ESL discussions – the Secret to their Success

group of adutl students in discussion around a computer

Hello there teachers and welcome. ESL teacher Heike Knapp, living in Prague, wrote this article for me on getting ESL discussions to work. She is a great fan of my materials and uses games and fun activities in all her classes. I hope you enjoy these tips for good conversation lessons and try out the ideas.

Discussions and conversations should play a mayor role in the ESL classroom, to help students gain confidence and fluency speaking English. The question is: How to get ESL students engaged in the conversation? Often topics do not appeal, and even if they do, students are often reluctant to participate.

Heike's ESL Discussion challenge

Heike: My situation was tricky because four students had suddenly been integrated into the conversation class from a different school, and I knew that these teenagers experienced a deep feeling of insecurity. Moreover, there was one girl with severe learning disorders who had become completely demoralised.

students supporting a shy student in discussion class

The Lesson Plan

When planning the lesson, I kept the shy students in mind, with a view to helping them to strengthen their self-confidence, find the courage to open up to their new classmates and enhance their ability to discuss.

Having decided on the National Day topic and the objectives of the lesson, to stimulate ESL students to discuss, I turned to this book: Fun ESL Activities for Teens and Adults – (also published as a paperback) which always has helped me to find good activities to get my ideas across to my students.

Introduction and warm up

After a short introduction to the topic, I said that I wanted the students to feel their national identity and play a game together by way of warm up. I chose a version of Simple Simon says from the source above: On my command the students, who were walking around in the classroom, joined their hands, legs, fingers, shoulders in groups of threes, fours or fives. To make it a little harder and amusing I also tried the variation of calling out sentences describing actions: e.g. Go to the wall, sit on the desks, etc. All the students joined in readily and had fun. They became relaxed and self-confident. At this point the atmosphere was already very friendly.


Next I hinted at the fact that different countries had different national days and e.g. Germany had Reunification Day. The students agreed that the Germans coming from two different political systems were likely to think about and draw comparisons with each other. The next task involved using comparisons. I put one model sentence with a comparison on the board. I divided students into two groups, each with a group leader and referee. Then the students were ready for Shelley Ann Vernon’s so-called ‘Speed Drill’. The Referee said a sentence using the comparative to the first student (e.g. Cologne is bigger than Munich, but the biggest city is Berlin). When the first student had pronounced the sentence properly, the second could have a try, than the third until the last finished. The team scored a point when the last student had pronounced the sentence correctly.

A game to get students talking

The next activity was meant to make the students discuss and talk more about themselves. The activity is called: ‘Comparatives get in order’. For this activity it is recommended that the students stand up in a line. I explained that the aim of the game was to stand in order of certain features each student had. For example I asked them to discuss among themselves who lived nearest to school. In order to get the permission to swap places, they had to say a sentence like: I live farther from school than Eva. At this moment that student and Eva could swap places. The game ended when each student had said a sentence and the class had lined up in the right order from nearest to furthest from school. The students were very engaged and there was a certain tension created by the fact that everybody wanted to find out about the other, how far he lived from school, when he usually gets up, etc.

Another good game for ESL Discussion

The next activity to provoke more discussion was: ‘Getting to know you’. I told my ESL students that it was essential for different people in Europe to get to know each other and to eliminate their prejudices. For this I divided the class into two groups and asked them to discuss and put down facts they thought they knew about members of the other group. I gave them some time to think and discuss this in small groups. At this point the class atmosphere was already really relaxed and it was obvious that the students did not feel inhibited to talk about their suppositions and they were not shy to ask me for words. When they were ready the groups started to tell the other group the things they presumed to be true about other their colleagues: e.g. Jana does not like to study German. If the sentence was true and the person agreed, the group scored a point.

A fun quiz game

The last game was ‘Bucket Game’. The group was divided into four teams and got an envelope with a quiz about a European cities. They were asked to solve the quiz as quickly as they could, put it back into the envelope and than pass it to another group after putting the group name on the envelope. In the end I read out the solutions and the each group checked the results of a different team. Then each group gave feedback on what the other group: e.g. you knew 8 out of 10, that’s great. And so on.

Great success

In this lesson I tried to make the topic national holiday meaningful to my students. Playing games made them feel relaxed and comfortable. Even though the students did not know each other well, by playing games they opened up and at the end of the lesson they were ready and self-confident to discuss and even the shy and insecure ones began to use the language.

Two great books with lots of ideas for ESL discussion

Get all these activities, games and tips, and many more in this great book, tried and tested by 10,000s of teachers. Instant download version Fun ESL Activities for Teens and Adults and paperback.

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