When I taught Conversational English classes in Mexico, I found that a good way to engage students was to bring in an interesting topic. I would choose topics from current events or polarizing issues – the issue was always important because I would rely on my students to form opinions about certain topics.
I remember I did one class on nuclear weapons where I printed off facts about which countries have nuclear weapons and how many they have. I taught some vocabulary surrounding the topic and then I would ask for the students’ opinions. Even the lower level students would want to express their opinions, sometimes they would disagree with another student and would want to argue their side of things.
When the discourse slowed down, I would have anecdotes about the topic and I would play devils advocate to elicit responses. When it was really successful I would hardly have to talk at all – I would correct them as they conversed but I would play mediator and encourage the quiet students to speak.
It wasn’t always world events – I would do topics like superstitions, society, economics – anything really that students could form opinions about. When it was possible; I would do open class discussions. Other times it made more sense to divide into groups and set one group “for” something and another “against”.
Bear in mind, I was teaching in Mexico at the time so my students had a lot of exposure to the English language, their culture was also one where they would not be afraid to speak their minds. I don’t know if the same tactic would work the same way here in Japan, where I am teaching now, as people here do not openly express their opinions in the same way – at least not until they feel comfortable enough to do so.
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