Teaching English Conversation to Adult Learners
Teaching English Conversation to Adults
Since the 1970s, I have been engaged in teaching English conversation to adult EFL and ESL learners both in the United States and abroad. Students in the United States, Taiwan, and Thailand have been in my classes to improve their listening and speaking abilities. This has been an interesting, challenging, and rewarding career in seeing people make progress in using spoken English to satisfy various personal needs. Through trial and error, I have come up with useful techniques which I share with you in this hub. Many of these techniques are illustrated in my most recent experience of teaching conversation to adults in Thailand.
Who are Adult EFL and ESL Learners?
My adult EFL learners in Taiwan and Thailand have been high school and college graduates aged 21-75. Most of these adults studied English in high school and college for many years. Some have only had a few years of education. Although many could read very well, their listening and speaking skills were very deficient due to limited exposure to using spoken English. Many former students had various professional and semi-professional jobs such as teachers, engineers, accountants, business managers, import-export traders, computer programmers, and government employees.
In the U.S., my ESL learners were younger adults aged 20-40 who had recently immigrated to America. Most were high school or college graduates who needed to improve their listening and speaking skills for survival in U.S. society. Others needed to improve their conversation for school studies and getting employment.
Reasons for Learning Conversational English
EFL adult learners in Taiwan and Thailand took conversation classes for three primary reasons: one, for travel to western countries; two, for communication with foreign businessmen and English speaking friends; and three, for study abroad. When I taught EFL in Taiwan years ago, many of my import and export traders traveled regularly to the United States, Canada, European countries, and Hong Kong. Other students often entertained foreign businessmen in Taiwan, or they had English-speaking friends who often visited them. Still, other students wanted to practice conversation so that they could more easily pass TOEFL and IELTS speaking and listening tests for study abroad.
How to Teach Conversation to Adults: Lessons Learned From Teaching at a Thai Company
Within the past three years, I taught adult conversation classes at a small Thai company in Bangkok. After detailing the location, time, size, composition of the class, and study materials, I will describe how I conducted a typical class. Based on this experience, I will pass judgment on what worked well for me, and also suggest deficiencies in the class which must be eliminated for future classes.
1. Location of Class
My classroom was located on the fourth floor of the Thaiscan Corporation in a small industrial park in southwestern Bangkok. Thaiscan is a small printing company which designs, prints, and markets advertising signs and posters for local businesses such as KFC and MacDonald's. The corporations' printing machines are on the second floor while office space is on the third floor. My classroom was the company's conference room which had a whiteboard and a long meeting table and chairs to accommodate 20 people.
2. Class Time
The class was held every Saturday afternoon during the hours of 4:00-6:00. According to the boss, the employees were too busy working to allow more time for the class. After holding the class for more than one year, it was discontinued since most students were too busy to attend.
3. Size and Composition of Class Members
On any given Saturday, there were 15-20 Thaiscan employees attending the class. The class included the owner and manager of Thaiscan and 19 of his employees. The employees were both male and female and included assistant managers, accountants, graphic designers, marketing salespeople, secretaries, and messengers. With the exception of one Burmese, all were Thai with either a high school or college education.
4. Instructional Materials
Prior to the first day of class, the students wanted to use a textbook. This was difficult because there wasn't one ideal book to satisfy the wants and needs of the class. Although we briefly used a book for the first month or two of the class, I prepared my own instructional materials for most of the classes.
5. Proceedings of a Typical Class
On a typical Saturday afternoon, I would usually arrive at Thaiscan 3:30-3:40. After enlisting the aid of a company employee in printing handouts for the class, an employee would accompany me to the conference room where I prepared to conduct the class in the following manner:
A. State Objectives of Current Class
The first thing I did was to write in bullet form three or four objectives of the two-hour class. These objectives usually included: one, free conversation and asking questions; two, review of previous class material and checking of homework; three, introduction and practice of new lesson conversation topic; and four, summary and assignment of homework.
B. Free Conversation and Asking Questions
I usually spent the first 10-15 minutes of class letting the students ask questions or talk about any topic they chose. In the beginning, I had to review questioning techniques and practice with the students how to ask questions.
C. Reviewing Previous Class Material and Checking of Homework
I would ask students to summarize in a few seconds what they learned the week before. Next, I would have the students read and correct the assigned homework exercises which usually included written sentences and dialogues created by the students.
