Small Talk – Getting Conversation Classes Right (Part 1)

Part 1 – The What? and the Why?

Have you ever been given a class that you really had no idea how to teach or what content to cover? I’m sure you have. One of my first classes like this was the ever-so-popular conversation class. I remember working in Italy and the language academy I worked for said that one of the public schools in the city wanted a native speaker (don’t worry, I will address this later) to go in and run conversation classes with their students. At the time, I thought nothing of it – until I had to start planning. What are conversation classes? Do I just get them to speak about a topic? Am I allowed to cover grammar and vocabulary? These questions I asked myself constantly, and one of the most annoying things about this was that no-one really had a definitive answer. Now, after having taught conversation classes for a number of years and done some of my own research,  I’ve come to two conclusions:

  1. The term conversation class can be misleading to both inexperienced and experienced teachers as well as the learners. Does it mean only conversational topics and speaking activities, i.e. no reading, writing and listening activities?
  2. There is very little guidance on how these classes should be taught and what content needs to be covered – more often than not there is no syllabus.

I recently ran a workshop called Small Talk – Getting Conversation Classes Right and the idea for it was borne out of my experience with teaching conversation classes and seeing how other teachers were teaching, or perhaps more correctly put, struggling to teach them. The content from this blog post comes from this presentation and I hope that it helps guide you in your efforts to plan and execute conversation classes. The post will be separated into two parts, the first covering the what? and the why?, whilst the second will the cover the how?.

Defining Conversation

So, first of all, let’s look at what conversation actually is and how it differs from other types of communication. One definition that I particularly like is:

“Conversation refers to a time when two or more people have the right to talk or listen without having to follow a fixed schedule, such as an agenda. In conversation everyone can have something to say and anyone can speak at anytime.” (Nolasco & Arthur, 1987: 5)

I think this definition captures the main sense of what conversation is. Additionally, we can say that conversation is more Talk as interaction (as opposed to Talk as transaction or Talk as performance) (Richards, 2015) and focuses on the social function of language – something we all engage in.

Is conversation random?

At a superficial level, i.e. looking at how conversation is assembled locally, then yes, it is random. However, if we take a step back and have a look at corpus linguistics and conversational analysis, we can see that conversation is not really as random as most of us believe. There are numerous unspoken rules that we all adhere to without even knowing it. Some of these include:

  • Turn-taking, i.e. how we take, hold and relinquish the ‘conversational’ floor
  • Backchannelling, i.e. how we show that we understand/are following what our speaking partner is saying
  • Adjacency pairs, i.e. a pair of utterances that are said by two (or more)
  • Openings and closings
  • Repair – the way communication breakdown is dealt with

In my opinion, a major part of conversation classes should be devoted to developing awareness of the underlying rules and the necessary sub-skills of speaking – learners really need these!

Cross-linguistic differences?

You might be asking yourself, ‘well, if I can converse proficiently in one language, then I, logically, should be able to converse proficiently in another, right?’ Well, we know from numerous studies that conversation in different languages can be vastly different. These differences involve grammar and lexis, however they are mainly socio-cultural in nature. Take the following two exchanges, the first of which is in Italian and the second in English:

1<A>      Dammelo. (Give me that)

 <B>      Va bene. (Ok)

2<A>      Can you give that to me?

 <B>      Ok, sure.

As a speaker of English, we would generally feel a little weird if someone with whom we had little confidence said, ‘give me that.’ Simply put, it’s too direct. Whereas in Italian (and other romance languages), this would be fine. The above example highlights the need for politeness in English – something which is defined by the social and cultural context. Can you think of any other cross-linguistic differences with regard to speaking? Feel free to leave a comment.

Why teach Conversation classes?

‘Conversation is predictable, because one turn follows from the other. At the same time, because it is locally assembled, and takes place in real time, it is unpredictable. This tension between the predictable and the unpredictable makes conversation – real conversation –  an ideal medium for instruction.’ (Thornbury, 2011)

Thornbury’s quote really does answer this question, however I think there are a few other points that should be kept in mind as well.

  1. Conversation is used by humans to socialise and develop and maintain their relationships with one another, regardless of language (Liddicoat, 2007). I.e. we all use conversation to interact with one another – it’s part of being human. 
  2. As mentioned before, L1 conversational skills and strategies don’t always transfer automatically to the L2 (and/or may be different), therefore guidance needs to be given. 
  3. Ls are able to develop their strategic competence, i.e. ‘the ability to get one’s meaning across successfully to communicative partners, especially when problems arise in the communication process.’ (Dörnyei & Thurrell, 1991:16)

The conversation teaching landscape

So, we understand what conversation is and why it’s worth teaching. Now let’s take a look at how conversation is being taught – please bear in mind that I am talking generally here.

Firstly, with the advent of communicative language teaching, there has been a large shift towards getting learners to communicate or use language communicatively, which is great. However, it is often forgotten that the skills needed to be able to have communicative competence (strategic competence falls under this) also need to be developed. It almost seems as if taking a step back and dissecting speaking and conversation, then teaching these dissections (i.e. the direct approach to conversational skills (Dörnyei & Thurrell, 1994)) has been stigmatised.

Secondly, there is very little guidance on the methodology for conversation classes. Combined with this is the fact that most materials designed for conversation classes (or coursebooks for that matter) are predominantly focused on English-speaking country contexts and view conversation as transaction as opposed to interaction. It is important to provide learners with transactional practice, however we mustn’t forget the social function of language.

Lastly, at teacher-level, knowledge of speaking sub-skills and how to teach them is something of a rarity. Furthermore, most of the new research findings that are related to ELT and have implications for classroom practice, especially with regard to speaking and conversation, are often not passed down the line (so to speak). In other word, teachers are not being kept up-to-date.

But, not everything is bad news. There are some authors, material writers, teacher trainers, and teachers who are trying to either keep this information in circulation or pass the new information down. And, we are starting to see a shift in focus in coursebooks, both with regard to speaking sub-skills but also in this idea that English is used predominantly for learners to travel and live in English-speaking countries. Shortly, with any luck, this landscape I have just mentioned will have changed dramatically!

Hopefully you’ve found Part 1 – The What? and the Why?  interesting. Stay posted for Part 2 – The How? 


Dörnyei, Z. & Thurrell, S. (1991) Strategic competence and how to teach it. ELT Journal, Volume 45/1, pp. 16 – 23.

Dörnyei, Z. & Thurrell, S. (1994) Teaching conversational skills intensively: course content and rationale. ELT Journal, Volume 48/1, pp. 40 – 49.

Liddicoat, A. (2007) An Introduction to Conversation Analysis. New York: Continuum.

Nolasco, R. & Arthur, L. (1987). Conversation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J. (2015) Developing Classroom Speaking Activities; From Theory to Practice.[Retrieved from

Thornbury, S. (2011) C is for Conversation (Blog post) [Retrieved from






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