English conversation classes need to have structure.
Think about conversation for a moment. What does it mean? Try to remember a conversation you heard recently.
Did the people involved talk an equal amount? Did they seem interested? How did they show this? Did they ask each other questions? What was their body language like? What was their intonation like when they spoke?
Whilst many students of English can speak well, they lack some of the essential conversation skills, including:
Showing interest by verbal and non-verbal means
Using tag questions
Using echo questions and asking other appropriate questions
Using appropriate intonation
Using a wide range of vocabulary
How can you teach these skills?
Many teachers who are teaching English conversation classes merely give students subjects to talk about and then listen, occasionally correcting mistakes in grammar or pronunciation.
But does this really help students? It can sometimes actually make them hesitate more when they speak because they become nervous about making mistakes.
An alternative approach is to focus on the skills mentioned above.
Walk into the class, sit down and tell the students some (untrue) bad news. For example, "My cat died yesterday." This works better if you can act sad. Elicit suitable responses from the students, for example, "I'm sorry", "oh no!", "That's a pity!", etc. Then tell them that it wasn't true, as you don't want them to worry!
Then tell them some good news such as "I won the lottery!" Again, elicit suitable responses. Explain that these expressions can show someone you are interested in what they are saying.
You could also prepare two sets of cards, one with situations on (good news, bad news and neutral news), and the other set with responses on and get the students to match them.
Tag questions (Isn't it? Wasn't it? Didn't they?) are difficult for some students to get right but they help conversation sound much more natural.
For example: "It's cold today, isn't it?" sounds more natural and more friendly than "It's cold today."
Echo questions are also another conversation skill you can teach and practice with your students.
A: John has got married.
B: Has he?
A: Yes, it was last week.
B: Was it?
B: These are great news.
A: I'm quitting school.
B: You're quitting school?
A: That's right.
B: That's an interesting thing to do . . .
A: I met Brad Pitt.
B: You met who?
A: Brad Pitt.
B: You don't say!
A: Janet bought a yacht.
B: Janet did what?
A: She bought herself a yacht.
B: Well, good for her.
A: Why did you come so late?
B: Why did I come so late? I was stuck in a traffic jam.
A: I see.
Echo questions are very useful and can make students sound like native speakers.
Filming your students' conversations is also great as they can see their body language too, and discuss how that affects their communication.
If you are focusing on a particular kind of conversation, let's say agreeing and disagreeing, then you may need to provide your students with useful vocabulary.
If you don't give them the vocabulary to work with, their conversations will be repetitive and they will not push themselves to improve.
Find recordings of conversations. Ask students to listen for stressed words, and for when the voices go up and down. It is also helpful to model sentences and questions for them to repeat.
Putting it all together
After you have taught and practiced one of the above conversation skills with your students you can set them role plays.
Some students are nervous about giving their own opinions and if this is the case it is a good idea to pre-prepare some role cards to use, so they are using the opinions you give them rather than their own.
Teaching English conversation can be great fun, but remember to keep it structured and actually teach some skills so your students get maximum benefit from the lessons.