WHAT ARE ‘CONVERSATION SKILLS’?
‘The art of conversation consists as much in listening politely, as in talking agreeably.’
Conversation skills aren’t just speaking skills. Conversation skills are far, far more sophisticated and multifaceted than that.
Speakers need to flex the muscle of pragmatics, express a broad and perfectly selected lexis relevant to the topic, master complex grammatical studies to express ideas, utilise appropriate phonology (from phonemes to intonation and ‘thought groups’), and to do all this spontaneously, fluently and respectfully. And listeners, the ‘silent’ team players in a conversation, need to mirror each and every one of these sub-skills, along with also applying ‘active’ listening skills and reacting empathetically.
Don’t forget that the listener requires conversation skills too; it’s not just the speaker. In order for a conversation to be a ‘conversation’, rather than a speech or a presentation, there needs to be two parallel roles of speaker and listener who routinely and intentionally swap their positions.
WHAT ARE THE SUB-SKILLS INVOLVED IN CONVERSATION SKILLS?
‘The great charm of conversation consists less in the display of one’s own wit and intelligence than in the power to draw forth the resources of others.’
Jean de La Bruyere
Broadly speaking (no pun intended), there are six main sub-skills. How do your students fare in these categories? Think about the questions below.
Do your students have sufficient language competency to both produce and comprehend the lexis and grammar appropriate for the topic and their viewpoints?
Can your students produce and understand a continuous stream of language at a regular pace, and that is relevant to the topic or extends it?
Are your students capable of producing and recognising sounds, lexical items and grammatical structures that are correct – and also capable of distinguishing when these are not correct?
Are your students consistently able to produce and recognise phonological aspects of speech, from phonemes and contractions to connected speech and thought groups?
Do your students demonstrate use and awareness of the social conventions of a conversation, such as formality, turn-taking, paraphrasing, fillers, and clarification requests?
Do your students demonstrate they have the ancillary linguistic skills of treating others with empathy and respect? Do they also demonstrate self-confidence when interacting with others?
HOW CAN WE TEACH CONVERSATION SKILLS?
‘The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.’
Following the six sub-skills identified above, here are some ways you can develop these in your classroom.
Review your syllabus – check that there is a balance of lexis and grammar across a range of topics and contexts. If there isn’t, use (or create) supplementary material to extend a lexical set or to introduce a useful grammar point. Check also for a balance of all four language skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking) as each individual skill will actively contribute to overall language competence.
It may seem like an obvious point but provide as many speaking opportunities and Student-Talk-Time in – and outside of – your class as you possibly can! For example, encourage a few classmates (or assign students to a specific group) to have a video call and talk about a specific topic or question. Why not give them four or five options to choose from, so that students are already collaborating in decision making before the actual conversation begins? And don’t forget to allow students to select a topic of their own choice.
How are you dealing with error correction? If you want to focus on fluency (as above), then make a note of errors made during the activity and then work through the errors afterwards. Encourage students to self-correct and to become more aware of their own output, including any fossilised errors that have so far escaped correction. If you want to focus on accuracy, then use on-the-spot correction and correct your students at the point of error.
Most course books typically provide pronunciation in the form of individual sounds, stress patterns or intonation, but make sure your lessons include a much broader scope than this. Seek to include connected speech by using an audio example of words joined together or model one yourself, such as /'həʊdʒə 'getə klɑːs/. Encourage higher level classes to use speech patterns like thought groups to frame their viewpoints. There are many authentic examples of this in English-language radio or podcasts where speakers retell a story or recount an experience.
Each culture and language has its specific conventions and behaviours for a conversation. Encourage students to think about their L1 and how they might unwittingly follow these conventions, such as eye contact, interrupting, length of turn when speaking, and register or formality depending on the interlocutor. At a basic level, encourage your students to always request clarification when they are unsure or, conversely, confirm understanding. At higher levels, encourage students to paraphrase their partner’s thoughts, for example “So, am I right in thinking that … ?”
Last but not least, this skill is the bedrock of all conversations and, indeed, communication. An empathic approach, and the employment of diplomacy and respect, allows a conversation to progress and permits differences of opinion and the exchanging of ideas. Practise this by including turn-taking in speaking activities. For example, use a stopwatch to limit (and simultaneously encourage) similar amounts of speaking time per student. If students are feeling under-confident or shy about speaking, try introducing role play activities or more controlled speaking practice to allow them to gain confidence in speaking. Reward them, also, for modelling good listening behaviour so that other students recognise the value in this skill.
Including these six sub-skills throughout your English course will assist your students in developing their conversation skills. Each level of Language Hub integrates these sub-skills and provides opportunities for consistent, valuable practice.
About the Author
Rhona Snelling is a freelance ELT teacher, editor, and author. As a teacher, she qualified with International House and has extensive experience teaching in Europe and New Zealand. She has also worked as a content editor for leading ELT publishers, and has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition from the University of Oxford. Rhona has authored numerous ELT course books and been nominated for an ESU English Language Award. She specialises in lower levels, and is the author of Speak Your Mind Starter level and Gateway A1+ workbook.