Choosing conversation topics

Cats snugglingConversation language courses are considered difficult to plan for – there is no textbook to follow, no grammar that must be covered, no vocabulary list that must be learned.

Apart from the focus of each class to improve speaking and listening skills, the possibilities for topics, lesson progression, grammar, and vocabulary are endless.

So many decisions often overwhelms the new conversation class teacher!

When choosing conversation topics, it’s most important that you pick topics the students like and want to talk about.

If they aren’t interested in the topics, they’ll stop coming to class, or just stop talking.  No teacher wants that!

Things to keep in mind

Most students who take conversation classes are upper-beginner (A2 level) and higher, and often there are a mixture of levels in each class. Not to mention a huge range of confidence levels, which can make some people very nervous.

Conversation classes are more popular where the target language isn’t used in day-to-day life.

If you’re learning English in an English-speaking country, you can easily have conversations with local people – shops, cafes, school, workplaces, public transport, … everywhere!

So where does a teacher start?

A fun lesson sets the tone for the entire course. It gets the students comfortable, confident in both speaking and listening. This first conversation class lesson plan has never failed – I start every new course with it, and it’s always worked wonderfully.

In this first class, everyone should say why they are taking the class when they introduce themselves, or their partner.

Find out whether they want to improve their conversation skills for travel, to use it in their workplace or studies, or if they are taking the course just for fun.

This will give you a general idea of the topics and conversations they’d find useful and interesting.

But what specific topics should be covered?

That’s where you need to get more detailed information from the students.

Information to collect before you start planning

Collecting information during the sign-up process for the course gives you a head start in planning.  Alternatively, you can have one or two more general lessons ready to run while you wait for your students to give you the information you need.

I usually request the following information, even if the class is offered through a school:

  • Name
  • Contact details (in case a class is cancelled, or the time has been moved)
  • Level
  • Last language course (textbook / conversation)
  • What do you want to get out of the conversation course? (confidence in speaking, increased vocabulary, become comfortable with an area of grammar, …)
  • List a few hobbies (reading, travel, music, … )
  • What are some topics you could talk for hours about, or an area/topic you are an expert in? (food, work, news, … )
  • What do you hate talking about? (politics, religion, cars, … )
  • Are there any activities or topics you enjoyed in previous classes? (games, puzzles, videos, slang and idioms, … )
  • What grammar area would you love to improve? (tenses, modal verbs, compound sentences, … )
  • Do you have any other requests or comments?

→ Download the new conversation class survey form (PDF) for students to fill out.

Choosing good topics for a conversation course

A few times, I’ve not asked about hated topics, and have had several failed classes. Knowing which topics to avoid is as important as knowing which topics will be popular.

Controversial topics, like religion, politics, or health,  can be very successful in a conversation course, but only when the entire class is interested in and comfortable discussing them. If they are suggested by multiple students, I schedule these topics for later in the course, when everyone has had a chance to get comfortable with each other.

Of course, you will never know when a topic will be controversial – I once watched a class-long heated argument about the dangers of meditation!

Suggested topics are typically very broad – books, food, travel, music. Many students will nominate the same topic and grammar areas, which makes it easier to plan your course.

You can focus the broad topics with specific conversation prompts to cover the requested grammar. I use grammar ‘nuggets’ to narrow the focus of a lesson, and to improve the students’ skills, often without them realizing they are actually practicing their grammar.

For example: ‘travel’ could cover past holidays, future travel plans, problems encountered while traveling, or recommended places to visit. See 50 Travel conversation prompts for examples.

Space out the highly requested topics throughout the course – this helps maintain motivation, participation and high attendance levels.

A mid- and end-of-course activity with food (coffee/cake, dinner at a restaurant) is always a huge hit. These more informal classes let students talk very comfortably with each other about topics they almost never suggest. Like how to deal with headaches, insomnia or their rebellious teenagers!

Once you have a schedule of topics (and grammar nuggets) for the course, then you can plan each class with appropriate conversation prompts, talking points, activities and reference material.

You can use many different sources for conversation prompts, once you have your topics – videos, news articles, textbooks, quotes, photos, books of questions to use in conversations, games, and more.

Once you have your topics set, the lesson plans for each class will come together easily.

By using the students’ suggested topics, you make the course tailored to them. It’s more fun, easier to learn (and teach) new vocabulary, and sneak some grammar practice into lessons.

What topics have been the best or worst?

Have you been a student or teacher in a conversation class?  What were the best and worst conversation topics you’ve spoken about?

I’d love to hear your stories – please share them below!

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