the information from them, express emotions and pass judgement. Lower level dialogues are all about basic functions, higher level ones may be veiled behind more complex structures, but there is often a function at their core. Being able to perform a function accurately and in an appropriate way will enable your student to succeed in their efforts.
3. learn from context - acquire information, consider new points of view
Students learn by reading and listening to texts, applying their knowledge in exercises, but since we are social animals, best learning is done via conversation. Just by talking to each other we may collect valuable data about the world around us, cultural and local differences, language practicalities. Students will learn a lot about the language and its use by having a conversation with each other and the teacher.
4. learn to participate constructively and cooperatively in a discussion.
Similar to the previous point, being able to have a discussion is a skill of its own. Students need to express clear logical thought in order for others to understand what they mean and also acquire debating skills - generalise from examples, draw analogies, judge priorities and so on.
Keeping these aims in mind you will be able to organize efficient discussions in class, making them not only engaging, but also useful to your students.
Problems and solutions
It may seem that even a discussion, no matter how simple a learning tool it seems, may pose certain challenges to the students… and the teacher alike. Let’s see what they may be and how we can deal with them:
1. level discrepancies
People in groups are placed there according to their level, but even then no student will be identical in their knowledge. More so, their skills may be at different stages of development, and even if they know the same set of words and structures, some may struggle with listening comprehension, others with expressing their thoughts in a clear way. As a teacher you may consider grading your own language down for particular students to avoid stressing them too much and grouping the students in a careful way, so that the students will find partners closer to their own level and skill.
2. lack of subject knowledge
It may happen so, that your student doesn’t know what to say on a particular topic. They either have no experience with it or they have no opinion related to the topic. However, students may help each other, sharing what they know and think about a subject thus providing others a basis for their own opinion. As a teacher, you may start with providing background information to the topic or focus on their opinion, attitude to it.
3. one student taking over the discussion
The opposite issue is of one student being too eager to talk and too opinionated to let others speak. You may set timers and limit how long one particular student can talk. Or find a second chatterbox and pair them. Giving clear instructions at the beginning of the discussion should also work. Alternatively, you can teach your students to interrupt each other politely, ask each other questions, react to each other’s ideas and listen to each other.
Time management is key in teaching efficient classes, but when you are having a discussion, control may slip through your fingers or you may lose track of time. Remember that balancing all skills is crucial in even development (unless you students specified they want to focus on particular skills). As with the previous issue, setting timers may solve the problem nicely.
5. lack of motivation or interest in the topic
If you feel the students are not in the mood for talking or discussing this particular topic, try to be flexible and do not force them to. Find out what the problem may be - is it just a bad day, are they not interested in learning to express themselves in a different language, or maybe it is something else entirely. Be ready to switch to something else, get to the root of the problem, it might be one of the issues we’ve already covered.
6. insufficient vocabulary
Sometimes the students just don’t have enough words to express what they want to say. Preteaching useful vocabulary, doing a few listening exercises, creating a standard answer plan will most likely do the trick.
Do you use discussions in class? If so, what problems have you encountered and how do you make the activity work best?
I’m Conan and I’ve been teaching ESL for over 10 years. Today I’m happy to give you some hints on how to organize discussion classes.
Speaking clubs and discussion lessons are the chance to get creative and break away from the typical mold. After all, they’re where students can let their knowledge shine through—you’d be surprised at how much they know! However, before getting to the payoff, there are several key things to keep in mind.
First of all, the goal of discussions is to give students semi-controlled speaking practice without the fear of making mistakes. That might seem obvious, but some teachers associate “discussions” with “free-for-all conversations”. Sure, you can give more leeway than usual, but I like to view discussions as controlled spontaneity, so I pay attention to where conversations are going. While teachers shouldn’t be trigger happy and point out every single mistake, it is important that students feel like there’s a method to the madness. They are, after all, applying their skills without the pressure, which is a way of subtly testing them.
The biggest problem, in my experience, is a lack of preparation for topics they may or may not be familiar with. I’ve personally found that it takes time for students to get ready to answer and discuss things, especially if it’s with teachers they’ve never been with before. This takes maybe about ten to twenty minutes maximum so it’s not a huge issue, but there definitely is that period where things can be touch and go about how well the discussion will end up. As teachers, we naturally want to jump in and take over, but paradoxically, holding back is how we get them to speak: they need time to process new information (and maybe even accents) before they will speak up. So, while giving small pushes can be useful, overloading them with a bunch of info won’t accomplish our goals.
The second challenge skews more towards being a “good” problem to have. Sometimes students get too engaged with the topics at hand and we have to reign them in a bit. My recommendation is that you give enough leeway where students are comfortable, and if you see that either they’re getting too far off topic or the current question is petering out, then you switch things up. This ties in with having enough questions to prepare for, as while you won’t likely use them all, you still have that wiggle room in case. Even a simple, “You guys have some great ideas, but one thing I did have to discuss is…” works wonders for refocusing them. My point here is that as long as students see you’re confident and have an outline, they’ll be on your side.
Last but not least is that some students inevitably won’t be at an equal level as their peers. Sure, this can be tricky at times, and I’ve definitely seen some students zone out due to feeling disengaged, but this is where the oldest trick in the book in handy. Depending on the class size, you can assign them into pairs or even groups, and I like to generally put weaker students together as it forces them to speak up. Additionally, you can assign them a relatively basic topic and then give them some ideas from time to time. Once they’re ready to talk, you can then reconvene as a group; it’s all about making them feel comfortable and giving them time to warm up.
Discussions take all shapes, but I love spicing things up. While there’s many sites that offer starting questions, I prefer to give my students something more out of left-field. AskReddit is fantastic site for collecting questions that aren’t as conventional, given it’s constantly updated by user-generated content; some threads you can genuinely spend hours reading. Finding some borderline surreal questions are the most interesting aspects of these discussions, as not only do they get students going, but you’ll be wanting to chip in! I love it how once the ball gets rolling, all I have to do is sit back and chime in with the odd comment or two—the atmosphere sitting by a campfire swapping tales and experiences.
How do you get to that point, though? It isn’t daunting at all! If you have a topic, start with that and then take it from there. Some questions are fairly obvious, i.e. “What do you think about…?” or “Which one would you choose?”, and once you’ve gotten the ball rolling, the brainstorming gets easier. The only requirement, so to speak, is to find the common ground that anybody can talk about, as you never know who you’ll be conversing with. Plus, you can’t foresee what direction conversations/discussions will take, so half the time you’ll be coming up with questions on the spot! As Zig Ziglar said, “Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation”. So, that’s all there is to this preparation!"
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