Conversation Practice Class 101 -- Tips for the new EFL teacher

by Barbara Waldern

In this article, I would like to share my lecture notes from my TALK program presentation in August 2015. I spoke to 150 young adult newcomers in five groups of 30 about activities for the English language speaking class in public schools (elementary and secondary levels). These recruits attended a two-week orientation on Korean culture and language teaching before wrapping up their initiation with the provincial Ministry of Education program on the education system and administrative procedures.


TALK stand for “Teach and Learn in Korea” and it is the program that welcomes a limited number of participants who are undergraduates in their studies in the eight designated teaching staff source countries that Republic of Korea allows. It is a creature of the National Institute for International Educational Development (NIIED, ). This category of teacher gains work experience and cultural immersion abroad while the education ministry employs them to fill positions in rural areas at a salary level that rural districts can better afford. In-take of the TALK teachers (dubbed “Scholars” by the program) occurs twice a year, in the winter and summer.

This was the first year that the TALK orientation was staged in Busan. Perhaps my institution, Busan University of Foreign Studies (BUFS), was selected for its charming and clean scenery as well as the small town feel of Namsan-dong. ( Anyway, this summer was the first time that foreign teaching staff of BUFS were invited to present lectures for the orientation program. Three of us with longer term and more varied experience were chosen to do this job.

Actually, the program managers asked me to present role-play activities and games, but I found that would be harder to teach in the 80 minutes allotted. Instead, I spoke about an approach to teaching conversation practice classes, gave an overview of types of activities, then concentrated on structured drills and how the teacher can take the class from a simple lesson revolving around one basic structure and one suitable vocabulary set into role-play and other participation activities.

Notes on English Speaking Class Activities

I began by asking the scholars of each of my classes what is meant by “learning” foreign language conversation. Referring to a dictionary definition of learning as any activity of learning, including book learning, I pointed out that speaking classes function to build skill in applying learned linguistic elements (alphabet, pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar) and thus experience the language by practicing and practicing the lessons in spoken form. I added that (1) language learning necessarily involved learning culture and that (2) conversation is a social activity, if you appreciate what many researchers have to say about how language is learned.

My preferred strategy to teach EFL conversation classes at the beginner levels is to begin with structural practice drills, focusing on one basic structure in each lesson, then reinforce, vary and extend these drills with different activities. Finally, the teacher puts these structures into a conversational context on a related topic, providing dialogues to learn and practice as role-play. Eventually, even beginners can create their own little dialogues and demonstrate (perform) what they have learned. With this kind of strategy, even the youngest and the rawest beginner can start speaking right away, and probably enjoy it more.

Before I got into particulars about classroom activities, however, I spoke about understanding the situation of the students, motivating them and making them feel comfortable in a friendly yet respectful atmosphere where everyone is treated equally and rewarded for trying rather than accuracy of production. I found two great sources from (a website for educators) to assist me in making these points. Instructor Shawn Grimsly wrote about “Immediacy in Communication” ( ); Instructor Mary Firestone wrote about “Creating a Positive Environment in the Classroom” ( )

After that, asked the scholars what the objective and functions of English language education in the public school system are. Mentioning that evolving national policy sees English as a pillar of economic development, I explained that it currently aims at a higher degree of spoken English competency. Despite the conservative learning environment and the enduring heavy reliance on book and rote learning, South Korean society expects and counts on students achieving higher spoken competency in English. This thrust of education requires active student participation in practicing English and the teacher’s duty to plan for lots of interaction in class with a strong and lengthy repertoire of techniques.

Finally, I discussed different types of activities that may be used in FL conversation practice classrooms. Noureen Arshad’s slideshow on the topic made for an excellent support to this part of my talk ( ). She states that “language experts have organized oral skills into four distinctive types: 1. Drills or Linguistically Structured Activities; 2.Performance Activities; 3.Participation Activities, and; 4.Observation Activities. I enhanced and reworked these points in the following way:

1. Starting with a vocabulary lesson,

2.structural drills, typically on a q & a pattern using and extending the vocabulary as it progresses through reinforcement drills,

3. moving into participation activities that, at the same time, place the structure into a socio-cultural context starting with a simple dialogue and reinforced by gap-fill exercises and practiced as role-play by students,

4. which could be demonstrated (as an informal or formal performance) by having students memorize and recite dialogues, and/or have them create their own dialogues, or by the teacher presenting more dialogues on the same topic using the same basic structures but offering variation.

To my mind, observation activities—which could be research and reportage, reading or viewing and discussion sessions, and the like—are more suited to the middle-intermediate through to the advanced levels.

The second half of my class (40 minutes after a break) got the participants trying out teacher roles giving varied structural drills following my models. I first presented two common structures befitting children’s beginner classes for them to experiment with. One was on ability presenting the structure, “Can you+action verb? –Yes, I can/ No, I can’t.” The other was on preference presenting the structure, “What’s your favorite (common noun like color, animal, etc.)? –My favorite X is Y.” Demonstrating how it can be done, I went around the room asking individuals to respond to the question to a few, then having students ask eachother. After my demonstrations of the two structures, using two vocabulary sets of three verbs for ability and three nouns for preference, I asked for six volunteers from among the participants, the first three to try doing the structure drills each using one noun with either of the primary questions. I wrote some tips for reinforcement and extension drills on the board to aid these volunteers.

