Cait’s 5 top tips for effective discussion in the ESOL classroom

11 Feb

Here at EFA London we’re increasingly interested in using extended discussion in the classroom. EFA London teachers Dermot and Becky are currently involved in a British Council funded research project to investigate the benefits of discussion for ESOL students. On Sunday 19th January they led a training for EFA London staff and volunteers to train us in some of the tools and techniques they’ve developed.

What is the ‘power’ of discussion?

As well as being a great way to improve language and communication skills, discussion also provides a forum for engaging critically with difficult subjects. Through discussion, students can share stories and information and negotiate collective values. As such, it’s great for building the cohesion and integration of a group. When many different cultures, faiths and nationalities are brought together (as is often the case in the ESOL classroom) it’s also refreshing to be able to discuss differences and sometimes even allow for a bit of conflict, within the safe structure of a discussion exercise. I remember hearing about a class discussion in which participants discussed religion. Things got a bit heated and the teacher felt very uncomfortable and worried that some of the students might be offended or feel personally attacked. However, in the evaluation afterwards it became clear that students were exhilarated, not offended. They’d loved the opportunity to talk openly about a usually taboo subject and to debate and explain their beliefs.

The Training

Despite the benefits, instigating an effective discussion with ESOL students is not straight forward. Sometimes one or two students dominate, sometimes students address everything they say to the teacher, sometimes there are just long silences and everyone looks bored. In my classroom, I’ve experienced all of the above at one point or another, but the training provided a reasurring opportunity to exchange stories with other ESOL teachers who’d also struggled with this type of activity. Moreover, there were also success stories and as we pooled our knowledge and analysed why certain discussions had worked, it became obvious that good discussion requires preparation. Here are the key points that I took away from the training:

  1. Know your class. If you’ve talked to participants about what interests them or (more directly) what they’d like to talk about, you’re more likely to initiate a discussion which engages those involved. This is where discussion really comes into its own: when the motivation to get your point across overrides the shyness about speaking in front a group. Students surprise themselves (and their teachers) with how much language they know and how well they communicate when the motivation to do so is really strong.
  2. Discuss discussion Extended discussion is not a conventional ESOL activity. It may feel uncomfortable for both teacher and students alike. Surely ‘just chatting’ is not ‘proper learning’? It seems that discussions tend to go better if you explain the benefits to students beforehand and give them a time frame so that they at least feel the discussion has some structure. After a few weeks, classes will become more habituated to extended discussion activities and (hopefully) begin to see the benefits.
  3. Focus on discourse. Another revelation for me was the idea that I could talk openly to my students about the ‘discourse skills’ involved in discussion (e.g. knowing how to interrupt someone, disagreeing politely). Furthermore, we could prepare for discussions in class by practising this discourse language beforehand. Focusing on discourse skills is also a great way to correct slightly anti-social tendencies within the group. So, for example, if a few students are dominating discussion  you could make them practice language to include others as your pre-discussion ‘discourse skills’ focus. Which brings me on to point 4:
  4. Give discourse objectives. In an idea world, everyone would be motivated to join in with a discussion because the topic would be of interest to everyone in the class. But just to be safe, it can help to give students language / discourse aims. You can focus on one discourse skill as a group, or you can give individual objectives. This is another good way to regulate discussion. If one student has a tendency to dominate, you could give them the objective to ‘include someone in the conversation’. If someone doesn’t speak much, ask them to agree or disagree or to interrupt.
  5. Evaluate Having time after a discussion to reflect on how it went is important. For one thing, if students know they’ll have this time it allows them to take more risks. If they feel they’ve dominated or gone to far in what they say, an evaluation affords them an opportunity to express this to the group. Similarly, if people didn’t enjoy the discussion topic for whatever reason, they can say so and hopefully feel listened to by the group and by the teacher. Evaluations can also be used to make students reflect on how much they participated in order to address dominance and reticence in the group. And teachers can feedback on the discussion – either doing language feedback based on recurring errors or just affirming the importance of the activity.

I’d be interested to hear what people think of my 5 points. Have I missed anything off? What else did people take from the day’s training?

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