Conversation Prompts to Supercharge Your English Lessons
The scariest part of any ESL class is the silent pauses. Or, even worse, a rocky beginning to an ESL class where it feels like you’re pulling teeth to get the student to say anything at all. The best way to eliminate the awkward pauses is to have some open-ended prompts in your ESL teacher toolbox that you can use. Conversation prompts are crucial for teaching ESL classes and building rapport and there are many websites full of interesting conversation prompts sorted by category.
Ask Open Ended Questions for ESL Lessons
First, be sure to ask questions about the student that cannot be answered with a yes or no. For example, start questions with “Who”, “What”, “Where”, “Why”, or “How?”
Conversation Prompts for ESL Classes
Then, try some tried and true conversation prompts to keep the conversation flowing and get more output from the student.
Talk the Talk: Some ideal prompts for conversation
- “Who do you admire in your family? Tell me about them.”
- “When you were a kid, what was your favorite way to spend free time? Do you still enjoy that?”
- “Describe the best/worst present you have ever received. Why was it the best/worst?”
- “What is the best/worst part of your job?”
- “What is the easiest/hardest part of your day?”
Use open ended questions only
Next, lean into using comparatives and superlatives. The best way to ask open ended questions is to ask questions using comparatives and superlatives.
Instead of “Do you like _____?” you ask, “How do you feel about ____?”
Instead of “How are you?” you ask, “What was the best/worst/funniest/saddest” thing that happened today?
Comparatives: bigger, smaller, more interesting
Superlatives: the biggest, the smallest, the most interesting
Asking questions about the student’s opinion on an issue will always prompt more speaking so the student has an opportunity to speak.
Keep it current: Talk about a recent news event
Using a recent news event is a helpful way to prompt conversation in students who tend to be quieter. Most people have an opinion on a local news item. Just be sure to use news that is local to their country, so they have a lot to talk about. Otherwise, your student might be lacking the contextual knowledge to have any real opinion about the news story.
Here are some free news sources you can use to prompt discussion:
The Guardian – The Guardian is a very useful site for beginner English students who are looking for a free news website for learning English. Their Life Style section is always written in very easy-to-read language.
BBC News – The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is the gold-quality standard news organization that provides global news coverage in English and is usually used to teach English classes. Its online website offers articles, videos, and audio content, as well as interactive features.
Al Jazeera English – In addition, try to think outside of your American or British-centered viewpoints while considering what news to read with your students. Many students worldwide might be more comfortable, politically, with a site that isn’t funded by America or any European country. Be mindful of that and consider incorporating Al Jazeera is a Qatar-based news organization that offers global news coverage in English.
Start each class with an opening quote
This is similar to the technique of starting an essay with a provocative or inspiring quote. I like to start online ESL lessons, in particular, with a quote on the screen. Be sure to relate it to the lesson objective, and use it as a nice warm up by asking some comprehension checking questions about the quote.
Keep the conversation going: Use the 5 W
In order to keep the conversation flowing, ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no”. Open-ended questions encourage a full answer and increase student output. The goal is to have your student speaking and practicing their English, so the more they talk the better! One way to encourage your student to speak is to keep starting questions with the 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, why, and (how).
The 5 Ws to Prompt Conversation
Really, they are 5 Ws and an H 🙂
Write to them in front of you to remember them and practice starting questions with these question prompts.
Icebreaker Conversation Prompts
Games to break the ice amongst strangers make for fun and engaging conversation prompts in ESL classes, too. Think of imaginary scenario games (what do you bring to a deserted island? How do you defeat zombies? How would you govern a moon colony?)
Play riddles, play two questions and a lie, and more. Remember to adapt icebreaker games to the specific needs and preferences of your students. The goal is to create a comfortable environment for everyone to participate in and get to know each other while building their confidence in using everyday English vocabulary.
Examples of ‘get to know you’ games for online classes
- “Two Truths and a Lie”: In this game, each participant shares three statements about themselves, two of which are true and one that is false. The others must guess which statement is the lie, encouraging interaction and learning interesting facts about each other.
- “Picture Sharing”: Ask participants to bring or share a photo on their mobile devices that represents a memorable experience or something they are passionate about. Each person takes turns showing their photo to a small group or the entire class, explaining the story behind it and inviting discussions.
- “Alphabet Introductions”: Participants introduce themselves by sharing their name, along with something they like that starts with each letter of the alphabet. For example, “Hi, I’m Alex, and I like apples, basketball, cats…” This game encourages creativity and initiates discussions about various topics of interest.
- “Would You Rather?”: Prepare a list of thought-provoking or humorous “Would you rather…?” scenarios (e.g., Would you rather be able to fly or be invisible?). Participants take turns choosing their preference and explaining their reasoning, sparking conversations and discovering shared interests.
- “Speed Friending”: Adapted from speed dating, participants pair up and have a set time limit (e.g., two minutes) to introduce themselves and share a few key details. After the time is up, they rotate partners and repeat the process, creating a fast-paced environment for mingling and getting acquainted.
Getting to know you games for in person lessons
These games work better in the classroom than in online classes, though you could adapt them for online classes by using project based lesson approaches geared towards online classes, such as using shared whiteboards, jamboards, or quizlets.
- “The Memory Wall”: Distribute sticky notes or index cards to participants and ask them to write down one interesting fact about themselves. Collect the notes and randomly display them on a wall or board. Participants can then walk around, read the facts, and discuss with the person who wrote it, fostering connections and conversation.
- “Who Am I?”: Write the names of famous or notable people on adhesive labels and stick one on each participant’s back without them seeing it. Participants must then interact with each other, asking questions about their assigned person to guess who they are, allowing for engaging conversations and discoveries.
- “The Desert Island”: Participants imagine they are stranded on a desert island and can only bring three items with them. They take turns sharing their choices and reasoning, sparking conversations about personal preferences, priorities, and problem-solving skills.
- “Conversation Jenga”: First, write conversation prompts or icebreaker questions on Jenga blocks. Then, participants take turns pulling out a block and answering the question or discussing the topic before placing it on top of the tower. The game continues, fostering engaging conversations and building teamwork.
- “Human Bingo”: First, create bingo cards with various personal traits or experiences in each square (e.g., has traveled to five countries, speaks more than one language). Then, students must mingle and find individuals who match the descriptions, marking off the corresponding squares until they get a bingo.
Remember, you can’t fake interest. Instead, inspire your student’s interest as well as your own by asking good questions. Everyone has a story. Find out your student’s story. The most important question you can ask is why they want to learn English. This will guide the other kinds of questions you will ask. Remember, you can always keep asking “why” to extend the conversation.
Ask open-ended questions and use conversation prompts to encourage your student to speak more. Focus on maximizing your student’s opportunity to speak by using 5 Ws and icebreakers to increasing student’s output.
I wrote some posts on similar topics below.
- How to Build Rapport with ESL Students
- Best Essays to Prompt Discussion
- Practice English: Creative Writing Prompts
- My top picks: The best books for an ESL teacher