The scholars found out what it can feel like to be in front of the class. They soon got the hang of a basic question and answer drill with students, then tried varying subject pronouns, reinforcing and adding fun with drawings or body movements, and extending the vocabulary set. Some of their techniques, especially the body movements and drawings, added physical relief from sitting and comedy. I warned that they should avoid getting the kids over-excited and instructed that they would have to prepare detailed lesson plans. During the last ten minutes, I asked them all to be teachers and construct a mini-dialogue on one of these principle structures that had been taught that might be presented to a class as a follow-up to the vocabulary and structure lessons. Then I had them work with partners, taking on the role of child students once again, to practice saying the lines of the dialogues. Ideally, a teacher would have audio recordings for the students to hear and immitate first, before reading and saying the dialogues. Then my participants figured out where they would leave gaps in presenting the dialogues to the kids to test their knowledge and practice some more. I told them that the dialogues could be memorized and performed. There could even be time spent in preparing props like hats and masks for role-play performances.

There was no further time to get into more methods. I would have needed a whole day to give a proper workshop on speaking class activities as they organizers had originally wished. Nevertheless, the scholars did have orientation books with complete lecture notes and lists of resources to investigate later. Below I append the complete list of activities that I had found or thought up for the TALK scholars.

The text of my lecture notes concluded in this way. “Make the environment comfortable and conducive to conversation in the learned language. Teach and practice English that can be used in every day, travel or work situations by using methods that motivate students, provide and stimulate social interaction in class, and model life/cultural situations that can be expected. Role-play is especially valuable in this regard.

Types of Speaking/Conversation Class Activities

Linguistically structured activities

Question and answer patterns from beginner and young child to intermediate and older child. For beginners, translations may be provided. (Introduce vocabulary. Structure first modeled by teacher, then between teacher and each student, then in pairs. The textbook may do this process.)

Reinforcement 1: short model patterns: First listen a few times to recording or teacher reading aloud, then students read aloud together. Next,  students ask each other.
Reinforcement 2: Gap fill q & a, or picture prompts with blank captions, or play question and wait for students to give the corresponding answer.
Reinforcement 3: Teacher provides variations to the questions with samples of corresponding answers then students try in pairs.
Review: Teacher asks each student using the learned structure next time. Do picture prompt or gap fill.

Scripted short functional dialogues for role-play on appropriate topics from beginner and young child to intermediate and older child. (Introduce vocabulary. First modeled by textbook/audio file/ teacher a couple of times, then teacher explains (if possible) then read aloud in pairs.) The textbook may do this process. Examples of topics: daily routine, school subjects, telephone asking to speak to someone, directions to find a place, spare time activities, What are you doing on the weekend?, making an appointment, etc.

Reinforcement 1: after pair practice, ask a few pairs to say the dialogue for the class.
Reinforcement 2: present the dialogue again, but with gaps for the students to fill
Reinforcement 3: variations of the dialogue (students change the names, situation, etc. then reconstruct the dialogue for practice and demo)

Unscripted short dialogues to follow the models/ scripted dialogues, which often follows the scripted dialogue lesson.

Teacher models by initiating and conversation like the ones practiced before with a student now, and prompts answers, then with another.
The teacher lists some situations, and asks two students to stand and try to make a short dialogue without a script. Other pairs are asked to try it.

Participation activities

Pairs or small groups are asked to write dialogues on the same topics with the same structures and expressions as learned and practiced in previous lessons, have peers check them, then practice for a performance.
Games: what are appropriate learning games and why use them? Is learning fun? Learning improves if students are well motivated and engaged, and the content is intriguing or relevant. For example, solving problems can engage students. Adding colour and other visual effects helps. Starting from the familiar does, too.

Team competitions (ex. Teams answer questions or give equivalent expressions or correct vocabulary for definitions to get points)

Talking board games: class or teams can invent a board game, and answer questions or say the “magic” words when they land on squares; or find them in conversation activities books, such as “Beyond Horizons”.

What is it? (ex. One student draws something that the other can’t see, and must ask questions to guess what the subject of the picture is; or, “I spy” where one student says the colour of an object and the others must guess and name it; or, a student or team gives clues like words or images or gestures, and the others ask, “Is it a ___?”

Picture games. (ex. Where is it? Responding to landmarks of a studied location; or a map and one students must give directions to another reading a map; or action verbs with images depicting an action and students trying to name the action in the appropriate tense, like simple past or present continuous.)

Story telling. (ex. Chain stories; or, use a dramatic picture like an accident scene or crime scene and individuals or groups or the whole class together must make a story about what happened. Can be used to reinforce lessons on the past tense, especially.)

Crafts to aid in role-plays, like masks, signs, tags or decorations/ornaments..

Songs: learning a song, creating a song, putting rhythm to sentences.

Performance activities

Ex. pairs or small groups memorize a dialogue and perform it, which can be supplemented with props and turned into a skit.

Ex. Pairs or small groups create a script, memorize it and perform it, maybe with props

Ex. Learning then performing a song or poem (whole class, group, or individual)

Ex. Building on structural patterns, individuals prepare speeches, like self-introductions or childhood experience or hobby or favourite things. The teacher might assist, or provide script with blanks to fill, depending on the level and age. (High beginner to advanced)

Ex. Team or pair debates (for advanced, or high intermediate classes)


The author

Canadian Barbara Waldern is past President and twice past Vice-President of the Busan-Gyeongnam Chapter of Korea TESOL. This is her eighth year teaching in Korea and sixth working as an Assistant Professor at the Busan University of Foreign Studies. After graduating with a Bachelor Degree in French and English and attaining certification for TESL and TESOL, she taught English to immigrants in Vancouver, British Columbia. With a Masters Degree in anthropology and post-bac diploma in social policy, she was a  researcher in culture, French language education and education policy before going to Korea. She has presented and written academic and creative works many times.