D. Introduction to Conversation Topic
After homework was checked, I would introduce the day's conversation topic. The topic would be something useful for eating, shopping, or telephone calls used both in and outside of the office. If the topic was on telephone calls, I would first activate the students' previous knowledge by questioning why and how students use their phones.
E. Group Practice of Short Dialogue
After activation of previous knowledge, I would hand each student a page which had, for example, short telephone dialogues of usually no more than three exchanges between the speakers. After having the class as a group repeat the conversation after me, I would question the students' comprehension, and also answer questions about anything they didn't understand. Next, I would take one part of the dialogue, and the class would take the other part in reading through the conversation with appropriate body language.
F. Paired Practice
The next step would be dividing the class into pairs and having each group practicing reading through the dialogue. By doing this, I could individually check pronunciation and intonation problems as well as comprehension.
G. Memorization of Dialogue and Free Conversation
After all paired practice was finished, I would ask for volunteers to get in front of the class with a prop of a phone to recite the memorized dialogue. Next, I would illustrate through substitution drills how students can move to variations of memorized dialogues and more free conversation.
H. Summary and Homework Assignment
The final 10 minutes of each class would be spent in summarizing the day's lesson and assigning homework for the next week's class. A homework assignment would be for the students to create a short telephone dialogue by applying substitution drills.
On a few special occasions, the Thaiscan owner would arrange out-of-class activities for me and the class. These activities included dining once at an outdoor seafood restaurant, and a night at a Thai supper club on the occasion of my birthday. During these special extra-curricular activities, students were more relaxed and more willing to engage in free conversation.
How to Teach English as a Second Language to Adults
How to Teach Conversation to Adults: Preliminary Concerns
Before teaching a conversation class to adults, it is necessary to find out certain things about your students. These include the following:
1. Determine Students' Wants
The first thing a wise teacher must do is to determine why students want to improve their English conversation. Is it for survival in living in a western country like the U.S. or Canada? Is it for communicating with foreigners within their native country? Finally, are students taking conversation classes in preparation for study or work abroad?
2. Find Out Students' Backgrounds
If the teacher is to devise a suitable instructional plan, he or she must understand the students' educational and work background. This will enable the teacher to select or produce suitable teaching and learning materials.
3. Determine Students' Linguistic Needs
Determining students' linguistic needs is very important for ensuring success in improving conversation skills. This can be done by giving all new students in the class a listening and speaking diagnostic test to evaluate pronunciation, intonation, vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and other listening and speaking skills.
Evaluation of Thaiscan Conversation Class
Although the Thaiscan class ended earlier than I thought, overall, it would have to be considered a success. The class had both its good and bad points which I state here.
1. Increased Student Self-Confidence When Speaking
At the beginning of the class, most students were hesitant and afraid to speak in class. At the end of the class, most of the students said they had more confidence in speaking. This was definitely reflected in the increased amount of free conversation and questions asked by the students.
2. A Student-Centered Classroom
By the time the class concluded, our classroom became more student-centered than teacher-centered. My job as a teacher became more of a coach-like mentor and observer.
3. Students Could Satisfy More Needs Using English
Within the one and a half years I taught the Thaiscan class, the students changed in using English more as a second language than as a foreign language. This was especially evident when the students used English out of the classroom to satisfy their needs with me and other foreigners.
1. Class Sessions Were Too Long
Throughout the length of the course, I quickly discovered that two hours is too long of a time for a conversation class. Classes not exceeding 90 minutes with a 5-10 minute break would be ideal.
2. Class Members Were of Mixed-Ability
The class members would have made better individual progress if everyone in the class was the same speaking ability.
3. Expecting Too Much and Too Soon
At times during the class, I was expecting the students to make too much progress and to make that progress too quickly. It would have been better if the class had proceeded slower on some occasions.
4. Students Not Having Enough Time Off Work to Attend Class
Some students would have made more progress in the class if they had been able to attend all the classes.
Adult English conversation classes are especially important for the EFL learner. If a teacher adopts an audio-lingual teaching method and makes his classroom student-centered, EFL learners can quickly become ESL learners and use English more to satisfy needs.
Teaching English Conversation to Adult Learners
Which is the best approach for teaching English conversation to adult learners?
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© 2013 Paul Richard Kuehn